Holbrook: Listening to winter (column)
June 1, 2017
I woke up in the middle of the night to the entire house shaking in the grip of a furious blast of wind and snow. There was a moment of silence, of calm, like the stillness of holding your breath. Then far off, a faint whisper could be heard, building again into a shriek that encircled the entire house, banging against the windows, rattling the snow-covered flower boxes.
My dog Luke jumped up on the bed and settled his quaking 75 pounds on top of me.
We are so visual that we may forget (until it sounds as if the house is going to be blown to pieces) how important sounds are. Not just the chatter of our own voices talking to each other, but the sounds of where we live.
Recently I heard an interview with Gordon Hempton, a "sound-tracker" who travels the world in search of places free from human noise in order to record natural sounds. "When I speak of silence," said Hempton, "I mean silence from modern life, silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system."
"But it's also the experience of place, what it means to be in a place."
I decided to spend a day just listening to the sounds of winter in Summit County.
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As morning approached and the sky began to lighten, the heat came on with a cozy ticking. When I was growing up the loud clank of metal radiators was a comforting sound that meant the house was warming up from the frigid temperatures my parents kept the thermostat at during the night. Today, in the modern house I live in, the heat comes up through the floors, but that ticking, burbling sound still conveys a sense of warmth, safety and comfort.
These past days have been a cold whirlwind of snow with near whiteout conditions outside. I let Luke out, and he disappeared into the blast, the crunch, crunch, crunch of his step the only clue to his presence as he headed around the corner. While I made coffee, I could hear the crunch, crunch crunch a few minutes later of his return. Then the quiet of waiting as he sat by the door. Finally there was one plaintive "Whooff!" to remind me that he was still out there in the cold.
The wind died down; then, it was just one wave of falling snow after another. Inside, it was so quiet. For a good part of the morning I just sat and immersed myself in the hush of winter. In that deep stillness I became aware of a faint humming in my head, something I rarely notice. Was it a remnant of all the years I spent in New York City oblivious to the consequences of the deafening grind of subway noise on my sensitive eardrums? Somehow this particular sound, and thoughts it provoked of the passage of time, made me feel gloomy and unsettled.
According to Hempton: "That is often the big challenge for adults when it comes to silence, because we're so busy being someplace else that when we're in a silent place, there are no distractions. We finally do get to meet ourselves and that can be frightening. It's practically fear of the unknown."
In the afternoon, I went out for a snowshoe. The snow was still falling heavily, like a soft, prolonged whisper. A chickadee bounced in the air by my face on its way to the bird feeder, with a cheery flutter of small wings. I took a deep breath and felt my spirits lifting.
Even up here where we live there is often the steady rumble of traffic down below. But today all was still, the noise muffled by snow.
As I headed off into the woods, my snowshoes sank into the deep powder, making the going slow; Luke followed me, leaping like a porpoise. Now and again we could hear the distant boom of the avalanche guns on the peaks at Breckenridge, and Luke would stop and look at me for clues as to whether or not we were worried about this.
Later, returning to the house, I went in search of a shovel and began to scrape snow off the porch, dumping it with a heavy whoosh over the railing. I could hear my own breath moving in sync with the rhythm of shoveling. Then a far-off sound began to steal into my awareness, and I paused to listen: Was it the sound of geese?
I looked up but the sky was as white and blank as smoke. The bugling call got louder, nearer and suddenly a huge V formation of geese appeared right above me, each bird pushing through the air like a ghost.
Hempton makes the interesting observation that the ears of all creatures have evolved to be able to hear certain sounds. Surprisingly, our ears have not necessarily evolved to hear each other.
"Is there something in our ancestors' environment that matches our peak hearing human sensitivity? Because most of what I'm saying right now, except for the 's' sounds and the high-pitched sounds, falls well below that range. And indeed, there's a perfect match: birdsong. Birdsong. Why would our ears possibly have evolved so that we could walk in the direction of faint birdsong?"
Why indeed? I liked finishing my quiet day with that question.
Whether it is a day filled with loud, man-made noise or a quiet day plunged into our own moody thoughts, the upbeat voice of the chickadee, or the mysterious call of wild geese — "harsh and exciting" in the words of poet Mary Oliver — are sounds that lift our spirits, inspire our imagination and remind us of our place amongst all living things. Maybe we humans need that sound most of all.
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge. Quotes are from an interview with Gordon Hempton, December 25, 2014, for the podcast "On Being."
This article was originally published in the March 10, 2017, edition of the Summit Daily News.