Where Angels Drink

Moving water is an impressive erosive force. When I have the opportunity to visit family in the western United States, we generally visit a cold, meltwater stream in the mountains where numerous circular cavities dot the resistant granite and basalt that make up the main exposed rock of the mountains. These cavities are nearly perfectly round, and can be quite deep. They are formed by pebbles and other sediment settling in natural depressions in the rock and being swirled around as the waters gush down the mountain. Over the millennia, the swirls grow into deeper holes, trapping the pebbles that will act as a natural drill, cutting away the circular depression as they are roiled around by the endless flow of water. Some of these potholes can grow quite large, but the ones I generally see have the diameter of perhaps a basketball, and are only about a cubit deep. They are young potholes.

At least that’s what I used to believe. The last time I was in the mountains, some younger members of the wider family were there. They came back from visiting the exact same creek that I had the day before, reporting that they’d seen the angels’ drinking cups. Excited in the way that only kids can be, they chattered on about the potholes and quickly moved on to other diversions. My mind, however, was fixated at the geologic phenomenon I had just seen. More precisely, I was amazed at how a religious explanation had come to account for a well understood aspect of nature. The previous day I had explained to my daughter the forces of nature that had carved these curiosities quite without angels. I had witnessed a kind of mythopoeia: the birth of a myth. The children probably did not make up this name, but I had never before heard it.

A very large pothole from Wikicommons (in Finland)

A very large pothole from Wikicommons (in Finland)

When potholes grow very large they are sometimes called the more secular giant’s cauldrons or giant’s kettles. When we see something in nature that appears to be intelligently designed, the mind naturally moves to the realm of the mythical. We don’t believe in giants any more, but angels are somewhat commonplace in the repertoire of supernatural creatures taken seriously. Surveys continually show that many Americans believe in angels, whether guardian or garden variety. Many people claim to have seen them. I can’t make that boast myself, but I now have a suspicion of where I might look to find angels. Particularly if it is a hot night in the mountains, I will, I’m sure, find them at their favorite watering holes.

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