On the Effects of Beholding the Kaaterskill Falls

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Catskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

Thus opens a most curious tale related by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, a New York historian whose papers have been passed on to us by one Washington Irving. As Mr. Irving comments in his preface to “Rip Van Winkle,” the story in question, the Knickerbocker records of Catskills lore have long since been “admitted into all historical collections as a book of unquestionable authority.”

The astonishing incident in the life of Rip Van Winkle need hardly be recounted here, famous as it has remained to this day. Besides, it has already been retold and dramatized on numerous occasions (such as this 30 November 1949 broadcast of the Family Theater), albeit not always with the respect and fidelity due to a chronicle of such historical significance. The producers of the 26 December 1948 presentation of “Rip Van Winkle,” starring an uncommonly tired Fred Allen, had the decency, at least, to prefix their bowdlerization with the disclaimer that “Any similarity to Washington Irving’s original is purely accidental.” They ought to have called it Knickerbocker’s original, of course—but we should not expect such scholarly attention to detail from the purveyors of popular entertainments, especially when their tongues are so firmly lodged in their cheeks as to render them barely intelligible. Arch Oboler even went so far as to appropriate the legend for one of his propaganda performances, none too subtly titled “Rip Von Dinkel of Nuremberg.”

Earlier this week, while travelling through the ancient Catskill Mountains—which, truth be told, are not nearly as shadowy and mysterious as the Welsh countryside—we happened upon the Kaaterskill Falls, the very sight of the extraordinary episode in the life of the legendary idler. We retraced his steps, stumbling over the rocks and trees that nature has so liberally and carelessly strewn upon this secluded spot. The hike was tiring enough; but that could hardly account for the fatigue I have been experiencing ever since our return to Wales. A long forgotten lecture by a venerable physician appears to provide the answer.

One of Knickerbocker’s contemporaries, the now entirely forgotten Augustus Ohrenauf, had much to say about the effects of the Kaaterskill waters in a lecture entitled “Ansichten über das Betrachten von Wasserfällen,” which, soon after its publication in 1817, was haphazardly translated into English as “Falls Deductions.” Having perused the original treatise, I am now convinced that my fatigue, commonly known as “jet lag,” is due to that jet of water emanating from the Kaaterskill Falls. According to Dr. Ohrenauf, it was the fall (and not the flagon of gin from a party of ghosts) that brought on Van Winkle’s decades-spanning slumber and all that befell him thereafter. Without any concern for etymological niceties, the good doctor insists that metaphorical expressions like “to fall asleep” (or the German “Augen fallen zu”) are directly related to the sensation of beholding cataracts and cascades. He argues further that the German expression of “einen Kater haben” (literally, having a tomcat, but meaning, “having a hangover”) is derived from that more than catnap-inducing Catskills ravine.

Entering the trail to the falls, we were instructed to sign a register (shown above), a precautionary measure, no doubt, to prevent visitors from getting lost in the woods due to the somnolent effects of the natural water feature they have set eyes on they are not likely to keep open for long. Dr. Ohrenauf thus advises sightseers to keep their ears peeled for the sounds of falling waters, lest they are prepared for a hazardous exposure to Lethean influences. Meanwhile, I hope to stay awake for my subsequent entries in the broadcastellan journal, in which I shall continue to expound on the matter.

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