The Devil is everywhere. At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord. Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls. Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons. Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east. But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”? The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name. If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission. Many such satanic names are.
Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear. Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.” Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name. People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it. There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls. It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.
Well, at least for a while. Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel. The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited. Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course. They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour. They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed. Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap. William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions. Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation. It was just a mill. It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall. The name, however, still speaks volumes.