This summer, I literally stumbled upon a waterfall. Walking off the beaten path, my family’s only directions to this said wonder were delivered by word of mouth. The deeper we ventured into the deciduous woods — hot, sticky, perspiration running down our backs — the more desolate our surroundings became. A few stray hikers passed us in the opposite direction, which was enough to confirm that something lay beyond the immediate reaches of our sight. Yet there were no wooden signs to indicate anything spectacular around the corner, as if travelers were expected to discover the storybook-like wonder by accident.
The Great Falls in Cleveland Metro Park was our destination. A Google search revealed an abundance of spectacular images, but a Google Maps search revealed almost nothing. Finally, bordering on frustration, we met a traveler who took us as far as a cluster of bushes slightly off the trail.
“Follow this path down, and you’ll see it,” the man said, a hint of a smile tracing his features. The “path” he described was nothing more than a narrow, sharp downhill slope of chocolate-brown mud, mostly disguised by criss-crossing sharp thorns. Staggering down the path, sinking our shoes into the soft earth and wincing at every prick, we saw it. Soaring above us, thundering sheets of water crashing down onto the rocks, the Great Falls roared.
Finding rare gems like these can be exhilarating, giving you a top-of-the-world-like high. But I believe it’s more humbling than anything. Mother Nature is reminiscent of an artist who feels no need to show off her brilliance. Some of her most beautiful waterfalls are concealed behind thickets of rainforest trees, inaccessible to man. Her canyons take days to cross and her tallest mountains are unreachable. The beauty in the world’s most magnificent rock formations, deserts and hot springs is that they would shine even if they were never seen by our eyes. There’s no need for public appreciation or popularity. If anyone is humble, it’s the earth.
As I sat among the rocks at the base of the Great Falls, reaching down and feeling the icy-cool water tickle my fingertips, I felt so small. Small, but comforted. I was a tiny, passing speck in the face of the world, but this world embraced me with open arms. It called to me to explore and to educate myself on my surroundings. Nature’s canvas is rocks and water, and her art is in the sandy pebbles bouncing along the stream and the purple wildflowers poking their heads out of the green shrubs along the bank. Famous Barcelona-based artist Antoni Gaudí never used any straight lines in his sculptures, drawing from nature’s brilliant asymmetry. The world around us isn’t symmetric, but instead slanted and sloping in all the right places.
The National Park System estimates that over 330 million people visited U.S. National Parks and 807 million visited America’s State Parks last year. The statistics are staggering, but I can’t help but wonder: How many of these visitors actually saw the parks? I don’t mean taking a weekend trip, snapping some pictures and leaving. Truly seeing the parks means sitting in a spot for hours and thinking of nothing but the art around you. Closing your eyes and realizing that the tunes of the blue jays combined with the shrill calls of the red-wing blackbirds sounds an awful lot like a duet, like a sweet harmony. Staring up through the highest canopy of trees to glimpse the brilliant, untainted blue sky. America’s parks have so much to offer, and my heart breaks a little every time I see a tourist stare at a waterfall for much less time than they take pictures of it.
The relationship between humans and technology becomes more complex with every passing day. Can’t nature be the one place where we put our phones away? America’s parks are receiving record high visitors, but are still neglected. Climb the Rocky Mountains and see the conifers rustle like paintbrush bristles in the breeze. Let the brilliant hues of Yellowstone’s hot springs sink into your being. Feel the ferocity of the Atlantic waves crashing onto the stony beaches of Maine. The introspection that comes with being immersed in nature is much more valuable than the site itself.
Ann Arbor is no exception. On the rare chance that you have free time during the school year, sit in the Arb. Or along Barton Lake. If nothing else, The Diag. Something, anything, to offer perspective on how beautiful this planet is.