I walked through the cool, dripping heart of a mountain today. It contained an inspiring number of caves filled with stunning white stalactites and stalagmites. A giant cathedral of a space easily 50m high, a room filled with an organ-like series of brilliant white columns, and numerous other chambers along the path were lit by delicate white lights from angles and hidden locations that helped set the spaces in the most majestic and beautiful way possible. A glittering wall of flowing limestone shimmered as one moved, looking so much like a wall of diamond-studded ice. A reflecting pool lit from below revealed the water’s pearlescent aqua colour. Another chamber twenty metres below disappeared into the black earth as the only light cast from the lamps faded into the gloom.
There were a few locations along the path set aside to better view particularly beautiful and sublime formations. At one of these, highlighting a particularly imagination stirring formation was a sign that explained the cave system had been named first been surveyed by a fellow by the name of Oliver Trickett. The sign reads,
He recorded and assigned names to many of the formations. The large orange formation he called “The Judges Wig”; nearby are the “Lambs Fleece” and the “Wedding Cake”. Today we prefer not to use fanciful names for such formations, but to present them for what they are.
Can you feel the exasperated nuisance the writer feels at having to tell the plebs about the irrelevant names given to these beautiful and wondrous formations? Why even tell us what the formation is called if today’s standards prefer to “present it for what it is”, as if one can simply present what A Thing is with one terse piece of scientific rational description. With what authority does the writer of the sign appeal to reality?
Truly, it is a cold and boring “reality” that seeks to replace the descriptive, the subjective, even the fanciful with… I don’t even know! They never say what it supposedly is, except to go on to say that “The orange tints are…due to iron.”
Have you been floored by the persuasive and rhetorical power of this rational description? Iron makes the formation look orange. I am simply in awe of nature.
The totality of the thing labelled The Judges Wig cannot be explained away in simple description by attributes, nor can it rightly be summed up in the “fanciful” name given it by Trickett. But it goes a lot further than any bland, textbook description ever could – it does look considerably like a Judge’s Wig, with a curved central back and columns flowing down the sides from it. I imagine that just knowing it is called “The Judges Wig” conjures more images (and perhaps more interest) in the thing than an attributive description.
You might ask, why pick on the poor National Parks and Wildlife Service sign writer? It’s because I believe that how we describe the world is important and non-trivial, and also because appeals to “reality” as if whatever reality actually is were something self-evident, itself smacks of arrogance, smugness and a lack of imagination. As someone who cares about the natural environment, with an interest in seeing it preserved and human impact upon it mitigated to the greatest possible extent (there’s a larger discussion about the place of humanity within nature that I’m deliberately not addressing here). I want people to be rhetorically persuaded of the importance and value of things like The Judges Wig. Just consider this – it has sat underground for millennia. It has probably gone unobserved for longer than there have been people to observe it. If the scale of that is not humbling, I don’t know what is.
Written on 20th of July while holidaying in the alpine town of Talbingo. Visit the thermal pools.