The rest is silence

There’s something special about place, don’t you think? For some, it is a beautiful sight -a mountain, perhaps, or a field of flowers basking in the sun. I agree, of course -vision paints a scene- but for me, it does not capture it. Not completely. Photographs are only quiet markers of things that cannot truly live in silence.

I am seduced by sound, but as I age, my ears, too, have yellowed with the years. I worry that I may eventually slip my anchorage and have to rely too much on sight. Already, I am dependent more on memory than I might wish. Audio ergo video I used to think; but really, it was more like audio ergo sum, however. For me, place is not merely accompanied by sound, described by sound -it is sound! Make a joyful noise, says one of the Psalms I remember from my childhood. I suppose I must have taken it to heart…

Now I will do nothing but listen. That is from a part of the Song of Myself  by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman -only a part, because I have long treated myself to paring off the bits and pieces I wish to enjoy. I recognize the limits of judging something with carefully trimmed adjectives of course, but there you have it. At any rate, Whitman’s decision is a good one -profound in so many ways.

I’ve read Hempton and Grossmann’s book One Square Inch of Silence with interest and not a little dismay. They start their Prologue with a quote from the Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, ‘The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.’ And then go on to say that ‘Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies … offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land.’

I am getting old, though: I love sound, and if it’s mixed in with a little noise, I welcome the challenge. After all, noise is really just sound from which meaningful information is missing, or at least difficult to extract -and if it’s not too loud, I say give me the chance. I suppose that’s why I cannot abide earphones when I walk or run through the woods: they imprison me. What I want to hear is the sighing and creaking of the trees in a passing breeze, the mysterious crackling of branches deep in the forest, or the gurgling of a creek hidden somewhere nearby. The distant pounding of a woodpecker is a plus, but I’ll accept the call of a solitary raven searching for who knows what in trees too far away to see. All are Imagination’s guest: the mysteries that scrape quietly against its windows, the rustling shadows that appear like tiny whispering moths heard only in the corners of its ever listening ears.

A few years ago I remember being summoned into the deep green forest, not by formal writ, or a surfeit of leisure, you understand, but by the lusty song of what I used to call ‘the wind-up bird’ because its song seemed to go on and on like in a wind-up toy I was given as a child. In fact, its proper name is Troglodytes pacificus but it prefers just plain Pacific Wren unless it’s being formally introduced at a conference. They’re really quite small, so I’ve never actually seen one in the trees. But since there seemed to be a trail leading towards the sound, I thought it might be an adventure worth pursuing.

It was a mountainous part of the coastal forest I’d never been in before, and I carefully noted the fluorescent red ribbons used as markers for the trail. It’s embarrassing to get lost in the wilderness, and you can get eaten, so I try to be careful. Sometimes, of course, it’s difficult to allocate sufficient neurological resources to keep track of everything at the same time and I soon lost track of the ribbons -and also the bird; I suppose it heard me thrashing through the bushes as I fashioned my own clumsy trail.

You sort of know which way is out on a mountain, though. If you started near the bottom, you go down. If you started from the summit, you still pretty well do the same thing. So I wasn’t worried. And besides, there’s quite a lot going on if you really listen. I have my favourites, of course -wind ruffling its way through a forest of needles is one, although with cedars, are they needles, or leaves? That question always keeps me occupied for a while -I don’t think anybody is willing to commit, however.

And then there’s the legendary tree falling in the forest, and whether or not it still has to pretend to make a noise if there’s nobody around to hear it. Mind you, it’s hard to know just how often that happens, but since I figured I was all alone and not shouting or anything, if I did hear one in flagrante delicto, as it were, that should count, eh?

Unfortunately, apart from me tripping on stray roots, and being scratched by curious bushes, I heard no tree fall… or maybe, it didn’t know I was around, and it fell in silence. I believe there are a lot of unreported mysteries on a mountain.

But I also listen for grunts and howls in the woods, random crackles behind me, or heavy breathing close by. These have a different cachet, depending where I am. In a place where I am only noticed if I smell appetizing, a different algorithm is called for. It seems to me that sometimes the Whitman Principle only applies at the starting block: it determines the direction to run. And so when I heard something snuffling nearby, I understood that the time for simply listening was over.

As I started to crash through the undergrowth, I realized that for several carved moments, I was sound incarnate. I began wondering how my frantic uncoordinated scramble must seem to the animals in the forest who were used to hiding in silence for their lives -I was demonstrating there was also life in noise.

It was just a prophylactic journey, of course -a tentative foray into sound; I wasn’t sure where, or what I had heard, but it had suddenly changed from an interesting scrunch of the kind I was so fond of hearing underfoot on the carpet of leaves, to the more menacing sound that predators are decidedly not fond of wasting.

Eventually, I stopped and listened again, but this time it was not menace that greeted me from the foliage, but a burbling stream that danced onomatopoeically over rock and root, humming gaily as it purred over boulders and whispered under fallen logs: a chorister’s dream. And, even though I had always been too shy to sing with others, I joined it in a shy and halting duet of pastoral celebration. 

But nowadays, when I walk alone in the forest, I find that I am often consumed with a question -this one of a different existential significance: is a person warbling to a creek really making a joyful noise if there’s no one around to hear him?