Do Nothing but Listen

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.

Sun glare on icy snow, with dogs.

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

Amen.

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.

Dogs on a snow-covered path through the woods in sunlight.

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.

32 thoughts on “Do Nothing but Listen”

  1. This is a very beautiful post. ❤

    Last spring I took some friends on a walk/drive. We went to "my" big old cottonwood tree. I spotted a big horned owl and stopped the car some distance away. They got out of the car and slammed the doors. The two parent owls took off, leaving their young behind. If the young were killed so what? They couldn't breed yet; it was the breeding parents who mattered. I understood the reflex to shut the car door but I haven't lived that way in a long time and I was surprised at my friends for being so obtuse, but they were just being urban. Bear and Teddy are totally quiet on walks and very good about silently watching animals. We get to enjoy much more that way without bothering the other creature so much.

    My Aussie/Malamute used to "woo-woo" too. It was a wonderful thing, usually when I first came home from school she'd greet me with "Woo-woo-woo." Bear thinks Finn and Conall have more snow than they need. I told her they can't ship any here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It does take some time and practice to shed the habits of city/urban life and become more quiet in a rural setting. I remember a friend visiting me in Idaho. We sat on my deck, chatting. To my ears, she was practically yelling; it made me cringe. To her ears, I’m sure, she was speaking at normal “city” volume. But the effort to “learn” how to be quiet is so worth it, as you well know!

      (Finn and Conall would love to share some snow with Bear, if only they could. Don’t tell her even more snow fell overnight….)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Take it from a man who is going deaf. Silence is underrated.

    Younger, my dog and I would leave the noisy household for hours in the night and just take in the streetlight or early in the morning to witness the sunburst over the Cascades.

    Poignant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pete. I envy you those quiet, late-night strolls with your dog. I never felt safe enough to do that. The one time I tried, around midnight, a car slowly followed me and my dog, so I quickly returned home. Women don’t get to experience the world in quite the same way as men.

      Like

  3. “Listen to silence; it has so much to say!” In the outback of Australia, there is a tourist attraction, an evening called “the Sounds of Silence.” Basically an outdoor barbecue and star show, it is held away from any civilization, and emphasizes the sounds of the local creatures, etc Even with the sounds of the participants, it is quite startling, and quite special — a very different experience of the Outback!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I relish the peace and quiet, always have… but even more so as I age. You got the snow yesterday, we got the mess. 2 hours of wet snow, then rain which turned it to slush. Frigid temps over night have now turned everything to ice. This winter has been crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I completely understand what you mean by quiet and appreciate the discernment you have made here between quiet and silence. I too appreciate and require quiet. I enjoy it so very much and have always believed that peace and quiet breed creativity. It allows our thoughts to flow freely giving way to new ideas and gently unfolding thoughts.
    That video of being in a snowy forest is beautiful. Yes, I’ve done that and it is a magical experience. Though never silent, the quiet is a surreal experience. The beauty of snow is it dampens sound.
    Beautiful post Becca!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Shelley! I’m reminded of a video you once posted of bees on lilacs (I think it was lilacs), in slow motion. That’s another natural sound – the buzzing of bees busily collecting nectar/pollen – that instantly calms me.

      I owe you an email; on its way soon…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Becca, yes good memory! That is another beautiful natural sound. I captured another similar one buzzing around the lavender this past summer. I’ll post it in future. Look forward to chatting by email. No rush.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I can hear Simon & Garfunkel screaming that you ignored their biggest hit. Actually “Do Nothing and Listen” was the title of my retirement plan. Just kidding…this was wonderful essay on sound and silence and brought back a memory to me of once visiting an anechoic chamber with a good friend who was an acoustic engineer. In the chamber, supposedly without sound, it was anything but quiet. Aside from hearing my heartbeat (surprisingly faint) I experienced a very loud tinnitus that was hugely annoying. Also, I could hear the click of my joints if I moved. I was happy to get out of there after only a few minutes. So silence is good…yeah…sort of. As you pointed out, the silence of a wind-free snowfall is an extraordinary thing, an almost holy experience. Quiet nights snuggled under down comforters. Even that one quick moment when you enter a forest at night and all critters instantly stop whatever they are doing and it gets so quiet. I don’t know about quiet dogs because I have a frou-frou pup who has more vocalizations than a calliope clown. Also, just mentioning snowshoeing got my heart rate elevated and this is from a guy who hits the Stairmaster 5x a week; nothing is more exhausting and cardio-intensive than snowshoeing, imho.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I admit, the song Sounds of Silence flitted through my brain as I worked on the piece, especially as the phrase kept coming up in various quotes.

      I’m pretty sure I would NOT like an anechoic chamber. I have tinnitus (already loud enough, thank you), my neck grinds when I turn my head, and I’m sure my joints pop and complain even if I don’t hear them. It would be like listening to you body deteriorate! Who needs the extra reminder? I also was never enticed to try one of those water/flotation sensory deprivation chambers. I don’t like loud or constant noise, but I do like knowing my hearing still works, listening to gentle, quiet sounds 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So I had to put in my hearing aids, crank up the sound on the computer, and wait for the garbage truck to go by before I could play and enjoy your sound of silence.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was wondering how your winter was going there up in a corner of the U.S.’s Great White North. Glad you’re enjoying it. There is nothing like the muffled sounds of the natural world after a fresh snow. It’s magical. My two dogs ask to come inside the same way as yours. The quieter one is so quiet about it, most people wouldn’t hear her. However, this quiet dog loves to sing along with various kinds of music, wagging her tail the whole time. Never a dull moment with dogs in your life!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a really nice post. I could write a really long comment right now, because this dovetails directly into a realization I had earlier this evening, but I actually think I’ll probably write a post on the topic instead of junking up your blog with a five hundred word comment. One thing I think is that you would like my house. We’re the quietest people I know. We often all hang out in the same room together not talking, each lost in their own activity.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a refreshing read. I have not stood in a snow-covered forest but you make me want to. And I agree with your meditation. Silence is the absence of our noise. With nature, its sounds seem necessary, not intrusive or jarring. Can’t say the same for many other things. Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Rebecca,
    Your quiet reminds me of being in New Mexico when our family went to a stargazing event. In the distant background, you could see the glow of Albuquerque, but where we were was free from most light pollution. We could easily see the Milky Way (I’d never actually seen it with my eyes before) and then what we were able to see through the telescope. Magical. I’m someone who would appreciate your forested quiet. Maybe one day I’ll get to experience something similar. Thank you so much for sharing. Mona

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Every comment you make I can relate to and have experienced in some form here in Idaho too. From having a non-barking Siberian husky in the past who communicated so much to us, to enjoying certain types of inspiring music, to realizing after moving here that I yearned for two things from all our years of hiking – the relative silence of nature and the absence of artificial light. It has been a privilege to experience nature, wildlife, silent cold moonlit nights, starlit nights, the sound of wind in trees, bugling elk on a cold fall evening, etcetera.
    Loved your story because it made me think of all the things I cherish.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It’s very true that we rarely experience silence, even though I call it that often. For me, living in a town, it is rare to have that quiet – usually only in the early hours, on Christmas Day – and during the first lockdown. That quiet I experience in the countryside makes me sigh with relief, but you’re quite right, it is full of noise, just not man-made noise!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I learned the value of silence …and the fact that it is never truly silent … sitting in Quaker Meeting as a small child. Even in the big city where I live now, I can quiet the mind, create the silence I need, although being in your beautiful natural environment would be so very lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

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