I have learned the sound of gulls when they circle looking for food compared to their call when confronted by something strange. I can close my eyes and know the direction of the tide and the pull of the current. I do not know most smaller bird calls—my son Michael has to tell me (over and over) which is which when home on the porch—but I know well the call of a hawk or osprey or eagle, especially when they teach their young to fly. It is a sight to behold, and more, it is a sound I will never forget.
There is nothing “silent” about nature. There is nothing quiet about night. On the river in the evening when the stars blanket the sky above the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock, the most muffled of sounds carries across the water. It could be a car crossing the bridge, a late-night fisherman dropping traps, rigging against a mast, the gentle, familiar, eternal lap of water on the sand.
Paul Simon wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody knows it’s true.” Yes, across the night, when everything seems silent and the distant call of a train comes across the space between. There is life out there carrying on. Like the red dot of a passing airplane when I stand on the sand in perfect quiet and know onboard passengers are talking, laughing, reading, and life is carrying on, heading for somewhere else. Come morning the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats comes across the reach.
I love the quiet of nature, despite its lack of silence. Believe it or not, it has been quite some time since I’ve experienced the type of quiet I am referring to.
I would like a quiet day. One. One quiet day without the residue of yesterday or headwinds of tomorrow. Just the day, one. A quiet one during which I could just let the river run past and feel the cool and heat of the sand and the sounds of gulls or osprey and, of course, waves; when I define quiet, I include birds and waves.
A day where if the phone rings at all it is just family, ready with a joke or an old story to get us all laughing and remembering and planning. Usually quiet days include laughter and stories.
A day to myself like I used to do in my twenties when I drove into Manhattan and walked from Herald Square all the way up and through part of the park, talking to the vendors or checking out the music along the way coming from the cafes and radios. When I explain “quiet day” I must include the sounds of the city as natural and organic as the osprey and waves since they are expected. Plus, they aren’t talking to me so no response is expected or necessary, just my presence without the noise in my head, the endless, persistent humming in my head of stress or anxiety or what’s next or what happened. Without all that. One day.
My life is not unlike Thoreau’s in that my retreat is near the water in the woods where I am able to regroup, not to ignore civilization as much as be better prepared to face it. So I would like one day. One. One quiet day where I could live deliberately and be in absolute touch with the passing of time solely for the sake of the passing of time, to watch the seconds, to count the minutes. I could lean against a tree and hear the combine on the neighbor’s farm or the rigging on the boats on the river. There is a thin, very thin, line between quiet and the sound of rigging in the early morning hours.
I was thinking the other day about the quiet days in college when a bunch of us would walk into town just to get something to drink and everyone would be talking at once, and laughing at once at different things, and I loved that sweet and passive activity of such transience. If I am going to define “quiet days” I can’t leave off my friends. Or a drink or two.
I have had many days which I would “formally” call quiet by the Oxford definition. In Spain, at home on the river when it is early, or late. When I was young and hiked through Heckscher State Park. Sometimes when I am alone at home I fiddle around the house, working out on the property or on the porch, and can go from sunrise to sunset without a sound and it can be deafening. But those are literal, and I have come to understand that true peace is not the absence of noise but rather the presence of some connection around us.
I remember a beautiful, perfect, quiet evening a long time ago when a friend of mine and I went to an Italian restaurant in a run-down strip mall, and they were almost closed but they let us order some bread and a bottle of wine and we talked for hours, joking with the woman who worked there but mostly just laughing together about now and life at another time. We finished each other’s sentences and the wine and then went our own ways, quietly, until next time.
Another time, we stood on the beach here and watched across the bay toward Wallops Island, and it was late and cold and clear, and a rocket lifted with a payload for the Space Station, and all we saw was a red glow and the entire horizon glow white and red, then the sliver of a rocket move up, pushing out flames, further up to the southeast, and then, quietly gone. We never heard a thing. That kind of quiet is mind-bending to me.
It is quiet tonight, and cold—the type of cold, quiet night where sounds travel quite some distance, and I can hear the north winds sliding across from Windmill Point to the duck pond, and I need to turn my back to the cold, and walk up the hill and down the long, winding driveway to my porch, and the rustle of deer or opossum in the woods, try and find some music to match my mood, but doing so usually just sends me back outside.