The Listening Horizon: A Meditation on Wild Silence

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.

And then.
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.

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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11 Responses to The Listening Horizon: A Meditation on Wild Silence

  1. Bernie Saunders says:

    Barbara — this piece is OUTSTANDING!. The constant search for the magic of silence in our ancient bones.

    Bernie Saunders 763-479-1226

  2. Aimee Kelley Spencer says:

    I’m sitting here crying… Me too. You write so soon after my first experience – Christmas night, alone outside… It lasted no more than 25 seconds. I’ve tried to talk about it, but of course that seed lies within me as pure experience. Thank you for sharing… Your story and framing of the ‘”issue” has deepened my holding of my own moment. We are currently confronting the likelihood of increased numbers of exceedingly loud navy growler jets flying over our region, and into the Olympic National Forest/Park. We have lamented that Gordon Hempton’s discovery of a silent spot in the park will be no more. Meanwhile, I’ve just been introduced to a book called Vibration and Being by Joseph Rael and Mary Elizabeth Marlow… A very relevant link to the topic. I hadn’t thought I’d write this much to you… And not via phone… Odd way to introduce myself, but you’ve moved me and here I am pecking at keys. Laurence Cole and Liz Rog are good friends and introduced me to you… I am grateful to know your work (I love &reference you & elemental voicing in my classes) and Im so grateful for what you shared about your journey into the Silence Horizon.

    Thanks Barbara… I imagine our paths crossing again before long!

    Aimee Kelley

    • Hello Aimee — Thanks so much for your kind words! I know your name and your voice (from “This Fire”) and many loving stories from both Liz and Laurence. How perfect that your brush with deep silence would coincide with this post? Resonance happens….. I look forward to looking up the book you mentioned. It sounds delicious. And yes to our paths crossing! I’ll be out on Whidbey Island in late September to co-lead a workshop there — and maybe do some collaborating with Laurence’s choir. Maybe then….?

  3. vnarula says:

    Profound. Beautifully written.


    Vikas Narula Co-Founder at Keyhubs


    Blog LinkedIn Twitter Facebook

    Keyhubs 5244 Zenith Ave. South Minneapolis, MN 55410


  4. Andreana Phillips says:

    Thank you Barbara. Reading this in the new year and getting a perspective on silence has given me a perspective for 2015 and onward! Thank you.

  5. Deb says:

    I listened to that broadcast too. Cars, snowmobiles, boats, those jeeps for rough terrain, planes and fireworks for 3 months along with snowblowers, lawn mowers stole alot of my silence living on a lake. Deb

    See and hear and join you Sunday!

  6. Judy Archer says:

    Thank you Barbara. Beautiful. This reminds me of our cabin, where we are the fifth from the end of the road. Usually when we buy a place the first thing Michael does is a listening sample or test. We turn off the car engine, and sit and notice what we hear with the windows open.
    Now when we go to sleep and open the windows for fresh air -we let in the sounds of deep silence, only the sound of the wind or the branches around us moving. Usually the birds are quiet at night. And Michael is still amazed that we found a place that is so quiet.When we add the full moon we are fully in the magic of nature.

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