A week ago I returned from a trip to Argentina. I’d never traveled to South America before, and since it was the only continent (not counting Antarctica) I had yet to visit, I was excited. Even though I know South America has far more to see and experience, Iguazú Falls will remain the highlight of my trip — a profound spiritual experience.
On landing in Buenos Aires we took a shuttle to the other airport and flew directly to Iguazú. In planning the trip we’d learned there was a moonrise trek every full moon to the Devil’s Throat, the most dramatic section of the falls, and we managed to get tickets our party of ten. After a briefing by a park ranger we took a little train to the beginning of the walkway across branches of the river. The moon rose, and after a kilometer or so we came to the lip of the falls. I have no photos, but it was spectacular. We stood dripping and awe-stricken in the jungle night, and I’m glad we did it. But the following morning I realized how little we had actually seen.
Nothing prepared me for the sheer size of the cataract. A million gallons a second, I was told. 275 distinct waterfalls across almost three kilometers, the brochure said. Identified in 2011 as one of the planet’s seven wonders of nature, a plaque said. Data became meaningless. It was overwhelming. Over the next day and a half, I evolved through three ways of experiencing what it was.
The first phase was the most obvious: Spectacle. Immense, breath-taking. Every few steps I encountered a new vista to photograph. I was one of dozens recording the spectacle.
As I hiked the trails and catwalks, I gradually adapted to the magnitude of the spectacle. The falls became a kind of New-Age Inspiration. To my amazement and profound embarrassment I caught myself thinking psychobabble banalities and projecting them onto the natural beauty surrounding me. “Even this tiny rivulet is part of the massive river.” “We spent thousands of dollars to be here, but this tiny orchid lives here for free.” As I said, embarrassing. When a sophomoric slogan with Biblical overlays, “bloom where you’re planted,” came spewing out of my old ministerial subconscious, I had to turn away from the water in shame. Fortunately, that one also broke the spell which had me believing I was in charge of what my experience meant.
I abandoned my desire to project petty human “lessons” onto whatever this immense force of nature was doing. I finally stopped taking pictures to simply stand still and be open. It seemed to be roaring at me to listen. So I did. It became my teacher. I can’t put what it taught me into words, but I did feel its message enter my body, which shivered and swayed to receive it. It changed me. That is its enduring gift to me.
There is a river behind my home and when the rains come , the water falls and rapids are over flowing. The shear power and volume of water is indeed overwhelming but also humbling in a way that shuts down the mind and I just stand there breathing in the negative ions and being completely amazed by such force and persistance, I cant imagine what those falls must have done to you…
Your responses to the falls reminds me once again of why I feel so strongly about “landscape as character” in both my stories and my most passionate photography. I have always valued getting lost in a vast land (air or water) scape because of the way it strips away pretense, the way it forces me out of the banal crap my subconscious gathers up, swallows me up, scrapes me bare and spits me out again. Vast forces on the move, listening with ears I cannot imagine, dancing to a far slower geologic rhythm–I never get tired of thinking about, writing about, or photographing what is so mundanely called “landscape.”
Thanks for this scouring and evocative post.
I think this is the reality behind “Man vs Nature” themes in fiction. “Man” never wins, “Nature” always does. If the hero survives it’s not because he “won” but because nature let him live.
Surrender. As a poet I admire a great deal wrote long ago, “I am so soft I cannot be broken.” Perhaps you recognize the line…
Maria & I had a similar experience a few decades ago with Wick Manfrinado. The sound of moving, pounding, roaring water overtakes the senses. It humbles and amazes. Upon listening with an open heart a new dimension within the All That Is becomes audible and visible. A profound sense of belonging emerges. I interpret the experience as creator meeting Creator in the artist’s studio.
This is the kind of emotion that I get from being beside the sea. There is something very potent and primal about vast bodies of water that call to us and remind us of our place in the world. Your moonlight walk sounds like a very magical experience.
Yes! I definitely get a related feeling from the sea, too. As you say, primal, cathartic refresher of perspective. Being able to walk around and experience from different angles, from above and below made this more intimate and specific for me somehow. Truly difficult to describe… the falls became more like a totem animal to me than my experience of the sea. That’s the best I can do.