Geography Poem: A.R. Ammons’s “Cascadilla Falls”

A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was one of history’s preeminent walking poets.  Like Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and William Wordsworth before him, it was not uncommon for Ammons to compose entire poems in his head during his walks through town and country.  As a result, many of his poems take nature as their subject and concern themselves with modern man’s role in the face of this nature.  Such is the case in “Cascadilla Falls,” the poem below.  It’s a typical Ammons poem of widening scope.  It has a scientist’s mind, an existentialist’s conscious, and a tinge of sophomoric humor.  The poem originally appeared in Ammons’s Selected Poems (1951-1971), which won both the National Book Award and the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry.

Cascadilla Falls

I went down by Cascadilla
Falls this
evening, the
stream below the falls,
and picked up a
handsized stone
kidney-shaped, testicular, and

thought all its motions into it,
the 800 mph earth spin,
the 190-million-mile yearly
displacement around the sun,
the overriding

of the galaxy with the 30,000
mph of where
the sun’s going:
thought all the interweaving
into myself: dropped

the stone to dead rest:
the stream from other motions
rushing over it:
I turned

to the sky and stood still:
I do
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.

Geographic Phenomenon: Sun Dogs

Sun Dogs, known scientifically as parahelia, are optical phenomena characterized by bright spots directly to the right and to the left of the sun.  Although the name is supposedly a mistranslation of an Inuit term referring to “the sun’s dogs,” sun dogs can be seen anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, though are most often visible when the sun is at or near the horizon.  This has to do with the underlying cause of sun dogs: hexagonal ice crystals in cirrus clouds and ground-level “Diamond Dust” which forms at exceptionally low temperatures.  As these ice crystals drift downwards they do so parallel to the ground, creating the perfect prism through which to refract a sun at or near the horizon.

Due to the specific optical properties of ice crystals, sun dogs are always located 22° away from the sun, and may be accompanied by a 22° halo, which occurs when enough ice crystals “wobble” from their parallel-to-the-ground orientation.

Sun dogs have a long history in art, literature, and religion — as both a source of trepidation and inspiration — with references dating back to Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca before the common era.  Shakespeare mentioned them in Henry VI.  Someone in 1535 Sweden dramatically depicted them very dramatically.  And they’re still a source of conspiracy theories in modern times.