Listening to Silence

By , November 8, 2011

Living fairly far from other people as we do, we are surrounded by “silence.” I’ve noticed this much more lately, spending so much time alone.

I quote “silence,’ because in nature, that’s a relative term. In the winter months, with very little boat or ship traffic, we rarely hear motors out here. Sometimes planes fly overhead, or a helicopter will roar up channel, but these are few and far between. Our aural backdrop is the ocean, the wind, and the animals around us: the sea lions at the haul out across the fjord, birds in the forest and on the water, occasional whales or porpoises. There’s a lot to hear, but the noise level rarely rises to the level of even a small town. I play music on the stereo, or listen to the radio some; Spice wakes up and cries about her latest inconvenience; I might listen to an audio book on portable speakers as I do my chores, but much of the time, all is quiet.

This silence has attuned me differently than most people. I used to wonder if my hearing might be going bad, but now I don’t think so—I think it’s a matter of attention.

I’ve known for some time now that I’m especially tuned to Michelle and Aly’s voices. It’s bad enough that if I’m talking to someone on the phone, I sometimes ask Michelle and Aly to leave the room. Their conversation inevitably distracts me from what the caller says, as my mind filters out anything that is not their voices. When visiting, I dread the conversation splitting up, because my hearing automatically picks up what Michelle is saying exclusively. It makes it hard for me to focus on the conversation I’m engaged in, even if (perhaps especially if) I’m the one doing most of the talking!

Now that I’ve had some time alone, I’ve come to realize that this is true for subtler sounds as well. I discovered this morning that I have trouble hearing the radio news while pouring water into my bottle. My mind focuses on the sound of the water, to tell when the bottle is full. It isn’t louder than the radio, it just holds my attention more firmly.

I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one who does this.

Michelle and I habitually have a glass of wine with dinner, but we are careful to watch our consumption. We’ve agreed on a practice of having two half-glasses instead of one full glass. I generally pour, and I know where to look on the glass to find the right place to which to fill.

On November 1st I brought out the winter wine glasses. After messing around a bit with a measuring cup and water, I found the place on the much larger glass’s pattern that matched half of our small, everyday wine glasses. Michelle visited last weekend. During our first dinner together after being apart, Michelle got up and refilled her glass without asking where the mark would be. When she returned to the table, I saw that she had filled it to the mark—exactly. When I asked about it, she thought for a second, and said she’d judged it by the sound of the wine pouring into the glass, matching it to all the times she’s listened to me pour.

Once while moose hunting, I listened so intently that a noise made me jump and stagger, startled almost to the point of becoming unnerved. I had to sit and gather my wits, slowly working out what I’d just heard.

I had flushed an eagle or large hawk perched on a branch above my head and off to my left. I analyzed what I’d seen and heard, and eventually realized that I had  been startled so badly not by the beating of its wings, the shifting of the branch beneath it, or debris knocked down in its flight, but by its brief, nearly silent intake of breath the instant before it launched itself into the air!

3 Responses to “Listening to Silence”

  1. Michelle says:

    Mark, I am having the opposite experience here in town. There is a cacophony of man made sounds! Last night at 2am I was awake (the cat wanted outside) and it was unnaturally quiet for here. The refrigerator motor wasn’t running at the moment, the fire was out, the lights were off (that humming sound from fluorescent bulbs drives me nuts) and yet there was some high pitched electronic sound that was so annoying that I went around looking for it. Unfortunately I didn’t find it. I guess it is easier to let sounds go here where they are more normal.
    I’m looking forward to another quiet weekend at home!

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Sweetie! Glad to see you’re keeping tabs on the blog while you’re away.

    I thought I had written once about how loud we found the little place friends loaned us to stay in the night Aly went to the homecoming dance. Remember how the refrigerator coming on kept us awake all night? I prefer it out here.

    Looking forward to Friday.

    Love you!


  3. Kent Rollins says:

    I realy enjoy your stories, I have cooked on Ranches fro along time and when the cowboys ride out after breakfast, I listen to the hoofbeats in the darkness. Its amazing what silence rally sounds like

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