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In Praise of Substance at Niagara

Niagara-cataractThe roaring waters hit the rocks below in an innumerable round of thunderclaps, drowning out all other sounds — almost. Above the torrent a voice rings throughout the Maid of the Mist tour boat:

“The American Falls receives only ten percent of what is available in the Niagara River. However, this amounts to 150,000 gallons or 567,811 liters of water per second. This water drops a distance of 188 feet or 57 meters down, while the ledge spans a width of 830 feet or 250 meters. That’s the length of over two American football fields.”

Listening to the numbers feels a futile investment to me, so I move towards the vessel’s railing where the narration suffocates in the rumble of the Niagara waterfalls in New York. A thick liquid curtain cascades down the escarpment. Billows of mist tiptoe towards us, obscuring the tumbling jade waters from view. I lean over the balustrade and a single drop leaps up to land on my nose. I laugh in astonishment as we edge closer to the stentorian din. The ship’s crew pierces the cloud of condensate and before us a wall of white froth rages. Behind us the wet curtain we snuck past undulates towards us.

“The appeal of Niagara cannot be described by digits. Its allure lies within the fierce virescent rapids surging their way to Lake Ontario, in the turbulent effervescence kissing the sedimentary talus, and in the ripples of steam that emanate from this tryst.”

Niagara-mistA less welcome intrusion, the narration bellows over the public speaker:

“The shape of this particular overhang is shaped like the letter ‘W’ due to multiple erosion events. The largest rockfall occurred in 1954. In 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blocked all water from flowing over this shelf so they could survey the area. The Army Corps also strengthened the ridge to stall the erosion. The deepest section of the Niagara River is right in front of us, measuring 170 feet or 52 meters. Niagara is not the most powerful cataract in the world, but its combination of total size, measured at 3,100 feet or 1,130 meters, and its volume of comprehensive flow, which calculates to 750,000 gallons or 2.8 million liters per second, makes Niagara spectacular.” 

I laugh to myself at this statement. It is not the volume of flow or width of the embankment that endears this work of nature to me. Its height and hydroelectric capacity do not factor into its magnetism. The appeal of Niagara cannot be described by digits. Its allure lies within the fierce virescent rapids surging their way to Lake Ontario, in the turbulent effervescence kissing the sedimentary talus, and in the ripples of steam that emanate from this tryst. How can measurements capture the essence of any forest or mountain or coastline? There is comfort in being able to quantify nature; capturing volume, gauging cubic capacity, and counting distance ensures a sense of control over the elements. It implies an understanding of the unknown.Niagara-river

“A star can be catalogued based on its gaseous life cycle, yet no one can enumerate how many wishes it has received.”

Numbers used to be manna to me. I hoarded them in miserly hopes they would guide me through the world. I chased after them in school examinations, I copiously reckoned them up in college laboratories, and I meticulously recorded them in biannual reports. If an idea could not be verified by data then it required discarding for another theory. In science there is room for error though none for subjectivity. A tree can be classified according to its genus and species, however, the play of sun and wind upon its branches cannot be quantified. A rock can be carbon dated to determine its place in the geologic time-frame, but there is no mensuration for the exquisite display of its crystalline character. A star can be catalogued based on its gaseous life cycle, yet no one can enumerate how many wishes it has received. Numerals explain a microscopic facet of our world.

Figures and graphs have their appropriate position amongst us. They chart our course to distant planets, they span chasms and ford rivers, they permit us glimpses into the mathematical complexity of life. I have grown up admiring the power of data and used it frequently to battle fallacy. Despite priding myself on mastering statistics as a valuable gadget in my tool belt, I am becoming enslaved to its rampant influence. I am obsessed with processing every bit and byte available. I am ensnared in aggregating likes and chasing click quotas. What a minuscule step from being the suzerain of metrics to its pawn! How quickly I forgot, egged on by a mechanistic society, that knowledge is the interpretation of information not its accumulation.

These days I have to stop and breathe through the panic instigated by all the numerics. I remind myself of the robotic rover, Curiosity, sent by NASA to Mars. Among its cadre of apparatuses it holds no instrument for diagnosing life signs because scientists have no consensual standard for understanding “Life.” Such facts reiterate for me that computation cannot transcend humanity. Numbers can tell a story, but only the one we want them to tell. They can be manipulated, concealed, skewed. They can present reality in black and white. They can deceive me into believing that science can penetrate our deepest experiences and capture the wayward spirit. A hundred proofs of global warming may preserve a tree and still never replace the human comprehension that a tree is worth saving because it is beautiful and precious.

Niagara-waterfallAs we drift from the cascade, the Master of Information speaks again:

“During the low tourist seasons, this flow is reduced to 50,000 cubic feet per second.”

I contemplate the irony of controlling a force of nature so that it can appear sufficiently awe-inspiring to the maximum number of visitors. The voice has not finished, though.

“These waters provide the state of New York with many gifts including hydroelectricity, industrial cooling, and a receptor for sewage.”

Our ride chugs towards dock and the narrator sends us off with one final factoid:

“In 2,000 years the American Falls will disappear due to loose rock accumulation and shallow water flow. In 50,000 years the trio of waterfalls which make up Niagara will also disappear due to erosion and only the river will continue to flow from Lake Erie to Ontario.”

Even at a distance the tempestuous battery of river over rock looks immutable. I cannot imagine this scenery without that cataract pounding like a thousand rhythmic dhaks.

While the rumblings of Niagara remain, it shall encourage me to combat the penury of digital’s lowest common denominator. Its voluptuous passage shall buoy me against the inundation of monoculture. The force of its forthright nature shall prevent me from pandering to the tyranny of hucksters. Instead I will trudge forward on the path of disruption, creating a minuscule counterbalance. I will stay true to the fire that burns within me, even though others only see a wisp of its smoke. I will endeavor to touch one person with my words rather than please faceless millions. The same fate awaits both Niagara Falls and me, minus a few thousand years: in the end we will both evanesce. So I may as well rage on, forging a trail through the evolutionary detritus, towards a kaleidoscopic meaningful existence.


The Niagara River is home to a specialized flora community, much of which can be seen along Wintergreen Flat, a fifty-foot (15-meter) layer of hard limestone on top of Niagara Glen. The glen itself captures what the region looked like prior to the Ice Age as well as what the landscape will be in the future when the American Falls dries up. A Rim Tour, led by the Niagara Parks Commission provides geological and historical perspectives on the mutating topography and biodiversity.

If you have been to Niagara, tell us your thoughts about the place. Have a favorite waterfall? Let us know in the comments section.


30 replies »

  1. Great post and wonderful photos. We made a bus trip to Niagara from Toronto in April 19, 1992. We love the trip and somebody took a photo from us by the falls. The photo is yet today on our bookshelf. 🙂

  2. I had a history professor who said if he wanted a student to jot down a note, he had to include a number in the statement since people love numbers.

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