The Sounds of Silence*

My first snowshoe experience was on Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park in Washington State. It was a tame excursion, but I had never been so immersed in a deep winter environment. Afterward, my husband and I tried to hold in fits of laughter while watching a narrated film about winter in the park. “Winter melts into spring,” the narrator intoned as footage flashed on the screen. Every other word, it seemed, was a play on “silence.” It actually would have been better as a silent film.

We made up our own lines all day: The silent snow falls silently upon the silent trees silently waiting out the long, silent winter.

My favorite places take some effort to reach and, during the winter, special equipment. I like to stop in the middle of a steep run or on a Nordic trail lined by trees or next to an icy stream off a snowshoe trail. The effort is worth it. Once you arrive in places like these, what you see and hear pulls you right out of your comfortable little niche in the world.

I don’t listen to music on the trails like many people do because without it I can hear the “silence” of the world around me: My skis managing different kinds of snow – scraping across icy hardpack in the morning shade, muffled swipes through the softening snow in the afternoon sun. I can listen to what’s going on in the forest. The squirrel scolding me from the side of the trail as I pass. Rockfall echoing across a valley. Boulders crashing to the valley floor. Creaking branches of an evergreen swaying in the breeze, creating a moment of doubt. Is it going to fall?

It’s as if my sight sharpens, too, in these quiet moments, and I notice what I’d otherwise miss. The play of light on the mountainsides. The sparkling rainbows of snowflakes floating in the brightening morning. Different layers of snow colored by the angle of the sun. Blue ice peeking through a scraped-off mogul. The lone raven seeming to hang motionless, yet moving on its silent way from one side of the ski area to another.

Years ago, on an early morning Nordic ski in the Methow Valley, a gurgling creek kept me company as I skied toward the middle of the long, wide valley. The schussing of my skis hypnotized me a little, but I was called to attention by the unmistakable call of a bald eagle overhead. The eagle was making its lazy way in the same direction I was going. We paced each other for several kilometers before I turned back toward town and the eagle continued on its way.

It was a long time ago, but I remember the experience so clearly, as if it were a momentous event instead of a quick ski before packing the car to return to Seattle.

I still chuckle when I remember the melodramatic narration of the film, but I’m humbled by the silence it clumsily referenced, too. There’s a fine line between purple prose and the desire to share your astonishment at what you see around you. Maybe we should all just remain silent and watch and listen and keep it to ourselves.

Or maybe not.

*This essay was originally posted on the OutdoorsNW website in Winter 2013. http://outdoorsnw.com/2013/tales-from-the-lift-lines-ix-the-sounds-of-silence/

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Sounds of Silence*

  1. Silence is a wonderful thing and a more beautiful thing than quiet. In landscapes of snow, that thing which the Eskimos found so many different words for, maybe a silence so pure needs only that one word to describe it, but those many, many impressions to sharpen its definition.
    Lovely read, as always.

  2. You are so kind, Matt. I love the idea of impressions adding to the definition of that one simple yet so complex word.

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