I sit in my chair reading, light from a cloudy day illuminating the pages. The house is empty, no dogs, no cats, not even a fish, bird or reptile. No creature is stirring, not even a mouse. All is still, but not silent. I have tinnitus, so my ears ring a high pitch perpetually since I was in my early teens and hunted doves without earplugs, the shotgun exploding a couple feet from my head as I fired a box or more of shells at the dazzling acrobats of birds on the wing, more skilled at flight and evasion than I was at shooting.
Where I sit by the window, I also hear a droning in the distance that is here beside me and not actually far away, the sound of a long ferry horn or a speed boat racing down the river, a plane flying invisibly high above or a tractor trailer racing along a highway. There is a lower sound that pulsates as if I hear my own blood pumping through my arteries and veins, the whoosh of liquid surging through tiny hoses. A soft whir fills the rooms as the air conditioning blows cooling air from the registers and the ceiling fans spin.
Outside, the rain from a tropical storm is light and quiet. No roar from a tropical torrent. No wind sways the trees. Birds cluster along the deck railing and jostle for a place at the feeder. Despite their motion, they remain quiet. No whistle or cry. When the rain finally arrives, the noise is a dull growl accented by the ticking of water dripping from the gutters into the downspouts.
No matter what I hear in my silent world, I cannot identify the source of all the sounds. Electricity? The harmonic hum of the 14 billion year old edge of the universe? The life force of plants? How far do the noises of waves breaking on a sand beach travel? Where do they end? Waves of water create waves of sound that we hear beside the ocean or along the banks of the river, so how far do the waves carry when we move away from the origin of noise? Do the waves travel farther as if silent but merely unheard? Does the conundrum of the tree falling in an empty forest apply?
John Cage noted the importance of silence in music, the gaps that create the contrast of sound with no sound. Is there music in silence alone? Is music present only when silence is replaced? Are silence and sound yin and yang?
Silence is a comforting friend, especially when silence is not an absence of sound.
The silence of camping at night is an eerie quiet of the woods where many creatures should be contributing to the noises that reveal the activity of chattering squirrels, tunneling moles, singing frogs, the piercing screech of a hawk circling above the forest, and sunset melodies of songbirds. The rattle of dry leaves, the snap of a fallen branch, the scratching of grouse or turkey. The whistle or hoot of an owl. Night brings the darkness of space and sound, the empty whisper of an owl in flight. You will not hear the soundless slither of a snake, but may be terrified hearing suddenly out of the empty night the scream of a rabbit or the baby’s cry of a mountain lion.
The silence of night in the woods can be too quiet. In the absorbing blackness, our imagination fills the gaps, tapping the brain for sounds it might expect to hear, creating sounds that ignite anxiety and fear of things that go bump in the night. You fall asleep and, when you awaken, you may frighten a deer that will bark with the cough of a lion, or you may alert to the loud scratching of a raccoon at your head. Or is it a bear?
When dawn illuminates the world outside, your mind relaxes, quiet and relieved, unconcerned about what you did not see but may have heard.