A Symphony of Silence: “A River Runs Through It”

A tree falls in the forest; no one hears.  With a mighty snap, a boom and magnificent cascade of whooshing water she begins her journey to the sea.  No one heard, perhaps, but they did make it into a movie.

A thousand years later, the mountains are still young. An equally young author sits to the side of Sunset Falls, where a million gallons of river roar through a channel so narrow it tempts his mind into a death defying leap to the other shore. The image is rendered sharp by the contrast to a sure death that would lie in failure.

Maybe it was a fleeting thought, perhaps the conversation was held in eternity, but he saw that tree on her journey to the sea.  Saw her floating through churning rapids, bark and limbs shorn from her body, trunk pulverized by boulders and ultimately ground to mud by an endless stream of sand, whiling away her grain and structure.

On a late evening in 1910, the city of Missoula, Montana, slumbers peacefully, and a river runs through it.

“Droooooop, Plunk!”


“Droooooop, Plunk!”  A solitary fern has survived the swell of recent rains, its roots anchored fast to its submerged island paradise.  The pressure of current builds behind its foliage and with a drawn out “drooooop!” it bows its head beneath the surface of the river.  “Plunk!” with the miracle of kinetic energy stored, and the inherent strength of the vegetable family, it throws its head back in defiance, sending droplets of river water from its fronds spraying into the air.  Again the pressure builds.  “Droooop, Plunk!”

Below, water cascades into water with a reverberating and percussive roar.  Currents are lapping on stone to every frequency of sound, and the constance of the minutest interval.  A billion bubbles dive into the basin, to rise again to the surface, each with its own indistinguishable “Pop!”

All faculty of aural perception is inundated. No wavelength—or perhaps even thought thereof—is left undisturbed, leaving the observer only with the homogeneity of silence, the rushed static of entropy, and perhaps to the lucky, the vision of awesome power thrumming in repetition.

Somehow, almost impossibly, a voice drifts in from the forest.
“I guess it’s just us McCleans!” (A River Runs Through It).  Paul’s voice quivers with the madness of the mountains, a madness that will not—or cannot—expect to survive the day.

Norman pauses for a moment, and with a dubious but growing confidence begins to remove his excess clothing—the cotton that kills—and clambers into the rocking boat.

The author keeps record from his seat at the falls.  Two sets of fleet fly by, their enormous girth, softly compressing a millennia’s worth of peat moss and pine needles.  Their forester’s constitution leaves a series of gravity wells, slowly diminishing dimples on the soft and springy forest floor.  If they notice the man, pen in hand, they do not pause to take heed.

Following shortly is the boat, gaining speed in the narrowing current, glancing off racks and boulders that have stood unmoved by the centuries.  It comes through unscathed, bearing the two fragile souls of McClean toward the precipice of annihilation, the fulcrum where nature collides.  There they hang atop a water-fall, for a single instant, half afloat and half in flight, as the sailor who tacks upwind on tempestuous seas.

The boat plunges in to the froth and foam and with a sharp crack and a splinter it is torn asunder.

The scene pictured here is perhaps an entire sixty seconds of the movie “A River Runs Through It”.  Conversation is minimal.  The director instead chooses to display the scene through imagery and carefully contrasted volume in rapids, versus the awesome thrum of power where it is compressed through granite and galena.  A study of nature is found here at its clearest, from ‘Shooting the chutes” to the death of young Paul McClean, to the recital of the poem “Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth.  This film shows again and again we should be no more concerned with the frailty and temporary nature of human existence, than the awesome and godly power of nature incarnate.

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