"What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” ~ Henry David Thoreau
There is no such thing as silence. At least as we might initially understand it, as the absence of sound. A void. Nothing. No auditory remnants of movement, friction, or existence. But this superficial idea of silence, this kind of total lack, is not possible. Instead, the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton defines silence as an absence of noise. This, perhaps more accurate understanding implies the absence of a particular kind of sound, one that is undesired or interfering.
The places where we willfully go to find an absence of noise vary. One of our ways of seeking silence is not-speaking and there are many forms of this, some not always pleasant. (For ten of these ways, defined by Paul Goodman, listen here.) Another form of seeking might lead us to close our eyes, an act much simpler than closing our ears. And, even if we do press our ears closed with our fingers, it is no less quiet than with this sense open to the world. A hum of sound persists and we hear our own blood pulsing through our body. Indoors, a house is full of sounds, random pops and creaks, and various tones of appliances or systems working to keep us clean, lit, and warm. So, we might head outside for a quiet opportunity and, if we are lucky to have such access, to a place away from the din of vehicles.
The most distilled quiet I can remember experiencing was in Northern Alberta at the end of January. Time of year is important to mention because seasons come with their own voices. Birds begin calling in spring, followed by the cracking and watery sounds of thawing. In summer wind begins playing with the leaves and the air buzzes with insects coming to life. The shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to sever their leaves, which rustle to the ground. Frozen surfaces absorb less sound and there is a sharpness to the acoustics of winter. Birds scold and wind howls across the bareness of winter. But this time of year can also offer the most quiet and it’s a different quiet from the rest of the year. The particles in everything slow down and movement is lessened. Author Sy Montgomery puts it beautifully saying “winter’s silence, like its sounds, is piercing, clear and cleansing, like a shooting star, well worth seeking and savoring.”
It was clear on that morning at the end of January when I walked off trail through the woods. It had just snowed the night before and with the temperature being so cold and the air so still, the thin layer of snow covering everything was dry and untouched. The sun blared though the tall thin pines. The lower tree trunks were bare except for a few small branches that were barely enough to catch the air.
I could have sworn I heard nothing except for the swish of my own polyester-shelled down-filled parka shifting against itself and the squeak of my rubber-soled boots on the dry snow. No howling or even whispering wind as if all had conspired to settle at once. I had an urge to make the most of this solitary stillness and at the same time felt inadequate in doing so. My urge caused me to stop walking, not wanting my own noise to pollute this pristine quiet. In my stillness, the loudest sound became my own breath.
As my breathing settled, I did notice something more though in this quiet place not yet severed, sold, and stripped. Some vital sound like a breath not divided by inhales and exhales and not coming from anyplace in particular. A breath that was vast, soothing and most certainly alive. It seemed some subtle movement of things existing together. Although, who knows really. It could have been the sound of the haul trucks 25 kilometers, taking loads of sand to the refinery or a far off distant highway bring vehicles to the North. Who’s to say.
What I do know is that once I started walking again, I felt more ease. It could have been a sense of not feeling so alone, of giving something my attention and realizing that it wasn’t just me there. I felt part of the agreement to be still and quiet.
There is, we are told, a sound in all things, which is often referred to as OM. If we attempt to chant this sound, we prepare by taking an inhale. This is the part of the breath that, by design, influences the sensation of awe. An inspiration ignites the feeling of open not-yet realized possibility. When the lungs are full of breath and no more air can be comfortably taken in, we begin to exhale. By way of the breath we now create the sound attempting to align ourselves with the vibration that connects the entire universe, the sound in all things. Once our exhale runs out, our voice stops and we’re back at the inhale, this time with much less purpose (unless we chant again). Then, there is a silence that follows the sound. This silence is much quieter than the silence that came before the chant.
A book I nearly forgot, but found again once my mother hauled out an old box of my childhood books for my son, is called A Quiet Place by Lynn Wheeling. I loved this book and it shows. The spine is replaced with yellowed tape and there is a rip across the front cover. Here is the text:
One sunny day a child named Grace
Was looking for A QUIET PLACE
She looked behind the violet in the hall,
But that QUIET PLACE was very small.
She looked in the parlor behind the chair,
but the clock ticked too loud…and someone was there.
She looked upstairs under the bed,
but that QUIET PLACE was for rainy days instead.
So she took a sugar bun and a cup of tea
and went behind the lilac tree.
She sipped the tea and nibbled the bun…
And the QUIET PLACE was filled with sun!
Suddenly she saw a face. She was not alone in the QUIET PLACE.
It was a boy…and boys will be boys.
THE QUIET PLACE was filled with noise!
So she broke the bun and gave him part…
And the quiet place was in her heart.
Quiet places are worth seeking out, worth exploring, worth preserving. They are not about any sort of loneliness, something so commonly feared, or even about aloneness. They can be about discovering the things that make us human, the things that are evident both within us and that extend beyond the boundaries of our own skin. Our quietest places do not have to be in some remote area of the woods or tucked away under the bed. They are the moments of connection that turn us back toward our self or to another for that is truly where silence exists.