Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Watkins Glen

Images from Watkins Glen State Park, NY

The first state park in New York state, and one of the most amazing, Watkins Glen State Park is a long narrow gorge winding several hundred feet from the high bluffs into Seneca Lake, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

In 1990, I spent a summer studying intensive language at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY. I was not the best or most dedicated student. I was going through some major personal problems that year, and my life and my studies were i conflict. I had entered graduate school in ethnomusicology, folklore and anthropology—I now realize that to have been a mistake, but I didn't know what else to do with my life at the time. I was flailing. In entering grad school to pursue what is essentially a fieldwork-based academic writing degree program, I was seeking a way out of the rut my life had become. But I would have better entered a creative program than an academic writing program. I'm more suited to making music than writing about how other people make music. I always have been. I deceived myself in thinking otherwise.

So, that summer at Cornell, I was confused, distracted, not focused on my studies. It showed. I'm probably blacklisted there now. I was enduring, it turns out, the dark night of the senses, which was my fundamental (existnetial) problem that entire year. (Not to be resolved for another almost four years.) I skipped classes to pursue my own needs. I couldn't get up at 8am every weekday morning for four hours of language study without becoming extremely agitated and overwhelmed: frankly, I need more downtime to absorb what's been learned each session. The classes were taught as though we were learning machines, knowledge computers, or some such. It was too much.

But the good things that happened to me that summer, and there were many, were inner-directed, and exploratory, and they all went with the flow. I spent a good deal of my free time driving around the region to visit the numerous wonderful state parks around Ithaca. I went to jazz and blues clubs in small towns a half hour's drive away to hear great live music. Ithaca itself was a haven, around the Commons, of great bookstores, a marvelous ice cream palace, a comic book store in a basement, and a couple of record stores. I have no idea how many of those places are gone now, but they were a balm upon my soul at that time. I also joined in an Aikido club practicing at the Cornell gymnasium, till I broke a toe on the practice mat: the only bone I've ever broken. And I discovered a small movie theatre in the marina area that played really good first-run films; I spent some afternoons there, watching some movies more than once. I also took my friends from the language program along on some expeditions; we explored some state parks together, as well as swimming in the waterfalls of the gorges that run right through the Cornell campus. (Famous for its convenient student suicide locations.)

All this is confession, but it's also water over the waterfall.

Water is just about the best metaphor for life. As the Tao Te Ching says,

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;
That is how I know the value of action that is actionless.

Watkins Glen I explored on my own, silently amidst the water's roar. Silently, meaning, no conversation, no chat, no wasted words. I wandered up and down the gorge, totally engrossed in the water moving downstream: elegantly, violently, beautifully, powerfully, with sublime grace. Watkins Glen is a truly magical place.

This is the first time I've been back to the Finger Lakes region since 1990. It's brought back many memories, but also lots of new experiences. I've cleared and released some of that old emotional baggage, left lingering since my failure as a grad student. I forgave and released a great deal of old business. And I wandered around some familiar places—this time, with my cameras.

Watkins Glen remains sublime. It's still one of the most amazing places in North America. Niagara Falls is the famous destination; but there are more amazing waterfalls, including Watkins Glen. Spectacular in their own way, each with a different appeal. Sometimes the biggest and tallest and most famous waterfalls get all the press: leaving the casual tourist to miss out on many of the more magical and isolated vistas.

I went up the gorge twice, this trip. Once in the evening, near the last light of an afternoon filled with sudden downpours, the sky blackened with heavy rainclouds. And once again in the morning, bright and sunny outside the glen, but cool and humid inside, as always. The trail was not open all the way up the gorge, yet, as there are patches that stay frozen, in the shade of the lips of the gorge, for another few weeks each year. Still, I went up past the Cathedral section to near Rainbow Falls, where the trail was closed, and down again. It was a full day's workout, hauling all the camera gear.

spring flower shoots
upstream, splitting the loose shale
like an unending river

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