O n a recent evening walk, I was struck by the magnificent and slightly terrifying nature of the huge icicles in our neighborhood. One house I saw caused me to stop and stare, because not only were there sharp clear carrots of ice hanging down, but they were lit by sparkling “icicle” lights. While I may have seen this before, I had not registered how icicle lights are meant to mimic the beauty of real icicles. As I thought more about this, I remembered my first time seeing the geysers at Yellowstone National Park. Until that day, I had never realized that the mesmerizing fountains at hotels and parks are mimicking something incredible in nature. Sure, I knew geysers existed — just as I knew icicles existed — but the connection between fabricated beauty and natural beauty was not clear in my mind.

Yet another example comes from my childhood. Our next-door neighbors spent many thousands of dollars creating a beautiful sprawling deck with an impressive waterfall feature in their backyard. I may have enjoyed that waterfall even more than the local raccoons who stealthily caught each expensive koi fish from the small pond until my neighbors stopped re-stocking it.

Whenever it was warm enough in my Seattle-area neighborhood, I would leave my bedroom window open and listen to the rushing of their created waterfall as I went to sleep. Every opportunity I have had to camp near a rushing river or babbling creek has filled my soul with peace while I listen to its discordant flowing as I drift off to sleep.

Each of these creations — the icicle lights, fountains, and the backyard waterfall — exemplify our human attempts to manufacture natural beauty. We create to bring joy, pride and feelings of nature when we may be far from the flowing, freezing or exploding water we are mimicking. Sometimes icicle lights are the only icicles we will ever see (with the intensity of 2022’s winter so far, we might feel wistful at that thought). For some individuals, their backyard waterfall fulfills a need that can only be met by a trip to the mountains for another person. There is value all around us in created beauty.

Not only are these various creations beautiful, but they are also modeled from the most essential element of our physical existence — water. If water is essential to our physical selves, I think there is a connection to be found with an essential element to our spiritual and emotional selves. Physical interaction with others — which had been decreasing speedily before the pandemic — is what we have lost more than anything else. When we do gather together, there may be tension, fear, distance, uncertainty and even suspicion that did not exist before. These negative aspects of gathering color these essential interactions that we need to thrive.

Consider giving a presentation at work, school, or in the community. How valuable can the smile, thumbs up or encouraging shoulder pat of a colleague be? When we are grieving, how powerful is a clasped hand, a hug or sympathetic eye contact from a caring friend? Are the digital versions of these interactions via social media or video conferencing counterfeit? Are they meaningless? Absolutely not — but they are not equal to the refreshing water forms of physical presence with others. I would argue that while we are trying our best in a digital and distanced world, we must intentionally seek out essential physical interaction when we can do so safely.

Omicron is only starting to impact the Palouse, but the variant may play a key role in our decision-making. Safety and respect for others are critical priorities, but for our own wellbeing, we must not stay behind our screens all day, every day. Whether within our homes, workplaces, or other gathering spaces, let us be aware when real waterfalls, fountains and stunning icicles of physical interaction are within safe reach. When we recognize their shining beauty nearby, let us reach out and restore our thirsty souls.

Palmer is a doctoral student at the University of Idaho, studying youth development through outdoor recreation programs. She has lived on the Palouse with her husband and children since 2012. Palmer can be reached at palm1634@vandals.uidaho.edu.

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