Thursday, May 7, 2015

What Do You Hear In the Quiet?

As I prepared my little supper late last night, before going to bed early with the sniffles, I remember being little, and eating pretty much the same thing when I was fighting a bit of a cold.  Campbells Chicken Noodle Soup, Saltines and 7-Up.

I was actually a pretty tough little kid, breaking my arm twice in the course of the summer one year, the first, running and tripping over a piece of sidewalk dislodged upward by a tree root, the second a major spill off of my bike while my brother and I were playing "Man from Uncle", 3 days out of the first cast (my Mom was NOT happy).

But if we got a cold or the flu, we were kept in bed, kept warm and left with a little bell to summon Mom if we needed anything.  We didn't abuse that, not bothering her unless we needed to, but there was something comforting, knowing that if we needed a drink, or just a hug, she was there. Mom herself, was battling cancer, and we had that intuitive sense, even that young, that our troubles were little, compared to hers, and tried to be quiet and considerate.

For on such mornings, there would no noise in the house, but for Mom's labored breath, and occasionally the little tinkled chime of a glass bell
That bell is one of the earliest memories of sound I have.  There were others, the sounds of the kitchen, as  Mom baked something. I remember the sound of the front door, a heavy hardwood door that shut with the announcement of "Dad's home!". Dad would walk in and kiss my Mom. Not a peck on the lips, but a long kiss and she'd giggle, there with flour on her face and that is the sound I first remember.

As I prepare something to nourish me again tonight  I think of such sounds - from here within the silence. Morning in the forest, the world is silence but for the draw of your breath.

People talk of the quietness of the wilderness. But is it? Is any place? Certainly not the city, from which we shout our way home each day, automobiles yielding not by law or logic, but by some order of survival of the fittest.

When I was first drawn to the woods, seeking quiet and perhaps sustenance, I never realized the varied depths of sound in the woods. First there was my own sounds, body defying that bitch that is gravity, hauling myself up the tree stand with all the tactical grace of a draft horse. My breath came in hot wet bursts and every step seemed a kettle drum in the darkness. When I got up and settled, I expected only quiet, my senses tuned to anything that would indicate a whitetail was headed my way.

The first sound  you'll hear as you are there in the woods, is the birds. A woodpecker off in the distance, the sound stopping as abruptly as it started, as if it were only an echo you heard. Then, the soft chirps and peeps as the sun first comes up. The sounds of that time when the owl ceases flight, passing the baton to the predators of the day as the wet, grey light illuminates their flight. Then silence, as overhead the form of a hawk passes, the sparrows cry but a dinner bell of a feathered hors d'oeveres. It's a melody of life, gone silent in fear as the whoosh of wing sweeps overhead. The hawk is gone, riding an updraft away to a tune only he can hear. As quickly as it was hushed, the sounds are back, as I settle back into the blind to the chorus of hungry birds.
But morning passes and the birds twitter off into the serene efficiency of food gathering. The quiet hangs pensively between trees and rocks that alight with small creatures, freed as prey of the night, searching for food. Rivers move in the distance, the streams complain, a fish jumps, the sound at the limit of your hearing as the forest floor, green with calm, pools around all.

Sounds emerge and fade -

The wind through the treetops as a thunderstorm does a drive by.

A dying tree tapping its own chest, then falling into sleep as the wind finishes its work, leaving without notice.

The slick of a knife as it cuts into the apple that is lunch.
It's not easy sitting still, sitting in what others would call silence, listening only to the hearts whispered confidences, conversing silently with your own regrets.

But if you are patient, and you are completely still, there in the distance you may hear it. Not the birds nor the brook, but the soft crunch of leaves, scarcely a sound yet, almost sound anticipated, yet to reach the ear. There it is again, drifting into your hearing, then ebbing away again, sound dying softly on a trail that's leading away from you. It's gone.

You tell yourself it was a three legged, one eyed, scrawny button buck not worthy of the shot, while down inside you have a mental picture of tines with a spread of two and a half feet and a form that blots out all sound.

You knew there are deer here. Creatures living shadowy in the limbo from which time began, moving around and away from time, away from you. Forms moving right around you, as your heart sounds out that beat of time, going too fast. If only you could see with the eyes that all hunters have. You know they are close, moving in and out of the sun's glare, flirting with you with grunts and snorts, hot air from soft muzzles, challenging you to the dual that only one of you will win. They drink from quiet pools in which autumn leaves slowly die, drifting on the cold waters with the motion of sleep.
You've seen the signs, the rubs, the scrapes, those measured indentations made of testosterone and bold youth. Signs of the whitetail, rising out of the deep quiet and the sleep. Look quick, listen close, for soon the marks would be gone, disappearing with astonishing speed as leaves blew past, as if relinquishing themselves back to the earth, where you, the hunter, are but a transient.

You wonder, do they hear me? The sharp intake of breath in the cold air, the hammering of my heart that to me sounds like a cacophony. That sound that pounds in your ears and you imagine every creature in the forest can hear it. When the hunters urge comes on full, strong; legs, arms, muscle, need. Memory from the times before memory existed, wired into us, that comes from those that survive. The moment passes, the sound was but a tree limb coming down, and you are left with the clear lucidity that adrenalin brings, resting your hand, quieting your heart. Be still, so we are not heard. Be still so no one notices the trembling of your form, the tear as it forms in quiet pools. Still, as your body trembles with anticipation.
You look at your watch, not sure why you brought it, a watch is not all that useful here, when the world is driven by sound, by heat and by blood. You keep it not so that you will remember the time, but so you can forget it for just these moments when you're not wasting breath trying to conquer it.

You're only a few miles from a road and if you listen, the tiny intrusions of civilization are heard; the sound of a train, way off, a laboring sound of groaning metal; later in the afternoon, a plane overhead, small sounds that seem foreign out here, and you brush them away with the flies. That world can wait, this is your world, now, all that you need as you hear the sound of your watch and the sound of the train dying away, running through another world that you know exists but you do not occupy.

The outside world fades back to hush, rising only to the occasional stammering of an angry squirrel, who doesn't stop even with cross hairs pointed at him. Do not fire, you tell yourself, as the sound would clear out everything around. Stop, look, wait. Listen.
Then you hear it. The sound is but the slightest of soft breaths in your ear, a tug at your heart, the course of blood through your cold hands, the mute tremble of your thighs. There, upwind, the slightest of pause amongst the leaves, as if something was also listening for you before advancing. The sound stops. The tiny hammer of your heart is an ocean in your ears. The sound starts. Crunch. Crunch. A snort. Testing the air, testing you.

You can not hear his heart beat, only your own, but as he comes into view, you can see the flinch of muscle and hide. Flesh driven by a heart that is insular, standing with a form that, without sound, infers weight and speed. It's speed that will take him far from you if he senses that heart of yours which beats too loudly, with strength born by rending it and building it back up again.
Then as suddenly as the sound comes into your field of view, it stops. Stops, as everything- animal, vegetable, mineral, the trivial uproar of a squirrel and the sun, coalesce into one sound of shuddering breath inward. There he is, fixed in the hot, philandering wind, a beam of sun against the massive rack, as he turns, sniffing, listening for danger. One more moment, one more breath and he'll have you. Instinct draws up the gun.

The birds explode into flight, the noise breaking the lie of silence. The whitetail bolts with a clamor, faint and fading as he breaks the barrier of life, moving on with a boom heard across heaven.. . .

. . .that boom, the sound of a truck door outside, slamming shut, bringing me back from the forested recesses of my daydream to the room around me.  The world has gone back silent again, but for the sound of my breath,  Up on the shelf, lay a small crystal bell, the ancient etchings on  clouded glass, coalescing, into a sense other than sound, a scent, a touch, the whisper of comfort and the smell of hot chicken soup, there in a room only fierce with the sound of alone.

I pick up a little framed photo of a red-haired woman and child, as outside, the melodic chime of birds in the trees, calls upwards to heaven.
 - Brigid


  1. When all animal sounds stop in the forest, I presume a LARGE predator is in the area.


  2. Beautifully evocative of a morning in the woods! :-)


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