Double Barrel Falls

There should be a roundup of the inventors who have created seemingly insignificant and innocent things, like stickers on fruit, whose impact is actually substantial and evil. How many productive hours worldwide have been wasted picking at stickers on fruit? How much cultural damage has been done by turning every apple, orange, and banana into a press agent?











To this list, I’d add the inventor of the faux waterfall, whose product brought trouble into an otherwise perfect day spent recently at Double Barrel Falls in Mt. Aspiring National Park. I heard Double Barrel Falls, before I saw it. Its water tumbles hundreds of feet through a nearly vertical cleft in the Humboldt Mountains to the flats, where its water flows into the Route Burn.

The grassy flats on the way to the falls would make an Impressionist grin. Tiny dots of strong colors, like lime green, stop-sign yellow and boudoir rose, combine to make gold, which complements the cool shades of the mountains and sky like a gilded frame on a Monet.

The beech forest at the edge of Double Barrel Creek was dense with boulders, pits, fallen trees and bushes. It was easier to walk the bank of the stream…

which had its hazards. One of the fun things about traveling is learning the details of survival in each new place. To cross Double Barrel Creek in bare feet, step only in the gray areas; they are made from smooth small stones with good traction. The ochre areas are sharp and uneven and covered with frictionless slime and you will fall.

The approach to the falls is lined with drowned trees…

which form gothic vignettes. But the scene at the base of the falls on this day was mostly a cheerful one and I unpacked my camera and my paints and started to study the place. The full height of the falls is not visible from the base, since the view is obscured by boulders, which line the vertical crack in the mountainside like teeth in a broken zipper.

Instead, the spectacle is composed of countless small cascades, each living a different relation between water and stone. In some meetings the water slaps the stone, and splashes in a quick escape. In others the rock squeezes the water until it picks up speed, scours the cavity and shoots a perfect arc. The rock in Double Barrel Falls is young with edges and points, so the graceful, fan shapes of the gushing water plays geisha to its ninja. Other marriages of drink and mountain are equable, and the water pours and dribbles into pebble-lined pools, whose perfect horizontality is a measure of calm in a landscape of hasty diagonals.

Seeing is not the only sense engaged by the endless ton of falling water. A little heat is pulled from the air by each cascade, creating micro-currents of cool air that are fresh and intimate on the skin.

And the sound, a constant roar and hiss, is both nothing and everything. Each note, like the fibers in a sheet of felt, are mashed into a noise so dense that it muffles every other sound – no bird, no airplane, no footstep, no voice. The world is erased and so is consciousness, which cannot find room in a brainpan so full of noise. It’s satisfying to be filled up, but also a little scary to be so overtaken.

My stomach, unmoved by my soaring thoughts, called for lunch.

After the break, I spread my paints and brushes out on a flat rock, and made gouache studies.

February 12, 2012: Double Barrel Falls, Mt. Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.

But I struggled as I was painting.  Not with the scene, but with guilt and shame. Here I was, working to make serious art about a cliché! Waterfalls are on the list of landscape platitudes, just behind rainbows and before autumn leaves. But why should I be in doubt? The experience of Double Barrel Falls was joyfully hedonistic and soulfully redemptive. How did something this wonderful become a subject of questionable taste? Ahh, it is the fault of the inventor of the faux waterfall – the troll who reduced this grand and lovely thing into kitsch. I’m making fun, but the dilemma is serious. How does one represent a meaningful experience like Double Barrel Falls, capture its fullness and extol its relevance in a culture that has reduced, packaged and sold the experience as cheap décor? Is it possible to reinstate the power of an image that has been overused and depleted by the market? In this ecologically challenging time, when for our own survival we need to be attached to the living world, it is questionable to laugh ironically at glitter rainbows and fiberglass waterfalls. To do so is to accept a diminished world. Disgust might be a more life-affirming response.

The next time you are at a real waterfall, go skinny-dipping. And the next time you see a faux waterfall, spit in it.

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