Silence

When people without much experience in the backcountry think of nighttime in the woods, they envision the sounds of predators. I’ve been hiking since I was a child, and even with decades of experience I’m still struck by its silence.

I’ve heard noises in the night, but I doubt it’s ever been the stealthy cougar or the marauding bear folks imagine. I may have heard a deer or elk walking through my campsite — I’ve seen hoofprints nearby in the morning — but the most common mammal I’ve heard in the night are rodents. It’s always a risk when camped in a heavily-used site, even in the backcountry. They’ve come to associate hikers with food, so they’re happy to live near where we’re most likely to spill food (or improperly store it). (It’s one of the reasons I carry an Ursack. I’ve used it for a few decades and I have yet to lose a meal to a rodent.)

Once the sun’s last rays have faded, silence settles over the landscape like a shroud. I’m inclined to camp away from water, so there’s rarely a babbling brook to fill the silence. (It’s probably another reason I’m unlikely to hear larger mammals in the night.) The slightest breeze brings a rustle of leaves or a slight motion of the tarp over my hammock. If I’m awake, I hear all of it.

Long before civil twilight, perhaps as early as astronomical twilight, the sound picture shifts. Before I can even detect the faintest hint of the dawn, nature knows it’s coming. The earliest of birds being to stir. I’ve heard birdsong while the sky showed the barest hint of daylight, and listened to the songs change as different species join the chorus.

I live in a suburban home adjacent to 4-lane arterial. Down the hall, the refrigerator hums. A fan will come on at odd times, either forcing hot or cold air into my bedroom or bringing in fresh outdoor air. My cat snores. The Hub’s bedside DVD player emits a whisper while the disc spins. In civilization, it’s almost never silent unless there’s a power outage. I find that silence more disconcerting than the silent stillness of a backcountry night.

In the woods, the silence can be unsettling if you’re not expecting it. Silence takes away a distraction and brings the focus back to what’s going on in our heads. In the modern world, we’re unaccustomed to silence. In the dominant culture, silence between two people can be awkward; if you’re lucky, it’s a comfortable silence between two folks who no longer need words to fill the void. In most cases, a silence will quickly be filled with chatter.

Last night, I was lying in bed thinking about that silence. At home, I’m accustomed to noise; in the backcountry, welcome the cocoon of darkness & silence the night brings. I understand our ancestors’ fear of the night. Ancient prayers frequently describe the night as filled with death and evil lurking to claim our lives and steal our souls. Dawn was a sign of God’s blessing, and morning prayers were a celebration of having survived the night. But Twenty-first Century me doesn’t see evil in the darkness. The silent darkness is a welcome respite from the clatter of my life in civilization.

But God help me if my headlamp dies…

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