From the high ridge the river is placid, dark, smooth, its motion undetectable except by implication of the muddy-pale passage my analytical self knows to be rapids. It winds through the landscape, around unperturbed boulders, past trees positioned as dramatic backdrop by unseen woodsman stagehands. A heron lifts off from some hidden cove and glides easily over the water, ages below me. If the river misses him it keeps its feelings to itself. Occasionally a spot of foam tossed up by turbulence twinkles in the sun, just to keep the viewer interested. Oh, it is beautiful, this placid unmoving scene. It is the beauty of the Grand Canyon, the mountain overlook, the window on the eighty-seventh floor. The beauty of landscape that renders us insignificant before its grandeur and yet also grants us power over it. We comprehend the landscape while seeing nothing of real importance. We look on it with the gaze of science, or of bureaucracy — broad, encompassing, staking authority while proclaiming modesty, underscoring the insignificance of our achievement. From here we are assured that the river runs smoothly on its course, an assurance we have granted ourselves by choosing to remain distant from it. A cold, uneasy beauty.
Farther east the trail dips behind a copse of rhododendron and a path, half hidden, leads steeply down to the river. After rain the going might be impossible — or all too possible; I’d slide to the bottom. Halfway down, picking my way from foothold to foothold, I start to wonder how I will get back up. But the rocks and the clay that mortars them are dry, and there is no use retreating now. Down I go. And at the bottom is… what? Rocks and water. Dirt and mud. Oh, but what mud! Soggy where the river rose in last week’s rains. Rotting sticks and effluent pine straw. The tracks of a bird, fishing, or merely drinking — there is no knowing, only signs. Stones, their white sheen refracting on examination into rainbows, none quite right for skipping. Out in the stream their larger cousins sit staunchly unmoved while the water dances irritably around them. The rocks have not read the Tao and do not know that they are being worn down, nor does the water know it is wearing them. Acceptance is an illusion of philosophic distance. The river churns, ripples, rears, splashes, throws up sparks. In its anxious patter the myriad tiny ripples catch the sinking sun and cast gold, but only horizontally along its surface. Brown is revealed as an illusion. From here is obvious what was invisible above: It is the turbulence that creates the beauty. To remain above it is a cheat and a lie, and ourselves the only victims.