I’ve been trying to tell this story for over ten years. It haunts me in a beautiful way. Though I struggled to find the words to tell it, I was missing the key that could finally bring the story from inside — out.
I recently listened to an interview between Krista Tippett of On Being and acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, on sound and silence in nature.
Hempton has been exploring and recording sounds in the natural world for decades. He is also a self-proclaimed “silence activist,” working to preserve the few places left in North America that are free from the intrusion of human-made sound.
In the interview, Hempton used a phrase that finally opened the way for me to tell this story: “listening horizon.”
I am in Ely, Minnesota on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It is deep winter, the middle of the night. I bundle into layers of clothing and set off into the darkness alone. The snow squeaks under my boots as I head to the middle of the frozen lake.
I lie down, perfectly cradled in the snow’s embrace. I am strangely warm but for the few square inches of exposed skin above my facemask. The swish of my jacket against the snow gives way to silence as I settle in to gaze at a firmament dense with stars.
And then something happens. That something I haven’t had words for. The silence – begun in my small pocket of breath-steamed air – begins to grow. In all directions. Equally. That silences spreads, speeds away from me faster and faster until I feel dwarfed by it. There is nothing for it to run into out there in the night. I feel both tiny and expanded. It is the largest silence of my life. It is a prayer in a non-language said to a god of infinite listening. It is bliss. My tears freeze to my cheeks. This is a listening horizon….and it is huge.
A car roars to life.
Right over there at the edge of the lake.
The growl of a metal beast.
The silence collapses, a star imploding, a vastness pulled back suddenly, violently into an acre of snowy lake.
And in that moment I understand what we humans have done. The nature of the soundlessness we have stolen from the world with the controlled petroleum explosions of our gas-powered engines. How small we have made our own listening horizon. And how small we have become to fit ourselves into it.
This knowing opens a grief in me as wide and trackless as the silence I just tasted and lost. The silence for whose gifts we are bereft. The silence through which we can step to find …. a blessed, full, resonant nothing. An absence so full that I remember and grieve it still.
That listening horizon.