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Morning sun through mist at South Falls

What nudges us to travel? Or motivates us to step out of our everyday routine and go? What excuse do we need to shuffle schedules and reorganize the vast list of daily tasks?

Last weekend I had the perfect excuse. A writer’s retreat with friends and fellow students from the Rainier Writing Workshop. We stayed at the Silver Falls Conference Center at Silver Falls State Park in western Oregon. Silver Falls includes ten waterfalls that have deeply etched the landscape over eons, waterfalls connected by trails built by the Civilian Conservation Corps seventy years ago.

For me, the waterfalls at Silver Falls present a petri dish for language. I had been reading poetry and considering what poets have teased out of their encounters with falling water, with an eye on our relationship with the sublime. Before the Victorian Era (but after Edmund Burke wrote his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful), William Wordsworth found a place that stayed with him. In the poem Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye During A Tour, July 13, 1798,” Wordsworth revives a scene of mountain waters: “Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs / With a sweet inland murmur…” By the middle of the poem, he has placed his recollection within a very different landscape:

            . . . Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration. . .

– William Wordsworth

Hiking from Winter Falls to North Falls was a more sensory experience than a photo alone encapsulates, but (hopefully) the text conveys at least some of the broader experience—of touch and smell, sound, and balance.

Along Rim trail

The roar of falling water—but the path curves and we walk on. Another hill blocks the sound entirely. Silence.

Water droplets merge into tiny streams

. . . thinly voiced chimes or several faucets perpetually dripping.

Moss drapes limbs, a mid-stream boulder. Island.

No wind or birds. Or rain. Stream ripples.


Stillness. Rotting leaves. Mud. Bringing memories. Cushions of damp moss.

Miniature leaf-kites

Black stone, algae and moss—wet and cold to touch. At the brink of winter, buds already thickening.

Ferns drape the path. A stone wall.

Moistness. Decay. Elbow-deep greenery.

North Falls

Leaves smashed into the path. Booming cacophony of water plummeting. We negotiate clay-slick stones between a chain-link fence and cliff (I touch both at the same time) and stroll into the fold of earth behind the waterfall. We stand in a cave looking out at a narrow valley but there is no tranquility, instead there is the oppressiveness of an arching rock roof and dim light. Being behind the falls, the cataract’s thundering is so loud, that it blocks all other sounds (including talking). The opposite of sensory deprivation, an overload of sound, and I understand why poets would choose a waterfall when exploring difficult ideas like the time-paradox in William Wordsworth’s poem The Simplon Pass“: 

. . . . . . . . . . . .
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .

and perpetuity in Denise Levertov’s To Live in the Mercy of God:

. . . . . . . . . . . .
To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

In Hearing,” W. S. Merwin registers the sublime with the sound of an unshakable ringing (or singing):

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
beside me the hissing
cataract plunged into the trees
holding on I moved closer
left foot on a rock in the water
right foot on a rock in deeper water
at the edge of the fall
then from under the weight of my right foot
came a voice like a small bell singing
over and over one clear treble
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and Gary Snyder (“By Frazier Creek Falls”) gives humans the role of microphone or amplifier:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
rustling trembling limbs and twigs


This living flowing land
is all there is, forever

We are it
it sings through us—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

William Stafford in “4 – Springs near Hagerman” (the fourth poem in his six-part poem “The Move to California”) portrays the waterfall as an image with sound and hope that becomes a memory:

Water leaps from lava near Hagerman,
piles down river ward over rock
reverberating tons of exploding shock
out of that stilled world

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

At work when I vision that sacred land—
the vacation of mist over its rock wall—
I go blind with hope. That plumed fall
is bright to remember.

And Stafford’s:  “…That plumed fall / is bright to remember” is very similar to Wordsworth’s: “The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion…”*

I, too, am certain of the indelibleness of encountering a waterfall, or ten waterfalls. A year ago, at Silver Falls, we hiked to nine falls in one unforgettable afternoon.


Notes & Sources:

*William Wordsworth, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye During A Tour, July 13, 1798. Lyrical Ballads 1798.” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9622/9622-h/9622-h.htm#poem23

Denise Levertov, “To Live in the Mercy of God” from Sands from the Well. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178452

William Wordsworth, “The Simplon Pass.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174821

W. S. Merwin, “Hearing” from Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983 (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1997). http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171875

Gary Snyder, New and Selected Poems, No Nature. Pantheon Books (1992). p 234

“4 Springs near Hagerman” is the fourth in a six-part poem “The Move to California.” in The Way It is, New & Selected Poems. William Stafford. Graywolf Press (1998). pp 69-72.