Finn barks when asking to come inside. Conall carefully clicks a toenail on the glass.
That fundamental characteristic of Alaskan Malamutes – their quietness – is why I love them. They are sensitive to noise. They’re keen listeners, hearing and interpreting the most subtle sounds. I’ve learned to listen through them, paying attention when they do, and in that way, I’ve heard (and seen) so much of the natural world I would have otherwise missed.
During yesterday’s hour-long snowshoe with both of my dogs through the snow-covered fields and woods, I mused about noise, and quiet. How I’ve come not only to embrace quiet, but crave it.
Much is said and written about silence, especially the silence of nature and its calming influence.
But is there really such a thing as silence? Can one really find silence in nature? Or anywhere?
I don’t think so.
We listen to and embrace quietness, not silence.
This blog’s title comes from a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Now I will do nothing but listen.
I pondered the concept of silence during that snowshoe because it was the noisiest romp in the snow I’ve ever experienced.
It hurt my ears. I was distressed, watching the boys – aging Finn, especially – slipping on ice, falling on their hips. It wasn’t until we reached the woods, where ice hadn’t formed, that the natural sounds of our quieter footsteps filled my ears, lifting my mood, providing the sense of calm I’d sought, allowing me to think.
The snow in the open fields was old and had undergone several melt/freeze cycles, buffeted by days of stiff winds hardening the surface. By yesterday, a thin sheet of ice covered the snow, casting a harsh glare in the afternoon sun. The boys either slipped on it, or broke through it, the ice sounding like tinkling crystal beads as they did. I, in my snowshoes, didn’t slip, but each step was harshly loud as I broke through the brittle layer of ice and into the crusty, frozen snow beneath.
Not the quiet experience in nature that makes me love winter and snow.
Have you ever stood in a snow-covered forest, with more snow falling gently from the sky, far from the sound of engines and people? It’s magical. It’s as close to true silence as I have experienced.
Yet even in that enveloping buffer of snow, above and below, all around, I could hear…a breeze stirring the pine needles; the chatter of a chipmunk irritated that I’m adding noise to her usual quiet; a raven calling as it flies just above the treetops; the sniffing, footsteps, and breathing of my dogs; my own breath. My heart, pumping from the exertion of getting here, pushing blood past my eardrums with a swoosh for every beat.
It’s quiet, but hardly silent. The joy is in listening to the natural sounds I can hear.
Breaking ice, I’ve discovered, is not a natural sound I like.
Today, new snow fell, adding six inches on top of yesterday’s ice-covered crust. It came fast and heavy on the wind. Not the silent, slow snowfall of light, dry snow I enjoyed so often in Idaho. Noisier, but every bit as welcome.
I’m adjusting to winter in Vermont. It’s all good. Different, but good. A new sort of quiet.
Maybe I’ll even learn to enjoy the sound of ice breaking.
Because nature isn’t silent. Never has been. Despite all the quotes one finds, waxing poetically about nature’s language being silence, nothing is farther from the truth. To love nature is to love all of its sounds.
Listen to silence. It has so much to say.Rumi
The more I ponder the idea of silence, the more I realize there’s no such thing for a being who hears.
So really, I think, what people mean – even Rumi – when they refer to silence, is quiet.
The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.Albert Einstein
The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.Clarice Lispector
She nailed it.
Proof nature isn’t silent: Thunder. Earthquakes. Flowing water. Wind. An avalanche. Trees creaking, falling, their leaves shaking. The piercing scream of a female cougar seeking a mate. The howl of wolf at night. The yipping of a coyote, the screech of an eagle, the hoot of an owl, song birds at dawn and dusk. The thudding hooves of elk and deer running. Wildfire consuming a forest.
Tess was awake before dawn – at the marginal minute of the dark when the grove is still mute, save for one prophetic bird who sings with a clear-voiced conviction that he at least knows the correct time of day, the rest preserving silence as if equally convinced that he is mistaken.Thomas Hardy
What we really mean by nature’s “silence” is our own silence. That being in wilderness blunts the sounds of other humans, removing all our busy-ness and noise.
For me, finding that quietness has been a life-long journey toward something I didn’t always realize I needed.
I grew up in a noisy household. Three older brothers, and lots of engines – cars, airplanes, boats. That was my normal. When I first lived alone as an adult, I filled the noise void with TV, my “background noise” for years. I discovered, while in law school, that I worked best when there was steady background noise. The library was too quiet; every new sound – a hushed, quick conversation as people passed by, a book dropped accidentally, a door closing – distracted me, breaking my concentration. Instead, in the student lounge – where people were constantly coming and going, conversing loudly with each other, playing PacMan with its dings and bells and the occasional slap of a hand in frustration against the side of the game console (this was the early 1980s) – I had laser focus. Later, TV provided background noise when I worked at home. I had trouble focusing in my office because there wasn’t sufficient background noise, no TV.
After moving from Seattle to rural Idaho, having TV required satellite. Too expensive, I decided after a few months. That’s when I learned to feel comfortable in a silent home. It felt odd, at first. Random sounds were suddenly quite loud, seemed to echo within my house. Sometimes, music streamed over my computer as I worked, but mostly it was quiet. Just the dogs breathing, shifting positions, bursting out the dog door to investigate something in the yard, and my fingers tapping on the quietly-clanking keyboard.
Before long, that became my normal. I liked it. Preferred it. What took me so long to realize this?
I remember visiting New York City during this transition. Manhattan, to be precise. The noise was constant – vehicle engines and horns, emergency sirens. Even 22 floors up, windows closed, it was deafening. The cacophony lessened somewhat in the wee hours, but never stopped. Never. Just varied in amplitude. I couldn’t sleep. How do people live this way, I wondered? I couldn’t wait to escape back to quiet Idaho.
Living in quiet helped me relearn how to focus. Now, rather than being distracted by specific noises, living in quiet allowed me to home in on the unusual sounds that intrigued. I realized I didn’t want to ignore them, cancel them out with overwhelming noise. I started to hear things like seasonal bird song. I began listening to wind through trees, to footfalls on dirt paths, on squeaky snow. Dogs following their noses through forest underbrush, shrubs scraping against their bodies. These became the sounds that titillated my senses, the “silence” of nature that brought me peace.
My Malamutes have taught me well: the quieter one moves through the landscape, the more one sees. Like the encounter I was able to record in the video below. Running trails with Conall, he suddenly stopped and looked through the trees. Following his gaze, I saw a doe with twin fawns, oblivious to us. Finn would have barked and chased. Conall? He alerted me, and quietly observed, which allowed me to observe and record.
I wrote before of the time my Malamutes Maia and Meadow alerted me, allowing me to see a wolf in the wild.
I have dozens of similar examples. I’m grateful for all of the Malamute lessons I’ve been privileged to receive from them over the years.
I couldn’t have articulated, if someone asked my younger self, why I grew over time to prefer quiet. It wasn’t a sudden realization of need or requirement. Instead, as I gradually gave up the usual noises of our culture, avoiding noisy places and people, I learned how little I missed them. It’s like removing excessive fat from your diet; once you’ve done it, you wonder why you ever enjoyed it. Only much later did I read about highly sensitive people, realizing I am one, how that explained my preference for quiet.
The longer I live alone, the more comfortable I am with quiet. I’m not a misanthrope, yet. I do enjoy conversations with people, in moderation. Music is so closely related to the sublime state brought by quiet that I don’t consider it a violation. But even the music I listen to is gentle, quiet, almost always instrumental, bordering on ethereal. That’s what feels and sounds…natural, to me.
Which brings me back to dogs, the quiet creatures I live with and couldn’t live without.
Looking back, I realize that my love of Malamutes has much to do with their quietness. They rarely “speak” (a woo-woo thing Malamutes do when they’re happy), instead communicating mostly with body language and their eyes. They’re vocal, when necessary, but even then, it’s usually a few quiet woofs or just one urgent bark, never incessant barking. When my father was alive, he tried to convince me to get a German shepherd, a dog that would bark loudly if alarmed, protecting me at home. I assured him I felt completely safe with my Malamutes, that I didn’t want a barky dog.
Finn, being an Australian shepherd, is…noisier than Conall. Although, raised by my previous Malamutes and having lived with only Malamutes, he’s quieter than most Aussies. Lately, 14 years old and his hearing mostly gone, Finn has become louder when he does bark, like an old man refusing to wear a hearing aid, resorting to yelling because everything in his world is muted. It’s okay. Finn’s barking is clear in intent – “Let me in!” or “Conall, you brat, let me have my toy.” I’ll miss his barking when he’s gone, so I don’t begrudge him a single loud bark now.
But I so appreciate Conall’s quietness.
We’re simpatico, he and I.
Winter in Vermont has, so far, proven both quieter and noisier than Idaho. Quieter in terms of human-caused noise, because there aren’t any snowmobiles racing up and down the road or in the woods nearby, and much less gunfire. Noisier, because of the frequent wind and the louder quality of snow the boys and I play on. I especially love the woods here, where the air and snow are quietest.
The overall quiet of rural life lets me listen to my new home, becoming better acquainted. I hear it groan and rumble when the furnace in the basement comes on, followed by the whoosh of air through the upstairs floor vents. I hear loud pops in the floor joists – initially alarming, sometimes as loud as gunshot – at all hours when outside temperatures fluctuate. I’m learning the sound of wind pummeling the aluminum siding, rattling the old single-pane windows and making the house moan, as if pondering shifting on its foundation. There’s the occasional clanking of something metallic outside, a vent on the roof buffeted by wind…? I’m enjoying the pop and crackle of wood burning in the cast iron stove, watching the flames catch and consume the splits of wood.
Conall hears more than I do. He goes to a window, woofs once or twice at something outside in the dark, displaying wary body language. I listen but don’t hear anything. The next day, I see tracks in the snow – fox, coyote, deer. Conall heard them, alerting me.
These sounds, all of them, they’re the language of nature, speaking quietly and sometimes loudly to my dogs and to me. I’m listening, and learning.
I need this quiet that only a rural life provides.
The sort of quiet that allows me to hear nature all around me, moment by moment, season by season. Even when it’s most quiet, I hear nature – feel it – in my heart and my bones.
Including the barely-heard clink of a Malamute toenail on the glass of the door, asking to come inside on a frigid winter night.
The days go by, through the brief silence of winter, when the sunshine is so still and pure, like iced wine, and the dead leaves gleam brown, and water sounds hoarse in the ravines.D.H. Lawrence
Standing up here on the hill away from all humans – seeing these Wonders taking place before one’s eyes – so silently, watching the silence of Nature. No school – no church – is as good a teacher as the eye understandingly seeing what’s before it. I believe this more firmly than ever.Alfred Stieglitz (photographer; married to Georgia O’Keefe)
Feature photo: Following Conall across the crusty snow of an open space toward the quieter snow in the trees, the late afternoon sun pulling us westward. January 16, 2022.