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Voices of the Wild

The Sounds of Silence —
A Chickadee Looks at His World

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

December 27, 2005

Dawn, or near enough as makes no difference. We were walking along the bank of The River, watching slabs of slush ice drifting toward the next bend. A cold mist enveloped us, and beads of water trickled down our parkas. The state highway lay a mile off, on the other side of a wooded ridge. For a few minutes no trucks grumbled up the long hill that lies on the flank of the ancient delta separating lowlands from mountains. Then Farwell turned to me. "It's so quiet," he said. He spoke softly, in what he likes to think are hushed tones, but his voice boomed across the water nonetheless, shattering the morning calm. And from the hemlock above our heads, a startled voice was raised in complaint…

 

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!

"'Quiet,' you say?" I heard that. So did everyone else who lives along The River. And you probably woke the owl sleeping in the big pine over there. Thank you very much. Of course, it's not your problem, is it? Tourists! They're bad enough in summer. You'd think they'd have the sense to stay home now that winter's here. Oh, well. It looks like the owl isn't going to stir. Good.

So you think it's quiet here, do you? You couldn't be more wrong. Voices and music are all around you. All you have to do is listen. But I forgot. You humans aren't very good at that, are you? The way it looks to me, you build walls of noise around you everywhere you go. Take those little headphone things that all the Tourists wear now. Still, they're better than the boom boxes, let alone the jet-skis and the ATVs. At least the headphones don't pollute my world with noise. Of course there's the chatter, as well. You humans are always talking. Talk, talk, talk. Even the quiet ones, like you two. Can't say I see why. You almost never seem to have anything new to say to each other.

Why not try listening for a change? You might be surprised at what you hear. The River's always got a story to tell, rushing along from falls to falls, murmuring one minute, roaring the next. And me and my family, we've got a lot to say to each other. It's our way of staying in touch. Sort of like those little plastic phones that some of the Tourists can't get along without. They even talk into them while they're walking. Well, we Locals — I know you call us something else, but we just think of ourselves as the Locals, see? — prefer to talk beak to beak. So to speak. And we don't waste words. We talk about things that matter. Like where we've found seeds in the pine cones, for instance.

Yes, I know. Even the least alert Tourist probably recognizes our Chick-a-dee! greeting. But that's just a start. OK. You two act like you pay more attention to what goes on around you than most Tourists. So you've probably heard us welcoming the returning sun with a cheery fee-bee, fee-bee. Most of your kind — the noticing ones, anyway — think this is our "spring call." But if you've listened carefully, you've realized that it's part of our conversation in all seasons. Sometimes it's the kids learning the language. Usually, though, it's one of us adults letting any visitors know just whose trees these are.

I could go on and on, but I don't want to sound like I think our voices are the only ones worth listening to. Everything has something to say. Like the River, right? It's never completely silent. Even the trees have many voices — and many moods. In spring, young leaves rustle in the breeze. Wait just a few months, however, and you'll hear bare branches clattering in autumn gales, drowning out the patter of seeds and nuts falling to the forest floor. All right. Maybe you don't hear the smallest seeds fall, even on still days, but the red squirrels and chipmunks certainly do. And I know you can hear them! They make so much noise foraging in the leaves that Tourists think there's a bear charging through the woods. Then they start screaming warnings to their kids and whistling for their dogs. The chipmunks think that's pretty funny, I can tell you. Of course, you've never been fooled, have you? But I'll bet you've been startled more than once by the sudden Crack! of a tall pine on some sub-zero winter night. You have? I thought so.

I guess that's proof winter's not really a silent season. Quiet, yes. But not silent. The River is always surging and settling under its snow-covered mantle, making the ice heave and groan. It sounds just like a Tourist with a belly-ache. Yet at the same time, only a little way downstream, half-frozen slush is plummeting over Deadman's Falls, sweeping away the little ice candles growing from the rocks. They make a cheerful tinkle as they break free, almost like a wind chime. You could call it a "water chime," I guess.

Move away from The River, and the music changes. Diehard beech leaves cling stubbornly to their branches, rattling in the lightest wind. And have you noticed how the snow squeaks as you walk? Even the quietest travelers make some noise. If you squat under the jack pines on a still, moonlit night, you can sometimes hear the Hhssshh…hhssshh of snowshoe hares shuffling through the drifts. Yes, I know. It's hard for you Tourists to sit quietly, particularly in the cold. But we Locals can — and we do. It's a matter of life and death for us. Sound travels far and fast in humid night air, and there are plenty of hungry meat-eaters stalking through the frozen woods. Chatterboxes don't last long in the chill dark of midwinter nights.

Still, I can't complain. The sun's already on its way back north. Soon we'll be hearing woodpeckers tapping out their boundaries on the trunks of hollow trees. So will you. And if that wasn't enough to cheer anyone up, all the voices of the woods will join in a chorus of welcome to the returning sun. The River's ceaseless murmur will become louder. The woodpeckers will hammer away like there's no tomorrow. And before you know it, the hills will be echoing to the trumpet fugues of returning geese, the tireless gabble of ducks, and the cheerful Kon-ker-ee! of redwing blackbirds, not to mention the slap of beavers' tails.

Of course, there's far more to the spring chorus than birdsong and beaver tails. Not long after ice-out, the snow-pool mosquitoes will return in force, to be followed by clouds of blackflies . Their frenetic buzz is part of the music, too, as is the cacophony of frog song, the yapping harmony of coyotes, and the splash of leaping trout. Then, as soon as the blackflies quit the scene, the Tourists will be back. Like I said before, they're a mixed lot. They don't listen much, and most of them talk trash 24-7. Still, there are always a few exceptions. Someday, maybe, there'll be more.

Gotta go. I'm late for breakfast, and it's been a mighty chilly night. But as you seem to be more alert than most of the Tourists I've met, I'm going to give you a little free advice. If you want to know what's happening in the world around you — and don't forget we're all in this together — you only have to listen up. That's it. Just listen. Unplug your ears, close your mouth, and stand still. Then you can hear the real music of the earth. It's like one of your kind said a while back: the most important things aren't shouted out loud. No way. They're "whispered in the sounds of silence." But you've got to be listening to hear them. Got it?

Now I'm outta here. Come on, gang! Let's get something to eat. Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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