The air smelt so clean getting out of the car, I felt immediately at home. Clean air is one of those things you just can’t fake. Everyone can tell when there is pollution present – smog, dust, pollon – those smells are common wherever there are a lot of people and cars. When they are gone, a fresh scent lingers, its subtle tendrils weaving their way into your body and soul, giving you an invigorating feeling of serenity. I inhaled deeply and could tell, just from the smell, it was above freezing, and that it had snowed the night before. There is a certain humidity that you can sense just by breathing; you can smell the moisture hanging around you.
Since I was just following a snowmobile trail in, I didn’t put on my snowshoes until I actually entered state forest land. I noticed that because of their teeth digging in and the compacting snow, my snowshoes made much more noise than my hiking boots but I didn’t sink as far. This felt wrong; I was literally disturbing the peace, by walking in the woods. My footsteps were blocking out all the other sounds around me, not that there were many of those to begin with, but it was accurate nonetheless. I had become an invader instead of the unobtrusive visitor I had intended to be, whose only goal was to enjoy the day and take photographs. I hadn’t even noticed just how quiet it actually was until I stopped to take a picture maybe two kilometres into my walk, and was so startled by a noise from off to my right that I jumped. But finding that whatever had surprised was gone, I knew I had to discover exactly what my ears had been missing.
Every time I shifted, my jacket brushed against itself and my backpack creaked garishly, making me stand absolutely motionless so I could hear what was going on around me. At first it was just the water, melting snow dripping gently from white pine needles twenty metres above my head. As I listened more however, a second sound reached my ears: the indistinct rustling of dried leaves too stubborn to fall in November. Rustling though would indicate a much louder voice than the faint whispering of the dead that I heard. You could see them move, but it was almost as though they were vibrating, shaking from the barely discernible ghosts of a breeze that caressed their lifeless forms. I thought I had stopped breathing, but I soon realized that I was just breathing so lightly I couldn’t even hear it. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was, how close to silence this forest had become. The saying ‘the silence was deafening’ makes little sense, as when you are so concentrated on listening, and there are so few sounds to focus on, anything out of the ordinary becomes loud and startling. On the other hand, I did notice a third sound coming from inside my ears. It was as though a small bit of cotton were being rubbed gently by my ears. It was soft, and yet powerful, like white noise on a radio with the volume turned way down. I guessed it was sound waves bouncing around my ears before they got to my eardrum, and that it was my heart pumping that was causing it – like when you hold a seashell to your ear and you can hear the “ocean.” This of course is your circulation, and while this is entertaining for children, (both small and large), it really only proves that you are still alive. At that moment, it occurred to me that “deafening silence” was being in a place so still that you could hear the blood rushing through your veins and arteries without the aid of a seashell, and that you would never be able to listen to absolute silence. In any case, there is something to be said for a place so peaceful that your heart beating is the only deterrent.
A red squirrel bounded through the snow and out of sight, and even though I could see him, I couldn’t hear him. Even when I closed my eyes to concentrate more on listening, the snow worked too well to muffle his passage.
After ten minutes of standing stalk-still, I realized I had to get going. It crossed my mind to stay there for half-an-hour more, but I knew that remaining there would only make it harder to leave. It felt so sacrilegious to step in my outrageously loud snowshoes. How could I be the one to break this precious serenity? But of course, it was only precious to me. Animals are used to this blissful winter tranquility. For a moment or two longer, I couldn’t move. I tried to lift my foot, but the longing to keep the peace stayed my legs. An immense feeling of regret, such that I’d not felt in a long time swept over me and I could feel the tears begin to gather behind my eyes. The desire for quiet was so strong it overpowered me; I was a prisoner of my ears. The Sirens! I, Ulysses, was not experiencing a song so sweet it drove me mad, rather I was experiencing the lack of song. I was held captive by my desire, and the longer I stayed, the more my addiction grew.
I was completely helpless save for my own will power. With the greatest effort, I broke free the iron grip my heart held, keeping me as rooted to that spot as the trees under whose canopy I had tarried. My sorrow was palatable. I was so sorry for what I had done, for what I had destroyed, I wanted to stop and listen again, but having broken its spell, I could not succumb to temptation once more. As I walked, the pain lessened, and my happiness at now possessing such a memory grew. Even as I returned past that spot, the spell remained broken for me, and though I lingered momentarily, gazing at the trees over my shoulder, I continued without much regret. A small part of me wished that some of my friends had been there to share that experience, but I knew that if that were the case, I would never have been able to behold such joy and wonder of listening to near silence.
That is the beauty of being truly alone. So far as I could tell, the only other living creatures within any sort of meaningful vacinity were little red squirrels who made no sounds when they scampered through the snow. I couldn’t hear cars or airplanes, couldn’t see anything that reminded me that humans existed except for the road I was on and my own footprints. It was truly an awesome feeling to behold what the world was like before Man was here, and I was thankful that such elegance was bestowed upon me. With a silent prayer to some unnamed force for Mother Earth’s preservation, I approached my car and gave another unspoken approval that I would not have to walk the twenty-five kilometres back to Ithaca. A double-edged sword if there ever was one.