Viewing the world through a cataract is like looking through a mist, though it’s not water but mineral deposits on your lens that cloud your vision. So said the old man I watched on a YouTube video describing the operation to remove his two. He was 93. His testimony was measured and his delivery thoughtful and precise, and, except for the extra 10 years, the British accent, and the bald head, he could have been my father, who’d recently had the same surgery and also mentioned the heightened color and the new sharpness afterward.
The word in Spanish for cataract is catarata. If you’ve got elderly parents or are elderly yourself, the word might suggest cloudy vision and an impending operation. For anyone else, though, such as my young students, it will be the other meaning, waterfall, that comes to mind. For these kids, a catarata is tumbling, splashing, cascading water, either beautiful or fun, depending on whether they’ve hiked to some of Asturias’s falls or been taken to an amusement park, where falling water is de rigueur.
The widest falls in the world are in Southeast Asia, the tallest in South America, but for Americans surely the best known are the Niagara Falls. The Spanish also know them. When people here learn I’m from the United States, they’ll often exclaim, “Ah! The Cataratas del Niagara!”
“That’s New York,” I say. “I’m from Colorado.”
“Ah! The Gran Cañón del Colorado!”
“That’s Arizona.” I explain that the Spanish name comes from the river running through the canyon, not from the state. But it’s not that far, I add, and for fun I tell them my hometown is the same distance from the Grand Canyon as Gijón is from Seville, at the other extreme of the Spain. “Ah!”
Spain has some falls of its own, but nothing to rival the world’s largest falls, Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in southern Africa, which you’re advised to visit in the dry season because in the rainy season the mist rising from the river obscures most of the falls, and if you can’t see them, why go? On the other hand, you can hear them, and besides, imagining what’s hidden behind the curtain of water is part of the fun, and so what if it’s mist instead of water?
Imagine you stop the water, cease the flow, suppress the mist. What is left? No thunder, no noise. Possibly nothing but a soggy den in a cliff face, covered in fern. Would it be disappointing, or would it be delightful to learn in the sudden new silence that the place announced with such a riotous tumult yet hidden so well was a modest nothing? My father, in describing to me what it was like to see after his surgery, said it reminded him of getting his first pair of glasses, at age six. He put them on and was astonished to see that trees down the street suddenly had leaves, individual leaves, and not just leafy branches. He’d known they did, but he had never seen it—the array of leaves high and low, individual every one, shaking and shimmying and shining in the wind and sun. I’ve seen something similar when a mottled patch of sand becomes suddenly a host of glimmering seagulls in the air, each turning of its own accord in a windy day. My dad’s voice was enthusiastic, as if he were seeing it again. That’s perhaps because he literally could, that modest tree that was not nothing, but instead a great discovery.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.