Sunday, April 12, 2009

Waterfalls of the Blue Earth River

The Blue Earth River, in south central Minnesota, might seem like a typical Midwestern river at first glance, but it is remarkable in several respects. For one, it is a rare south to north flowing river. It starts is Iowa and flows to meet the Minnesota River at it's famous bend, where the city of Mankato now lies. It is the central vein in a wide, leaf-like watershed south of the Minnesota River. This watershed is notable because it is wider than it is long. Most of it's way the Blue Earth meanders gently from bluff to bluff carving out muddy banks. But near Rapidan, Minnesota is a dam that marks the beginning of a deep, wild valley that goes on for nine miles until the valley widens at the confluence of the Blue Earth and Le Sueur Rivers. This narrow stretch of the Blue Earth is short but sweet, containing many class I rapids and very scenic surroundings. Because of the lively current, this section is popular with canoeists. What most people don't know or pay attention to is that this section of the Blue Earth is also one of the best Waterfall regions in Minnesota. Only a few miles from the river is Minneopa creek and its famous falls. Most people know about Minneopa and perhaps a few other falls of the Minnesota valley such as Minnemishinona falls. The falls of the Blue Earth are not comparatively unknown, most are almost literally unknown. Only Triple falls and Devil's Den are locally known. This probably is due to the low volume, intermittent nature of the streams feeding the Blue Earth along this section, mixed with relatively limited access. These factors do little to dull my personal enthusiasm for these natural treasures. Posted here is a photo guide to these waterfalls.
Pictured above is the fall pool of what a call 'Tall falls'.

A view of the beautiful wall-like cliff of Tall falls. A rough estimate for the height is between 30 and 35 feet. They form a high single drop, but because of the lack of undercut the some of the water slides down the cliff.

A classic view of Tall falls. This falls has a small watershed and is very intermittent.

A view from the top of Tall falls.

I've only been to this falls once. For lack of a better name I call it small falls, because it is not a very high drop compared to the other falls. This view shows the falls in the background with the steep, rock stream bed crashing down to the river.

A close up of small falls. It measures about five feet tall.

This is another modest waterfall near small falls. I call it Minni-triple falls because it has three drops, all of which could fit into one drop of Triple falls. This is the highest, top fall.

Here is the full view of Minni-Triple falls. This Falls probably only totals 10 to 15 feet in height.

This is the view from the top of Minnejujuwaha falls. I named this falls anglicized versions of Dakota words meaning, 'water broken to pieces.'

This is one of the reasons for the name--the stream falls perhaps 30 or 40 more feet after the waterfall on the way to the Blue Earth River. The stream bed is choked with huge talus pieces and glacial boulders, further breaking the water to pieces.

Here is a classic view of Minnejujuwaha. It is one of my favorites aesthetically. The water falls over a staircase of hard, rough sandstone before it plunges over the softer layer. The falls is almost half hard stone and half soft, making quite unique in the area. It has a very rugged beauty. I'd guess its height to be around 20 to 30 feet.

Water broken to pieces. This view shows the falls and the stream bed character as if flows about 30 yards down to the river.

Minnejujuwaha has little undercut because of the thick capstone. The result is many interesting carvings into the soft sandstone.

This is the odd view from the top of Triple falls, one of the most spectacular falls in Minnesota. Note the three separate platforms and impressive height.

This is a view from under the massive overhang of triple falls' final drop. Springs come out from the bottom of the cliff.

The classic view of Triple falls. This is an average, healthy flow during wet times. Note the tree stuck into the ground in the foreground. Triple falls is the most visited falls along the Blue Earth, revealing need for conservation. It is easy to find garbage and new carved initials when one visits. This would be an ideal place for a state or county park.

Triple falls after a very heavy June storm. I've never measured the leaps, but have pondered it often. My guess: top, 8 feet, middle 15 feet, lower, 25 feet, totaling 48. That would make it the region's tallest waterfall. I don't know if that is true, but it feels like it.

The bottom falls during the June burst. The crest of the bottom falls can be very wide in high water, while the middle is also fairly wide the top is always narrow and concentrated.

A head-on June view of the falls. It was loud!

This is what is locally called Devil's Den or Devil's Gulch. A creek flows down to the Blue Earth via a high waterfall in a round amphitheater type gorge. Then the stream narrows into a razor thin sandstone canyon as it flows to the river. This photo is from autumn when the stream bed was bone dry.

Devil's Den gets to be 3 or 4 feet wide at it's narrowest places. The narrowest part is at about waist height and the walls gradually open up as they get higher.

Nature's beautiful sculpture. Unfortunately, much of the canyon is marred by graffiti carvings. This view shows the potent beauty of the untouched parts of the walls.

Here is Devil's Den falls is summer. It looks to be at least 30 feet high.

The canyon while water is flowing through the stream. Although I am not an expert on such things, I'd guess this area harbours rare plants. There is an amazing community of mosses and ferns turning the walls into hanging gardens.

This is how the canyon begins near the river. The river is about 20 yards behind the spot of this photo. The canyon begins almost right away and gradually narrows as it nears the round falls arena. The canyon walls are probably 30 to 35 feet high, after that are more gentle ravine bluffs.

Near Devil's Den's unworldly environment is another strange place, the tiny Grotto falls. This falls is too small for almost anyone in their right mind to name, but I did anyway. It might rarely flow, but it is a beautiful, secluded spot. It is little more than a mossy notch carved into the river cliffs, falling in two parts. The falls is probably 20 feet high, but usually only trickles.

Exquisite water carved sandstone at the bottom of Grotto Falls.

This is the top of what I call Rapidan falls, do to the fact that it is near the dam, across the river from the county park. Despite being near the beginning of the Blue Earth River gorge, it is quite high.

Rapidan falls has a nice cascade that in unsual in this area. Most of the falls are created by hard but thin capstone over very soft stone in a thick layer. Rapidan falls has a very thick capstone that hasn't eroded much.

Despite the large capstone, this falls has a healthy overhang. It is also quite tall, probably near 30 feet, maybe more.
These are the stunning falls of the Blue Earth, an area of uncommon and rarely appreciated beauty. There are probably more falls in this stretch to discover. Most are probably minor places, like grotto falls, that most people won't appreciate. However, I know of at least one more decent falls, which I have discovered only when dry.
My heart is torn with these falls. On one hand, I wish they were better known, even a tourist draw. I wish they brought joy to many people the way they do to me. On the other hand, I see what happens to places that do get frequent visitation, like Triple falls, and I fear for them. Perhaps most of these falls should and will continue in relative anonymity. Ideally it would be great to see Triple falls a public park with a caretaker as it is so often visited already and one of the unique falls in the Midwestern United States. It is actually shocking to me that it is not already a public park of some kind. Almost any other feature of this grandure would be, why not Triple falls? The falls of the Blue Earth reveal the joy of nature, and the character of each falls mimics the characters of indivdual people. I hope people long into the future can enjoy these features.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cult of the Past

Classical music is a very backwards art form, culturally. Perhaps this is a reason that the classical music world has such a hard time recruiting young people these days. The worship of men that have been dead for hundreds of years and the dwelling on their music must seem alien to the majority of people. This sort of 'anti-progressive' attitude has been building for a long time. At one time, classical music was the popular music, at least for the upper classes. This is probably a true statement into the late 1800's. But at the same time as classical music was forward leaning, fast developing and hugely popular, introspection began. This sort of intellectual nostalgia probably started with Mozart and his classical era contemporaries looking back at scores of Bach and Handel for inspiration. This set a precedent--almost every composer since has looked back to Bach in one form or another.

Not that looking back to Bach is such a bad thing, he's one of the greatest composers ever. But looking back intensely creates a tradition-based form of music that becomes very inflexible. Perhaps one of the best ways to demonstrate this effect is to listen to recordings of baroque music before 'period performance' or 'historically informed performance' was developed. The music from the 1700's was literally played the with the same approach as it were composed in 1870 or latter. This might not sound too bad, how different could the approach be, it's all classical. Merely listening to such recordings will answer that question. They make baroque music seem boring, dull, insipid, simple and first and foremost inferior to later music. Nothing could be further from the musical truth.

A giant irony is the fact that the savior of this retrograde is a movement that looks to the past even more intensely and further back than most 'ordinary' classical musicians. In effect they look back harder in order to start to look forward. In this way they have created a new sense of discovery in music. The contemporary composer is still caught in an undervaluing era, but classical music has shown it can look forward, even if it is done through a backwards glance.

For the first time is many years one can say, 'I was alive when that was happening in classical music.' Not a small detail or a particular composer, but something big. A new movement, a new way of looking at things. The movement goes by many names, most recently Historically Informed Performance, or HIP.

HIP might sound dry, like a music historian's lecture sprinkled with musical soundbites, but it is not. The idea has perhaps been in any intellectual musician's head for hundreds of years: 'How was this work by this composer originally preformed?' But it began as a movement of sorts, with practices and practitioners, perhaps in the 1960's. It gained steam very slowly, such that only now are we in a heyday of the movement. It began with dissatisfaction with the results of performances of baroque music--people who knew baroque music was better and more exciting than what it sounded like in modern hands, especially Bach and Handel (Lesser known baroque composers especially Italians were not yet seen as worthy equals to the Germanic Bach and Handel who's musical style more resembled modern styles).

The beginning of the quest for HIP goes back to the question of what a particular piece originally sounded like and what the composer intended it sound like. But the real nexus of HIP was to start from scratch to research old instruments and find how they differed from modern ones. Once the original hardware was in place musicians could move on to more complex matters.

What the HIP researches found was striking. First the hardware: baroque instruments sound fantastic, and I would argue have a superior depth of tone and color. The early HIP performers were more or less handcuffed by their new instruments. They were quieter, darker, and hard to play in the way musicians had been taught their whole lives. Whether explicitly or not, many early HIP's began to feel like they were working against inferior instruments which they were compelled to use dogmatically for historical accuracy. It took a long time to get totally over that hump and play the old instruments on their terms alone. As it turns out they are just as capable as modern ones with one disadvantage that must be kept in mind; they are not as loud. We are now to a point of virtuosity, intellectual understanding and expressive connection with HIP instruments that a Vivaldi Violin concerto played by the same violinist on an old and new instrument will sound better on the old one stylistically, expressively and tonally. Even in the hands of an expert of Baroque interpretation, the works sound better on the original instruments. HIP performers have gotten that good.

The second striking discovery was just how good and prolific Baroque music is. Now that we are on top of the HIP movement every composer of the Baroque seems better, including Bach and Handel. But the composers who've benefited most from HIP have been the Italians, particularly Antonio Vivaldi. Before HIP no one understood how to preform in the Italian manner. Such composers trusted the preformer more, as was their musical culture. Improvisation and the creativity of the performers played an important role in bringing the music to life. Expressive extremes were encouraged (but not necessarily ordered). Objectively, the role of the musician is smaller under Bach's approach. Baroque music of all sorts began to be considered on equal footing with music of other periods.

The third striking discovery is the most forward-looking; what musicians can learn from HIP and baroque music in general. HIP is so widely accepted and popular now that many violinists are experts at it while also being 'modern' violinists (this is still quite rare on other instruments). This is true of some of the best violin talent of our times.Violinists such as Viktoria Mullova and Giuliano Carmignola 'have it both ways.'

Most generally what the classical music world has learned from HIP is flexibility and open-mindedness. Not all great music must be from the time of Mozart to Tchaikovsky played by a huge symphony orchestra filling a giant hall. Great music is played by forces great and small playing things written in many eras. A new liberating level of expressivity has become the norm. HIP has taught musicians not to be slaves to composers but collaborators with them. Baroque composers expected improvisation from performers and different results on different occasions. Most baroque scores leave many expressive details blank, allowing the performers to fill them in. Later composers began to spoon feed musicians with markings which explained every detail of performance. This practice in turn led to a handcuffing of the performers that over time led to a lesser flexibility and creativity in performance among musicians. HIP has effected even musicians not interested in baroque repertoire, because it has created a new independent sensitivity and open mindedness among performers in classical music in general. In a sense working, preforming musicians are taking back music, making it there own more, because of HIP and what it has taught us.