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The Genius of Kaaterskill Falls.

by John P. O'Grady

A local legend has it that if you stand at the brink of Kaaterskill Falls when the light of the moon is just right and gaze down at a particular flat-topped boulder in the middle of the creek, you can see her sitting there, a pale blue luminescence. How many people have actually glimpsed her is not at all clear; stories of this kind are notoriously slippery, flitting in and out of certainty, perhaps borne on the same current as our moods and our memory. You can say that she is something like true love: often talked about but seldom met in real life. Nevertheless, you may wish to investigate this matter for yourself. Go then to Kaaterskill Falls, which are in the Catskill Mountains of New York, not far from where Rip van Winkle took his twenty-year nap and dreamed his twenty-year dream. I could draw you a map, but how reliable would it be? The best places are never found on a chart.

Cairn above waterfall.In early nineteenth-century America, just as the Puritan heaven was giving way to modern destination resorts, Kaaterskill Falls entered the popular imagination. The painters painted it and the poets versified it, then the lovers descended on the place, as they would in later years on the less lofty Niagara, to gain something for themselves of the artists’ inspiration, to witness the water’s twisting surrender to the air, its rapid and bewildering passage from above to below. Ah, but that was long ago, and the places is nearly forgotten today. There isn’t even a sign posted for it anymore.

At some point in the Kaaterskill’s heyday, a wily entrepreneur—operating on the principle of “You get what you pay for”—built a dam on the creek just above the falls so he could control the stream flow. If you wanted to make a splash with your date, now you had to give the gatekeeper a quarter to “turn on the falls.” Almost nobody objected to this arrangement, perhaps because in those days it was still believed that art improved nature. Nevertheless, there are always a few scofflaws who resist the commercial mitigation of the wild heart.

Slant of light.There was once an enthusiastic suitor who knew that a fetching landscape would fetch him his love, so he brought her to Kaaterskill Falls. He didn’t have much money and he resented paying for the privilege of pitching his wood, so he devised a plan to steal some water that he might steal a kiss. One summer night when the moon was full and nobody was guarding the dam, the young suitor led his darling through the unchaperoned forest to the base of the falls and set her up on a flat-topped boulder in the middle of the creek. She was wearing a blue wool dress. He could see the moon in her eyes, and in that moon he could see his own image reflected. Unfortunately, the dam on the stream above had reduced the falls to a mossy dribble, hardly commensurate with the young suitor’s exuberance. He was in love! Where was the torrent he required? This was supposed to be a wild place where one might do wild things. Everything about the moment seemed to say, “Show me your love!”

So the young suitor abandoned his love in her blue wool dress and scrambled up the steep and thickly wooded side of the canyon to the dam above the falls. Everything was still. Behind the dam was a lovely lake, and it reflected the lovely moon. For a moment or two, he pondered the stillness of his own image in the moon in the lake. But then he threw open the gates. Wide open.

Not again.The waters, so placid just a moment earlier, now let loose in a furious rush. The surge was a surprise. The roar was terrific. Things emptied out far more quickly than he had anticipated. Although the moon in the sky held its place, the moon in the lake was swept over the brink by the freshet this man had set free. He could hear the horrific flood roiling down the canyon, scouring the stream channel, uprooting ancient trees, and tossing boulders that had been untossed since passage of the last glacier. This deluge, now booming, now crashing, now fading away in the valley below, dissolved at last into the night. Silence returned. Gone was the artificial lake and its genuine beauty. In its wake, a vast and unsavory meadow of mud, unredeemable even by the light of the moon. Below the falls lay havoc unimaginable.

In his own panic now, the young suitor thrashed his way through the dark forest and down the steep side of the canyon to the spot where he had left his love. She was gone. The boulder itself had shifted, some thirty feet down from where he remembered it. A tangle of fallen trees was lodged against its upstream side. The scene was dripping with mud. He shouted the name of his love. Only the echo returned.

Waterfalls.During the next several days the distraught young suitor combed the dangerous watercourse downstream from the falls, but he could find no trace of his love. Some say that she had just grown weary of waiting for the young suitor, so she simply walked off in annoyance. Others say that she was swept to her death by the flood, and now her ghost, enshrouded in what appears to be a blue wool dress, haunts the base of the falls in the vicinity of a particular flat-topped boulder. Of the young suitor himself there is no further word, save that before he went away in despair too deep to be fathomed, he chiseled the silhouette of his lost love into the rock near the lip of the falls, a graven image that remains visible to this day.

As for that pale blue luminescence that can be seen when the light of the moon is just right, there are those who insist it is only an ignis fatuus, a “foolish fire” sought by painters, poets, and others who would seduce us away from the facts. I have seen it once or twice myself. It is the genius of Kaaterskill Falls, a higher and more spacious form of presence whose extent nobody quite knows. Every place, like every human being, has such a genius, but it can be very difficult to discern. Those who do not expect it will not find it, for it is trackless and forever wild. But as I said, this is a local legend. The story is authentic. Either this or something like it.


John P. O'Grady is the author of Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature (2001) and Pilgrims to the Wild (1993). He lives in Montana and is writing a book about New Jersey.
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This essay originally appeared in Terra Nova: Nature & Culture and is reprinted with permission.




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