My friend Sharon got me interested in waterfalls last summer when she took a bunch of us hiking down a dirt trail to the edge of a 60-foot drop. It was late July. Dry. A single ribbon of water dropped off a shelf, past moss and shale, spilling into a pool at the base. We clamored past warning signs to splash and gaze.
This summer, we descended another muddy path to a spot where icy water shoots off the bare face of a mountain. When I jumped into the pool, my heart constricted. My skin tingled. It was the coldest water I’ve ever felt.
I’ve explored Fillmore Glen in Moravia, the Holley Falls, Corbett's Glen, and the Royalton Falls, where a paper-thin sheet of water cascades near the ruins of a 19th century homestead.
I’ve learned a lot about waterfalls. First, I’ve learned that upstate New York has more falls than any other place in the East. Second, I’ve learned that falls don’t last. They’re geologically suicidal. Niagara Falls, for instance, is chewing itself into extinction at the rate of three to four feet a year.
You’d think that such forceful, destructive power would stimulate artists, but in the classical realm, most water-inspired music is highly civilized stuff, more Precious Moments than Incredible Hulk. Smetana’s Moldau stays within its banks. Handel’s Water Music runs as serenely as the Thames, and even Thomas’ Echoes of a Waterfall tinkles like a music box.
The only musical piece I know of that celebrates the raging, self-destructive streak of water is the Niagara Falls Suite by Ferde Grofe. In bombastic, cinematic language, the work hammers out the force of the river in four movements: the Thunder of the Falls, Devil’s Hole Massacre, the Honeymooners (pre-Jackie Gleason) and Power of Niagara. It’s no easy listening, and that’s partly the reason why it’s rarely performed or broadcast.
Ferde Grofe (pronounced “FAIR-deh grow-FAY”) was an American original, an adventurer with a colorful employment history as a truck driver, newsboy, elevator operator, and factory worker. In 1920, he landed a job playing jazz piano and he started arranging music for band. The list of his original pieces reads like a field guide to America’s national parks. Grand Canyon Suite. Death Valley Suite. Hudson River Suite.
There was a day when American kids could whistle Grofe's “On the Trail,” but those days are long past. He's been tagged and shelved as a lightweight, and his music is rarely if (ever performed) by major orchestras.
Nothing lasts. Not even what’s written in stone.
I didn’t quite believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.
The other day I got it into my head to visit the waterfall most familiar to me, a wide cascade on a private farm in Orleans County. When I was a kid, we swam there every summer. We even used to wash our hair in the falls, and I remember inching behind the heavy curtain of water, almost unable to stand up against its weight.
Thirty years later, I drove down the dirt road to the same falls. Thick hedges rose up on either side. A huge, red barn I remembered had vanished. I arrived at the spot and cut the engine.
It was gone. Dry. Huge sumacs poked up at the base. Weeds filled what used to be a deep pool of water. Columns of mullein stood undisturbed at the edge of the drop.
An artist might express a sense of loss. All I could do was drive away, imagining another lush spot where a trickle of water works against rock, pushing, pushing, pushing, intent on breaking through.