The Sound of Silence

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Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to live in the American West a hundred years ago? Or anywhere in rural America, for that matter? If you could be transported back in time, I think the first and most dramatic difference you would notice would be silence.

I went out to feed the horses on an early Sunday morning recently, and was struck by how quiet the valley was. The world, generally, is always quieter on Sunday mornings. When I lived in New York (which means Manhattan, if you’ve ever been in “The Business”) Sunday mornings were always blessedly quiet. And that word, “blessedly,” is chosen deliberately, because the fact is, I love silence. But this particular Sunday morning was especially quiet. I could see the contrail of a distant jet near the horizon, but it was far enough away that I couldn’t hear it.

I’ve been lucky enough to camp and hunt in lovely lonely places all over the world—North American, South America, Europe, Africa, New Zealand, Alaska (yes, I know that’s part of North America, but it feels different)—but the place I loved the best was the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico, and part of the reason is the absolute silence there.

I read an article once talking about the fact that there are very few places left in the world where you can be out of the range of the sound of some aspect of the modern world, some kind of engine. Even if you’re lucky enough to live in a rural area, as I do, there are distant cars or tractors, or—if nothing else—airplanes. The western slope of the Sierra Madres in Sonora is one of those places where there is not even enough air traffic overhead to impinge on the peace and quiet our great-grandparents must have taken for granted. The only sounds I remember—and I just checked my notes from one of those trips—were the wind in the pines, and the cawing of ravens. The only engine I heard while I was down there was the generator at the line cabin where we slept, and that was only turned on when it got dark; no planes overhead, no diesel trucks, no Jake brakes, no background hum of refrigerator or computer, nothing. Just the world as it sounded for the first several million years. It was heaven.

And couple that lovely silence with the incredible clarity of the dry clean air in Sonora. From the mountaintops it was possible to see for literally hundreds of miles in all directions, and while there might have been other people somewhere in all that space, it was possible to believe there weren’t any. Silence and solitude. Heaven.

Darleen is convinced I’m losing my hearing. She’s also convinced I’m losing my mental faculties, but as she has never considered I had much in that department to begin with she doesn’t worry about it particularly. But she does worry about my hearing. Ageing inevitably involves a certain degree of attrition. I have to work much harder these days to keep my chest where it belongs and not let it slide down to the mezzanine level. And if you make your living in part, as I do, testing firearms, there will always be some effect on your hearing, no matter how careful you are. But as I stood there in the early morning sun on that glorious silent Sunday morning, midway between the house and the barn, hearing nothing but the footfalls of a dancing dog at my side, it occurred to me that maybe Darleen was right. And it didn’t bother me at all. I equate silence with peace, and at that moment I was perfectly at peace.

And then, faintly at first, I could hear the distant whistle of a train. We live about ten miles, as the Condor glides, from the valley where the train climbs over the pass, and there are roughly three-thousand vertical feet of mountain between us and those tracks laid almost one hundred and fifty years ago by nameless Chinese laborers, yet I heard clearly that most evocative and romantic sound from an earlier day. It wasn’t quite as perfect as silence, but it was close, almost an accent to the silence.

I wasted no time feeding the horses so I could go back into the house and tell my wife she was spouting nonsense.

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