Waterfall: A Bewitching Metaphor

As a writer, I love to use metaphors to explain what I see. Sometimes, it is much easier to describe how something is like another thing than it is to describe the thing itself. The metaphor adds a subjective layer of context to a thing, making the unfamiliar familiar. Language is, in some part, all subjective layers of context: a thing is a thing; we label and describe it for our convenience. We come to agreements about our language, about our use of labels, to the point where a thing and its label are indistinguishable.


The word "water" is indistinguishable from water itself, as it is perceived. (Usually, we politely ignore the fact that the water we speak of is composed of numerous atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, all interacting according to precise rules. It is far easier to imagine something whole, such as a drop.)

So, if a label can be indistinguishable from a thing, can a metaphor be indistinguishable from a thing as well? Certainly, if we say a man moves with the grace of Fred Astaire, we are not suggesting he is the living reincarnation of the dead actor. Even if we were to make such an assumption, we'd be ignoring all of the proper labels given to that man, such as his name, his personality. The metaphor is but one of many possible. But how do we describe a thing which bears no other labels? Or, if the label given to something unfamiliar is unfitting? In such an instance, the metaphor is more useful, more convenient, for distinction than the label itself.

But beware, this is a beguiling and bewitching argument, if we change one of the variables. If a metaphor can be indistinguishable from something that would otherwise be unfamiliar, then can a metaphor also be indistinguishable from something intrinsically familiar, yet otherwise undescribed? (Or, if the labels given are unfit, unpopular, or confusing?) If we run across a description of everything familiar, which, as a whole, bears no familiar label, the metaphor may be the most convenient tool of distinction. Such a metaphor would seem almost intrinsic to the whole.

With that in mind, it seems no surprise that the ancient writers of such metaphors considered themselves divinely inspired. Their descriptions of creation were the most convenient, metaphors which were intrinsic to the whole of being. The writers, bewitched by the succinct metaphor, thus beguiled their readers as well. How many battles have been fought for the sake of a bewitching metaphor?

I'll confess, I haven't considered the nature of metaphors in order to empathize with battling nations of religious fanatics. Instead, I've been bewitched by the discovery of an intrinsic metaphor. The metaphor arose from my favorite things, that is, those which I admire in nature, the things which have captivated me and drawn my attention, since childhood. Chaos, water, and being: three concepts, or labels, which lie at the core of my studies, my hobbies, and my writing. It isn't surprising, then, that I'd stumble onto a bewitching, intrinsic metaphor while reading books about chaos, water, and being.

So, before I can describe the metaphor in question, I must describe the books. My copy of the first book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, by Theodore Schwenk, is a tattered volume, nearly as old as I am. I found it on the shelves in a used bookstore a few years ago, and immediately fell in love. It describes the presence of chaotic forms in nature, most especially water. Schwenk's ideas and images had a strong influence on me, especially in the case of my fractal art. I rated the book on Amazon.com, which triggered a recommendation of the second book in question, Flowforms: The Rhythmic Power of Water, by John Wilkes. Wilkes worked with Schwenk, simulating the natural forms described in Sensitive Chaos to increase the efficiency of water usage, in such lovely areas as sewage treatment and fertilizer processing.

The third book, a fictional piece, heavily laden with philosophical thought, is a bit more difficult to describe. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, is an incredible read, combining an intriguing tale about life in communist Czechoslovakia with a Socratic approach to the nature of being. While leading the reader through a fictional landscape, Kundera examines our assumptions about existence, life, and love.

I can't say that I completely agreed with the conclusions of either Wilkes or Kundera. In the case of the former, I have to see more evidence, perhaps see the flowforms in action. While I'm highly intrigued by the idea, the forms, being artwork as much as equipment, sounded prohibitively expensive for practical use. I also couldn't shake the feeling that many of Wilkes' flowforms reminded me of toilets. (This is in slight contrast to the forms described in Schwenk's work, which were more reminiscent of genitalia than commodes.) I think I simply need to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being a few more times before I have a decent grasp of the author's meaning. Yet, without requiring agreement with any of their conclusions, the authors, combined, offered me an intrinsic, bewitching metaphor that I couldn't refuse:


The flow of being, from order to chaos, is indistinguishable from the flow of falling water.

Like molecules of H20, clinging together in a drop, cascading from a laminar, ordered beginning, to a chaotic, turbulent end, so is the being of all matter. Everything must break down in the end. But when we look at a waterfall, we don't watch the smooth edges where the cascade begins, nor are we drawn to the turbulence below. Instead, we are drawn to the rhythmic surges and harmonic meanders in between. So is our perception of being-we focus not on the chaotic end, nor the stationary beginning, but the captivating moments in between.

These are the waves we ride, or the sounds of our call to battle. All of nature, all of the cosmos, is pushing towards entropy, and relishing in the beauty of the fall. Each living thing in an ecosystem is clinging to that edge, getting the most out of the basic energy, taken from the sun, before it is used up, broken down, and given over to chaos. The water flows, the ant marches, the feline stalks... all to take advantage of the "in between" ...to survive, and endure.

So, let us return to the question of metaphor being indistinguishable from that which it describes. The pattern found in falling water describes the flow of being... but does this mean that being is a waterfall? It seems as ridiculous to say as the graceful man is the walking reanimated corpse of Fred Astaire. Yet, there is a pattern, which describes not only waterfalls, but all other forms, all born of the same flow towards entropy. But unlike the man who moves like Fred Astaire, who we can identify as a Michael or a Ralph, we lack adequate terms to describe the flow of being. We may call it thermodynamics, harmony, equilibrium, the power of nature, ecological balance, the hand of God, or Eris and Loki at a tea party. Yet, none of these phrases or terms can truly capture the essence of the flow of being the same way as seeing the active form of falling water.

If anyone out there has an exceptional picture of a waterfall that they'd like to see used for the Friday Fractal, please feel free to send it to me (see the contact button above) and I'll try to do it some artistic justice. After this piece, I feel obligated to reflect falling water in fractal art. Unfortunately, most waterfalls in Colorado are frozen over at the moment, so I can't really hop out and snap my own pictures. Any submissions will be most welcome!

Image of a drop of water via SRNL. High speed photograph by SINTEF Trondheim University of a falling stream of water shamelessly lifted from Wilkes' book, Flowforms: The Rhythmic Power of Water, pg 49., published by Floris Books, Poland, 2005. Youtube video of a waterfall in China by yamawu.

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