philosopher's stone


philosopher's stone


Lake Minnewaska, Awosting Falls & Environs
There is a reason, it might be said, that monks of diverse sects traditionally awake before dawn. In a number of essays we have described the feeling of experiencing key features of the Gunks during dawn. It is an hour devoid of intrusion— quiet, contemplative, and receptive to latent stirrings both inwardly and outwardly bound. It is the quintessential coupling of that inward and outward exchange into a bond. And here again, even at ‘conventional’ Lake Minnewaska, the hour does not disappoint.

If the weather does not subsume all interest into its dynamics— which is a real and not unwelcome possibility— Lake Minnewaska exhibits itself at dawn as part of the atmosphere’s feeling and mood. It is the reason, even, for its style, and the garment it wears upon reception. But the same formula arises here that is present throughout the Gunks. Before the sun rises to directly light the environment, the beautiful white rock subtly glows with its own internal luminance. This is perhaps a trick of perceptual contrast, but it is no less available to the senses than any other concrete perception.

At dawn, it is that glowing, living presence that grounds all that is bold and saturated before it. Looking westward with the rising sun at our backs, the lake’s surface is a deep gradient of intense blues that greet the stately hemlock forests in the distance and the windswept pitch pines that are always caught in the act of scribing their calligraphic language into the air just above the local bedrock. In time, the sky turns lighter and more cyan— with a yellow-orange tinge gathering like a liquid injected into one corner of the sky. Soon it will disperse across the whole horizon. Before the show, the rock is a potent presence balanced by the sheer volume of the lake that snuggles below. Just after sunrise, the rock remains poised and bold, but the lake and its surrounding terrain seem to shift upward toward the cliff’s height as the entire landscape becomes unified into a single horizon. By this subtle transformation the lake becomes less of a voluminous presence than a primary feature of a single expansive horizon. For the senses that have already anticipated such a unified landscape, the lake has lost little in the transformation.

I have stood upon the cliff before sunrise on the east side of the lake where the original Cliff House once sprawled it’s magnificent structure along the entire cliff. There, I saw a flock of Canadian geese fly over in migrational formation. Just before the geese passed overhead, their leader peeled off as the formation flew on with incredible power and dignity. The lone straggler that was so recently the leader cycled lower so that I could clearly see his eye return the favor of sight in a mutual exchange of presence, perhaps born only of mutual curiosity, but nonetheless real. The simple significance of that moment could only have unfolded at dawn for me. It was not spectacular in the manner of a whale sighting in the ocean or some other adrenalin-inspired interaction, but it was significant precisely by virtue of its subtly. Indeed, that is the lesson of this land, for although it harbors its own unique and rugged majesty, it is always our receptive subtly that manifests and discloses buried aspects of its latent magic.
In much of this series we have experienced the capacity for dawn to draw out this essence more readily, and that is certainly the case. But the same latent magic is available in a different manner at other times of the day. Lake Minnewaska offers a number of unique faces— a new one, in fact, every day. We can scramble to the large blocks that have long ago broken off the cliffs to investigate every angle at the water’s edge. Angular blocks are sent aloft into the water— participating in a voyage that appears to take millennia. Some of the blocks have dived under the waterline. There, amongst the fractured blocks at the water’s edge, one can intimately know the fleshy vulnerability of the human scale of time and space, even while taking part in the strangeness of ‘rock time’. Amongst the reflections of the sky, we are admitted onto that watery voyage. Or perhaps, after a day’s hike, we may return near the beach on the east side of the lake and look upon the sliding stacks of conglomerate and the broad vertical cliffs on the far side as the lake is funneled between them with a mirror-like veneer upon its surface. We can stroll down the cove from which canoes once launched and scuba divers still silently enter the underwater realm. There, divers speak of a hidden world of algae, bladderworts and moss that coats the debris from the grand hotel era in a game of hide-and-seek— all of it attached to a submerged city of conglomerate that allows passage only to the streaming sunlight filtering down to terminate a few meters above the murky green-brown mush at the bottom. Back on solid ground in the little cove, the afternoon sun unveils a yellow-green oasis even as the colors of the lake normally offer a blue-green pallet of reflections amidst the deep blues of the sky. Autumn and winter reveal their own distant world from the very same vantages. But one cannot look upon the lake and its surrounding environs without also considering that which is not present: the majestic hotels themselves. The signs and left over organization of the post-Victorian hotel era are ever present for anyone who is perceptive. They are not simply exhibited in the network and structural organization of the carriage roads and the surrounding plots that are still in the process of forest succession following a formative era of cutting, domestication and subsistence farming— they reside, as we have stated, in the debris at the bottom of the lake itself.

Lake Minnewaska is the central node for an entire web of destinations that are really a diverse set of journeys unto themselves. Carriage roads and hiking trails loop outward from the lake, like honeybees dispatched from their nest, only to return again after the variable distance of their investigative journeys have been partaken. This wide array of excursions is etched into the landscape around the lake. In Fissures Amongst Men and Sound of Still Boulders, we set out from Lake Minnewaska on a journey to Castle Point and Gertrude’s Nose respectively. In Remote, we situate Lake Awosting in relationship to a departure from Lake Minnewaska. In Thirst, the magic moment occurred after traversing Millbrook Mountain and descending into the valley between the mountain and Lake Minnewaska’s southern outlet. Other popular excursions from the lake include Beacon Hill and Awosting Falls. Outside the festive gatherings it offers for weekend barbecues, Lake Minnewaska is a central routing station to a major portion of the Gunks.

A Victorian Falls

Awosting Falls is situated at the bottom of the twisting road that leads to Lake Minnewaska in Minnewaska State Park. As the name implies, however, Awosting Falls is a sibling, in part, of the outlet from distant Lake Awosting, rather than Lake Minnewaska, which lies a short distance up the winding road from it. Lake Minnewaska’s outlet contributes to the Coxing Kill stream that gathers its flow in a valley to the south and east. As referenced in Sensitive Flesh, the Coxing Kill eventually makes its way through Split Rock, before coursing through Clove Valley on the other side of The Trapps. The Peters Kill collects itself from a valley that lies further east and south of the Coxing Kill. The Peters Kill stream’s variable disposition, however, is very different than the generally accommodating Coxing Kill. After departing from Lake Awosting and valleys further to the south, the Peters Kill boisterously acts out before withdrawing into itself. It noisily plunges and thunders over large drops and stately falls. Shortly thereafter, it shrinks into itself, withdrawn, moody and secretive. In early spring, it plows through the debris fields that it once carried while drunk on it’s own concentrated powers, only to discover its overambitious surge cannot be sustained, and the extra load that it carries has to be dropped. Through much of the year, it trickles through the residual artifacts of its own abandoned activities, pooling in the tracks of its deepest memories.

A few of the Gunks’ well-known features attest to this proclivity for periodic outbursts from a variably withdrawn nature. Awosting Falls is, of course, one of them. At the falls, as elsewhere, the Peters Kill presents itself confident and bold at times, only to become irritated and impotent in between outbursts. Awosting Falls is still occasionally referred to locally as High Falls, even though there is an actual destination of High Falls just north of the Shawangunk Ridge. The fall’s impressive 40-foot plunge looks to be built on a series of stacked and curved foundations that collectively form an amphitheater. The thin broken slaps of concrete-looking sediments have been fractured by the weight of the stacks above, as if by the act of generations of laborers seeking to take up the same thought of their forefathers. At the bottom of the amphitheater, an equally stacked compilation of tones pile-drive their way into the rippling pool below from the falls above. The sounds of the fall are amplified in the concussion. When the flow is heavy, the turbulence and deep resonant display can be absolutely thunderous; but even when the water slides off the platform in shy, thin whispering curtains, the air is refreshingly ionized with moisture and sheets of a more subtle crescendo; adding wetness to the conditioned coolness that the hemlocks have already transpired into the shadows below.

It is tempting, and almost certainly the case, that upon nearing the top of Awosting Falls for the first time, newcomers migrate to the streambed for a preliminary glimpse. The initial stay is merely inquisitive at first, but it serves as a preamble for the journey below. After shuttling back to the carriageway following a glance that was designed to build expectation, the trail courses through a short series of turns that are also designed to increase anticipation until an open view of the falls is granted. Viewed from below, the falls can appear stately; or the flow may disappoint. Still, the surrounding coolness enwraps the onlooker in the sweep of hemlocks and the wide-embracing backstop of the layered rock. Upon the carriage trail, the trees begin to separate at just the right moment to provide a park-like setting and a romanticized scene that summons idealized views of horse-drawn coaches and ladies with umbrellas strolling languidly in the arms of capped gentlemen. The scene that is summoned in the pool is that of a courting couple drifting in a flat bottom boat as a supple female wrist drops delicate fingers toward the water’s surface, one or two of which caress the surface and trail sinuous ripples in their wake. The region, of course, has such overly romanticized and stereotypical Victorian images stamped into it by virtue of its developmental history. Yet even if one’s imagination launches into a different era or a deeper reach of time, the immediate vicinity appears idealized when viewed from below. Indeed, it is difficult to overcome the overly romanticized structure of the sight on most visits. Because of that structuring, vision unconsciously engages its quick little journeys across regions that the body either cannot go or is restricted access. All sides of our frontal hemisphere are explored in a rapid acquisition as the carriageway pulls us gently onward, as if our own carriage were still powered by horses. Downstream, the carriageway continues its park-like setting, but the further one strolls, the more it is apparent that the falls begins to tug us for return and suggest that a journey onward is the making of an entirely different expedition.
For many day visitors, the tug is appropriate because the falls is considered a satellite destination to Lake Minnewaska. Many have arrived at the falls only as part of a larger visit to the lake. But after making their way back to the top of the falls, the ledge beckons for a second, more meaningful visitation. On top, the Peters Kill sculpts a smooth undulating surface. Swirling steps and banked curves add intrigue to the root-beer stained conglomerate. The yellow-brown staining intermingles with a tightly packed sand matrix so that a fine-grained, crystalline texture is immediately received as more than a surface coating upon what might otherwise be considered mundane rock. The quartzite is a constituent of the entire rock depth, granting it its iconic beauty. By virtue of the region’s mandate for contrast, aged moss and lichen darken the intervening matrix of the near white surface. It is this glittering surface with a slightly angular ledge that the Peters Kill either rages over with the furry of a spring flood, or shyly clings to on the way to the pool below. Just before its drop, the streambed provides a sculpted, many-tiered destination of its own, often more interesting to range upon than the landscape below. As premonition to the space below, a mini, elongated amphitheater forms the last stage of the streambed just before the drop. There, a windswept pitch pine has positioned itself near the edge. The iconic pine provides just the right refinement to invite additional lingering as it faces two directions at once. While we face only one-half of its gesture, its distal side is oriented to the grand show below the drop. In return, a population of hemlock, oak, beech and birch surround the pool’s edge and salute the ledge with a disciplined stance that is quite noble. In the end, the two disparate spaces remain separate but merge into a single perception through the activity of the falls and the little pine near its edge. We encompass the space that we situate within up above as well as the space far below that it is stitched to through the fabric of the falling water itself. We see the Peters Kill sweeping toward us at the same time that the pool down below seems to tilt its entire volume slightly in our direction, even as the falls plunges away from us— all of it, nonetheless, a single space for vision. We see the inlet flow as part of our own body space at the same time that the outlet flow in the pool far below courses away from us in the form of a necessary exit. It is the terminal boundary of our space and the introductory movement to the adjacent space. This is the space of visual perception as it is stabilized by movement.

It is misguided to construe that because a lens cannot appropriately capture all of this at once without distortion that there exists no intimate perception of both tiers at once. Visual perception is not our personal copy of the optics that our technologies employ as they are said to copy or augment our anatomy. Natural perception achieves this solid gathering through a bound momentum, a duration that is structured by movement; not in the manner of video footage— where a series of static ‘states’ are said to build a perception over time. Actual perception is not the stitching of independent image states along with anticipation of the subsequent images to follow in the sequence. It is, rather, the late achievement of a series of unified gatherings— a “lived” whole that is never truncated or incomplete for experience, though it requires a lived duration that sometimes escapes us, and is always open to a present that is still arriving.

On summer weekends, Awosting Falls becomes so populated that the outing is transformed into a people-watching occasion. Even so, early hours and late season visits reveal again the native beauty that might have been squandered should we dismiss the location as rendered kitsch by popularity. In the depths of winter, the falls can pile snow onto the nearby carriageway— requiring snowshoes, skis, or sealed boots attached to an agile hip. The frozen pool below increasingly stacks a growing cone of ice as winter deepens. In the coldest of winters, the cone creeps up the falls until it nearly greets the ledge with a broken and crusty shell that reveals watery innards pouring out. Even when Gothic-like icicle formations do not transform the amphitheater around the falls into a wizard’s cathedral, cold water sprays the surrounding trees to glaze them in a coating that reveals its own wizardry, both practiced and granted. Late autumn has its own special charm, which of course is color, but the beauty of every season is revealed through structure. Awosting Falls presents itself, like Split-Rock, as a self-contained space encompassing both its inlet waters and its pool below— along with a short excursion paralleling the Peters Kill. Should one travel beyond the pull of the falls, one discovers that the carriageway diverts from the Peters Kill just when the latter dives under Route 44-55. On the other side of the road, the stream disperses into a wide thin sheet before leaning to the right and tipping through a long series of stepped falls on each side of a large shrubby landmass. Sheldon Falls and Peters Kill Falls are certainly less accessible than Awosting Falls, but they are infinitely more interesting to investigate, as we do in Abandoned.
The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto by Getty Images).


a phenomenological essay series

The Philosopher's Stone

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