Listening to the quiet

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There is no silence more palpable than when you’re alone in the woods on a windless winter morning with new snow a foot deep on everything.

It is eastern Pennsylvania, in the meatloaf Pocono Mountains on a late November weekend and when we pitched our tent late the night before it was cold and dry. The stars were acetylene, caught in the naked treebranches.

But during the night, it began to snow and when we got out of our sleeping bags in the morning, there was a new layer of white caught in those branches and all over the rocky ground underneath.

Winter camping has many rewards, but certainly the most magical is the weird acoustic effect of snow. It sucks sound out of the air and replaces it with something as solid as styrofoam.

What breaks the silence are your own squeaky footsteps in the snow as you step out of the tent and start to prepare breakfast. You rub your hands together noisily and blow fog into them with your breath.

Silence is an exotic commodity and we should learn to value it and enjoy it as if it were a balm from heaven.

It is a rare place that you can find where you can’t hear a gasoline engine.

The internal combustion engine fills our noses with stink and makes the roadside clutter of ugly billboards and fast-food restaurants inevitable. But what is worse, it fills our ears with the rattle of rpms and gears.

You stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and the tour busses roar by. You take a sailboat out on the water and the lake-shrinking Evinrudes drown out the sound of your luffing jib.

I knew a woman once who told me that when she was a little girl, she heard the summer sky hum.

As children, we often are content with the mystery and don’t ask for an explanation. It’s just the way the world is: The summer sky hums.

As an adult, she came to recognize what the noise was, and how banal. She was hearing a sound hardly known anymore: a propeller-driven airliner flying too high to be seen.

That was more than half a century ago, when the planet was still quiet enough that you could pick out the airplane’s buzz over the local noise. Nowadays, even though jets are much louder, you seldom hear them flying at 30,000 feet because their roar is drowned by the din of traffic, the boom of car stereos, the cackle of the TV set and the occasional gunshot from a few blocks away.

Complete silence is profound and rare. It is the aural equivalent of complete darkness: the place where no sound exists at all.

In a cave, for instance, when you are still and your lamps are turned off. The deadest sound and most obscure blackness are somehow cousins. But even that silence isn’t complete: In such a silence, you can hear the blood squirting through the capillaries of your inner ear. Perhaps you can hear your relaxed heart thumping.

At such a time, there is nothing that exists but your autonomic sense of your own meat and nerves. You face only inward; the outer has ceased to matter.

And the only quiet more utter is death.

But that isn’t the kind of silence that recharges our batteries. For that we turn to nature and wilderness.

It is the reason we drive to the Poconos and hike into the campground.

If there is a place we can get out in nature, away from the parking lot and out from under the flight path, we can let our ears register the planetary rhythm. There are dry beech leaves that crackle in the breeze all through winter before they fall off in spring, there are the squirrels chattering in the elms and the occasional cardinal flapping its wings in the snow to clear a spot where it searches for some food.

Sounds such as these are always present, but are suffocated by the commotion of daily urban living. If somehow all the electricity and gasoline were instantly neutralized, and our ears somehow adjusted, we would hear the natural sounds even on Main Street downtown.

You recognize the symptoms: The air conditioner suddenly cycles down in the office and you notice that you hadn’t known it was making noise till it stopped. Silence is in part only known in relief, against the unheeded white noise.

Part of the appeal of wilderness hiking is the silence we enjoy there. Our cochleas catch their breath and come to terms with the persistent quiet of the natural world. And if we stay long enough, and our ears catch up with the reality, the birds begin to seem noisy and even sunrise groans.

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