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COLUMN: Sounds of silence echo loudly even in deep woods

'Even while surrounded by a thousand acres of wilderness, noise still permeates the local environment,' muses columnist
In today's world, it's hard to find silence ... even in the woods, says columnist.

As I sat on the fallen log, at first wriggling a bit to find some butt comfort atop the lichen-covered bark, I listened for the silence. Silence, the very opposite of noise, is quite difficult to find, and once found is to be savoured. To find silence within our world has become a challenging quest for those who seek it.

Deafness doesn’t count. I’m a victim of hearing loss (should have worn ear muffs at the gun club all those years ago) and lately I can’t hear the songs of several bird species (or apparently even Julie at times, as she sometimes points out). I do acknowledge that just because I can’t hear it doesn’t mean the noise doesn’t exist. However, my reality can be to my advantage since less noise is better than too much noise.

These “quiet” musings come from an article I read in Canadian Geographic magazine about a scientist who sits alone in the middle of a prairie, surrounded with noise detecting equipment, trying to capture silence; and he’s not having a lot of success.

Noise, whether distracting or informative, is everywhere. Occasionally noise such as a car horn, alarm clock, or the boss’s footsteps approaching in the hallway are good noises.

But there’s a whole lot of other noise out there, a cacophony of sound that our ears pick up, our brain registers but we often remain unconscious of. This extra work for the brain causes it to get annoyed with the rest of our body for not responding, so it sometimes has a hissy-fit and provides us with a headache.

The headache, whether small or enormous, causes the rest of the body to shut down or at least malfunction, which then makes one retreat to a quiet corner in hopes of reassessing the day.

Like the scientist in the prairie or the naturalist in the deep woods, that person in the corner is seeking the elusive element known as silence. For silence brings rest, and rest begets revitalization.

From my perch on the fallen fir tree, deep within a very green and very densely wooded wetland, I listen for silence. This wooded swamp is about 10,000 years old, so has had lots of time to grow a thick layer of sound-muffling trees and moss. 

A strong breeze shakes the leaves of a yellow birch tree. A red squirrel gives a warning buzz of a call. A bit farther off a blue jay calls out. Suddenly a white-breasted nuthatch lands on the tree beside me and gives its distinctive meep-meep call. Harrumph, can’t a guy get any peace and quiet around here? 

A couple of minutes drift by and the local wildlife seems to forget my presence; at least the red squirrel and blue jay have gone silent. I close my eyes to concentrate on listening.

From above and fairly distant drifts down the drone of an airplane, not loud but certainly registering on the decibel scale. A waterski or fishing boat coughs to life on the nearby lake. And way off in the distance a transport truck can be heard barrelling along a highway. 

The crack of a tree branch causes me to quickly stiffen and look for an intruder. Nothing. No bear, no wandering human, just a tree branch falling to the forest floor. Why? Don’t know, don’t care, just so long as it’s not a bear.

Anyway, silence eludes me. Even while surrounded by a thousand acres of wilderness, noise still permeates the local environment.

I wonder how the barred owl who lives in these woods copes with all this incessant noise. An owl’s hearing is remarkable, being able to accurately find a meadow vole burrowing under a deep layer of snow ... how does it cope with 24/7 noises from Cessnas, Mack trucks and personal watercraft?

I’ve heard (figuratively speaking) that as one sense diminishes another sense may pick up the slack; in this instance do the eyes become more attuned to compensate for hearing loss? I put on my glasses to read the time on my watch and wonder on the wisdom of that. 

Or maybe there is something to be said of that, for as I turn my head to avoid the loud whine of a mosquito, my eyes see a flash of white across the glade. White where there shouldn’t be white, hanging below a leaf. Unless, maybe, could it be… nodding trillium! Rare, elusive and secretive, the finding of this trillium species is a huge highlight to the outing. The snap-snap-snap of the camera shutter sounds somewhat louder than usual.

Working my way across the swamp back to the waiting car, there is realization that the quiet sit-down time has provided a bit of insight as to my impact here today.

I push against an intrusive branch and the resultant crack seems like the equivalent of a rifle blast ... no wonder the red squirrel was so miffed at my presence. Every step produces some level of noise, even on the moss covered areas. One of the marvels of nature is how a bull moose can trot through habitat such as this and do so without making a quarter of the noise that I’m now producing.

Driving home with the window down and the radio volume up, I soon forget about silence and become once more enveloped in a world of noise.