Column: Silence — it depends on the circumstances
MARQUETTE — “Whispered in the sounds of silence,” – Paul Simon
And with the door open, there was no sound.
Silence can be as unnerving and unexpected as it can be planned for, luxurious, freeing and restorative.
It depends on the circumstances.
A pregnant pause in an important conversation, one where you hang on every word the other person says, can feel like a lifetime. It can be quite uncomfortable.
The silence I am talking about here is the one that sometimes follows a dramatic whirl of intense activity.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been traveling and visiting with family and friends. I have been to several states, cities and towns.
I heard the voices of visitors from all walks of life along those historic streets in Santa Fe, cicadas buzzing loudly through the hot, desert, afternoon sun, the giggles and laughs of my grandkids as they ran and played.
I listened to wedding vows, greetings and salutations, countless conversations about everything from Texas barbecue, the rising crime rate in one Canadian city and who eats what and who doesn’t to classic NFL football compared to the modern sport, fashion talk and music all run together into blah blasted by a party DJ.
In some limited situations, I also heard arguments, scolding, disappointment, anger, sadness and sighs of resignation, some of which were my own.
I also heard the sounds of vehicle tires on a gravel road, a trout slapping back into the water after jumping for a mosquito and the songs of gray tree frogs, whip-poor-wills and pinyon jays.
And now, in these moments, the door is open and there is no sound.
The visiting and the traveling are over, the guests have gone, the family members are back to resuming their marks in distant places, school has been dismissed for the summer and we are back to work.
I am sitting on my blue upholstered couch in my study at home and there’s nobody here but me.
This kind of silence is tiring and odd, or perhaps my feelings are being reflected in my surroundings. I am worn down from all the activity and it feels odd to not have some type of noise going on.
In most any moment, I am a great admirer of silence. I think more silence and more listening might lead to more understanding, love, kindness and peace.
I also need the quiet to restore and recharge my everything.
There’s something about this particular silence that has struck me today.
It’s got a strangeness to it, like it’s out of place or too late or early. Something off. Something not altogether right about it.
I step outside the back door and find sounds that both stimulate my brain and my senses, but also my emotions.
The rain is falling gently, not making any sound at all, except for where it has accumulated and run off the edge of the roof to splash on the concrete below.
It’s a cooler day today with the rain, another reason to want to curl up and sleep, relax and regenerate. I feel as though I could sleep for a month without waking up.
I know a lot of this is my tiring easily amid social situations, especially those that have an extended duration. I think I have always been this way. Interacting with others can be fun, enlightening, educational and pleasing.
However, for me, these occasions also drain me emotionally and physically.
Two weeks of almost constant social interaction for me is like an endurance test I’d equate to an athlete running the New York and Boston marathons back-to-back.
On my own run, I saw many beautiful things, including hundreds of cholla cacti blooming in beautiful pink flowers in the high desert of New Mexico, exquisite Native American blankets and jewelry and the changing panorama below as we flew across the country from the arid southwest to the lush, green forests, marshlands and fields of home.
In the two weeks that I’ve been running my “marathon”, the grass has grown so tall, the gardens have begun to bloom, and the amount of birdsong has quieted considerably, with many species having already mated and are now raising broods or are about to be.
Flickers, robins and flying squirrels are among the creatures currently sitting on eggs or raising young in my backyard.
On a ride up over an old cut-across road, I found the usual silence there disturbed significantly by the atypical presence of several vehicles passing along that high route at the same time I was.
In one case, the narrow road required a couple of pick-up trucks to back up until I could find room to pull off the narrow dirt road to let them pass.
Coming around a couple of corners, I came almost bumper to bumper with a couple of off-road vehicles that were traveling too fast for the peace and quiet of this place.
The operators didn’t seem much concerned about sharing the road with anyone else. The back ends of their machines fish-tailed around the curves, kicking up dirt.
Still, I was able to discover moose tracks in the mud and dirt and found a few quiet moments to look out over the valley below to see the forest in all its late-spring, green glory.
Along the shores of an inland lake, the setting sun felt warm across my skin. The lake reflected like a mirror. I could see myself in the water’s surface, looking as tired and as old as I felt, but feeling the healing of the rays of sunlight.
I could have stayed there for a few weeks if the sun would have allowed me to. But the nighttime was drawing near, the temperature dropping again.
I recall a place I was at a few years ago along the Rio Grande. It was an outdoor spa, which provided several pools to soak in warmed by desert hot springs. Each pool was maintained at a certain temperature, which varied between the pools.
Moreso than the beauty of this place, which included colored lights strung throughout the surrounding vegetation, I was struck by the state of silence for reflection and refreshment enforced by the owners of the establishment.
I had never really seen silence elevated to that level before in a circumstance like this. That requirement was typically reserved for solemn occasions, academic testing or the local library.
The silence at the spa along the river was phenomenal. The owners advertised their policies this way:
Riverbend is a quiet, zen-full retreat. Some areas of the property are designated Quiet Zones. Private pools and surrounding areas are Whisper Zones. Common pools do not have a whisper policy, but we do ask guests to be respectful of other guests. Devices must be silenced. No music or phone calls allowed.
Just reading that, I can feel my body relaxing. So cool.
It’s interesting how something as simple as silence can have profound, beneficial effects, just by letting it wash, like a lake wave over the top of me.
Back in my study with the door open wide, I lay my head back on the armrest of the couch. The awkward silence is still here with me now, but I am choosing to embrace it and welcome it to me.
I look through the window glass in front of me at the other side of the room. I see green maple leaves nodding in a breeze that I cannot see, feel or hear.
The skies have darkened a bit as more rain approaches. The purplish-blue clouds are rolling in slowly. I will take long breaths now, out and in, as I wait.
Soon, I anticipate that the arrival of the rain will break this silence with a pronounced boom or rumble of thunder and eventually, the sound of rain falling onto the roof over my head.
At that time, I will likely be near sleep. I want to remain conscious long enough to experience at least the start of the storm. After that, I think the raindrop and thunder sounds will help me to sleep.
I think about how fortunate we are here in this part of the world, to be so green and have so much regular rainfall this year. Those deserts of the west are so dry a single spark could touch off the whole countryside.
Silence is golden and rain is literally heaven sent.
I will lie here grateful for both, easing down deep into the moment.
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Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.