Thursday, May 19, 2011

Minnehaha Falls: A Little Laugh

And he journeyed without resting,
Till he heard the cataract's laughter,
Heard the Falls of Minnehaha
Calling to him through the silence.
"Pleasant is the sound!" he murmured,
"Pleasant is the voice that calls me!"
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Suggestive of a little laugh, Minnehaha translates to "waterfall" in Dakota, making Waterfall Falls a clumsily redundant appellation.It's a beautiful word, however, and trips nicely off the tongue.

Minnehaha is also the love interest in Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha," an ill-fated beauty who succumbs to famine and fever in a winter wasteland. Though the poem is written in an awkward meter (trochaic tetrameter, better used in Finnish epics than in English) I love the lines "And he journeyed without resting/ Till he heard the cataract's laughter." 

Did Longfellow think that the "haha" in Minnehaha meant laughter or was he just amusing himself with words? Or am I reading too much into his phrasing?

Regardless, I applaud his choice of the word cataract, which in this case means deluge of water rather than an abnormality of the eye. Perhaps cataract was in common usage in his day or perhaps, like me, Longfellow thought scoring thesauruses for obscure synonyms was fun.

Cataract is much like the Spanish word for waterfall, "catarata." A strong, hard word, catarata suggests a steady drumming, a rat-a-tat cadence reminiscent of the waterfall come summer. Right now all that can be heard is a deafening, rhythm-less rush. It seems Minneapolis' fourth snowiest winter and rain-soaked spring have made this cataract more likely to damage the auditory rather than visual faculties.

But I digress. This is not an English class, nor a lecture on etymology. This is a walk in the woods. This is an escape. Or perhaps it is all of these things. That's the beauty of a good wander. Everything begins to connect until you feel that you are part of a world that is not only so alive in the present moment but is also burgeoning with the past.

Do these little flowers have a history? Known as Creeping Charlie, ground ivy, gill-over-the-ground and Glechoma hederacea, the purple trumpets are both loved and despised. Some, like my sister, uproot them as weeds. Others use the plant for medicinal purposes or eat the greens in salads. And some, like me, take photos and contemplate the fact that Glechoma looks like glaucoma.
Glechoma, glaucoma, cataracts. My eyes feel fuzzy. Is that background supposed to be blurred?

Oh, that's right, it is. That's me playing with my new camera. Do you like it?


  1. Yes, except for the Creeping Charlie. It's a horrible weed. :S

  2. I didn't know that Minnehaha=waterfall. Cool poem.

  3. I have been walking in the woods a lot lately (in Pittsburgh) and it is so enjoyable in the spring, but I haven't come across any sites like Minehaha Falls! I love the use of verse, botany and etymology in this particular entry. The photos are nice too. Have you read "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson?