Uses of Silence

One September night I camped on a creekless patch of plateau a little above timberline. I cleaned my dishes as the light dwindled, made tea from melted snow, and sipped. A sliver moon shone somewhere far away, but not here. Ten stars became five hundred, then fifty thousand.

I stood a while longer, not thinking about much, getting cold, listening. The loudest sound was the ringing in my ears, the ringing that’s always there but so quiet that everyday noise buries it. The second loudest sound was a shifting hiss of all the small cascades and waterfalls coming down from peaks ringing the basin, a mile to three miles off. Subtle tides of otherwise imperceptible air movement brought first one cascade’s fricative note to the foreground, and then another’s.

The chill seeped in, demanding a sleeping bag, and first a toothbrush. But oral hygiene was interrupted: silhouetted against the fifty thousand stars, blackness not quite as big as a football flew one quick circle around my head at an arm’s length away, and was gone. It didn’t make a sound.

Did that really just happen?

My disbelief yielded, gradually, as the apparition coalesced, thread by thread, into a plausible narrative:

1. An owl

2. flew over to investigate my scritching toothbrush

3. which may have sounded like a heather vole (the local meadow mouse) gnawing sedges.

4. The owl flew in perfect silence. Owl feathers have soft fringes not found on other birds, and these dampen the whoosh of air across wings. Owls also have large wings for their body weight, enabling slow wing beats. The increased drag from the fringes incurs costs—slow, inefficient flight compared to that of hawks—but the reward is great: with no wind noise covering tiny sounds of prey, owls can hunt in pitch darkness. In laboratory experiments, blindfolded barn owls pinpoint and strike prey by hearing alone.

5. It’s part of evolution’s endless arms race between eaters and eaten. The majority of land mammals are nocturnal because that’s a cost-effective way to gain a step on predators, even though the majority of predatory mammals adapt to nocturnal prey by being nocturnal as well. Few predatory birds can follow suit. Birds generally depend on sight and have much better eyes and poorer ears than mammals, presumably because light travels faster than sound, making it a better medium for navigation while flying. So nighttime remains the right time for many four-legged prey species. If only it weren’t for those owls.

And if the Devil is

6. Do voles ever survive owl attacks? If not, do voles even know that owls exist? Or are they formless rumors, suspicions? Your cousins vanishing one by one?

…then God is

7. The owl flew in perfect silence and I could hear that.

 

How often in life did I ever stand outdoors in silence so intense that I could hear an owl’s silence?

Will my children know such silence? such glittering darkness? Will they know owls, will they see for themselves how the parts fit together and where they themselves stand in the real world?

 

*      *      *

 

A generation later, I climbed onto a ridge to look down at another camp, one set in a cirque cut in contrasting swathes of red-brown mudstone and blindingly white marble. Three small figures made their way past the bleached mountain goat skeleton and around the shore of the glacial-turquoise lake cradled in the cirque. In each of the emerald draws where tiny rills approach the lake, nurturing sodden mosses, yellow monkeyflowers, and succulent saxifrages, they dallied. The three—my daughter and the twins, age 12—were inspecting the verdant draws in search of fairy homes. (Finding several, of course.)

So what’s really changed since the Paleolithic?

This: they were shooting photos of the fairy homes. Pixies into pixels.

Pixie Home #2

Pixie Home #2

(Introduction to a book unwritten)