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13 february 2016

Brian Hudson's Waterfall posits that people have a powerful, overdetermined attraction to waterfalls. I don't think I'm a waterfall "collector" in Hudson's terms, but several times in my life I've gone somewhat out of my way to see a waterfall. In that way I've seen Niagara (which is seriously not overrated) and Taughannock, the considerably higher and almost infinitely narrower spectacle a few counties to Niagara's east. My keenest waterfall disappointment came on a holiday to Venezuela about 30 years ago. The flight, on the way to a national park called Canaima, was supposed to pass Angel Falls. The pilot did his damndest to bring Angel Falls into view. He swung his 727 around the tepuy from which the Falls fall, this way and that, twisting in midair like an areobatics instructor. But either the mists that shrouded the strange flat jungle mountain were too heavy, or – so the pilot told us – the Falls were perhaps minimal or even dry that day. I don't think I'm ever getting back to Venezuela, even to a part as remote and far from economic and political unrest as Canaima. Move Angel Falls from the bucket list to, well, the other list.

Iceland lies ahead, hopefully, and I hope to get back to the Northwest of the US (or the Southwest of Canada) someday. Hudson shows that waterfalls, rare over much of the dry surface of the earth, are surprisingly common in places with the right geography and climate. Certainly it seems that in a place like Glacier National Park, waterfalls are everywhere.

When we were there two years ago, you could barely turn around without seeing an extremely impressive cascade. But Hudson also notes that such sights are ephemeral in geological terms and endangered even within the span of a human lifetime. The waterfall is "an endangered landform" (221). Climate change is melting glaciers in the highest reaches along the Continental Divide, and when the glaciers go, they will take the waterfalls with them.

Waterfalls are also sapped by demand for hydroelectric power. Niagara flows at just a half to a quarter of its natural capacity (217). As jaw-dropping as Niagara Falls is today, it was twice as much centuries ago. Hudson says that chagrin over the development and weakening of Niagara Falls led to the American national-park movement. As a result, falls-filled places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier are safe as long as the environment can provide the water to feed them.

Hudson is good on waterfalls in literature, from Goethe's Faust ("Der Wassersturz, das Felsenriff durchbrausend") to Margaret Drabble. Much of Waterfall, though, is concerned with art. Waterfalls, Hudson argues, participate in both the beautiful and the sublime. They can please, but they can please to the brink of terror and even beyond. Since that's the case, there may be no unartistic depiction of a waterfall. Even the most neutrally "documentary" photograph, if it's a photograph of a waterfall, becomes art. Little wonder then that waterfalls are a pervasive artistic topos both East and West. Painters from England and America to China, Japan, and Australia fed their imaginations by looking upon cataracts. And as soon as photographers arrived at falls, their dynamic images of unfocusable falling water became some of the earliest "art" photographs.

I ate Shredded Wheat for breakfast this morning – the big old-fashioned pillowy biscuits – and looked on my cereal box in vain for the waterfall icon that used to assure me that I was eating the "Original Niagara Falls Cereal." I never quite understood what the colossal spectacle of the Falls had to do with a tasteless brick of insipid cereal. I reckon the stuff used to be milled there back in the day, but now I may never know for sure.

Hudson, Brian J. Waterfall. London: Reaktion, 2012.