At the woodpile this morning, I am gripped by the out-and-out quiet.
I stand for a moment and soak in the stillness. I am a sponge expanding. Slowly becoming aware of what is missing: noise.
Reluctantly I begin splitting wood.
Up against the hillside the sound bounces around and travels quickly down into the big Alsek Valley. I hear an echo I do not recognize as the sound of my own work.
I let go of the axe and silence returns.
I become aware I am breathing in the rock-hard morning air more deeply now. My lungs fill up; my ears sting from the cold.
I hear wind building far down in the valley and soon the tops of trees begin to wiggle all round me. I feel the sharp prickle of spindrift on my face.
A blast of wind hits me. And almost as quickly, it passes right on by. It moves over the hillside north of the house.
Now a deafening dead still, except for the simple song of a solitary black-capped chickadee.
It’s long, slow five-part song fills in around the edges of silence, and I can feel the great expanse of the Yukon begin to narrow. My sensibilities are aroused.
Somehow, right now, solitude begins to make sense.
My senses begin to light up. They are switched on by the gradualness of hearing and feeling the cold morning clamour to life and I am remind that I am alone.
Right now, sitting here on this woodpile, I take the wind at face value, not something to be bought or sold, bartered away.
Wind is a festival.
I fear many of us have lost our ability to “sense” where and who we are.
Wind and weather have become little more to us than inconveniences.
Quiet is no longer a quality. We have allowed our noisy minds to misrepresent solitude as boredom, a precursor to depression.
To sit quietly is to waste time.
Worse still, we often punish children by sentencing them to periods of quite time.
“Sit there and be quiet.”
“I want you to go up to your room, shut your door and be quiet. And when you think you can be civilized you can come back down.”
Far too many of the children of the 21st century rescue themselves from the unfamiliar ground of solitude by cranking up the volume, twisting the throttle, getting stoned.
Today we are more than ever techno-wired against the music of wind, the sound of mountain water.
To make matters worse, child psychologists — armed with a barrage of recent images of long-haired and lonely, trench-coated high school killers all Bowling for Columbine – warn parents to be on the lookout for loners.
Those un-socialized solitary kids who hang by themselves are red flags. Kids to keep an eye on. Loners are losers.
While I would encourage parents and schoolteachers to pay attention to all children, I would also encourage us to find acceptable ways to reinforce the notion that one’s search for “the festival of wind” is not “pathological-escapism.”
Trappist monk Thomas Merton once described his special moment of solitude — a delightful evening in the rain — in the following way:
“Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason? Just being in the woods … is something too excellent to be justified or explained! It just is. There is no clock that can measure the speech of this rain that falls all night on the drowned and lonely forest.”
Merton reminds us of the inestimable need to let some parts of our lives go unmeasured.
However difficult this may be in our over-calculated world, some of the really good things just are.
Being here this morning, holding down the woodpile, just is.
Listening intently to the five-noted chickadee is not a precursor to depression. Rather I see it as a conscious act of stubbornness on my part. It is my way of resisting noise, along with the culture that produces too much of it — if for only a moment.
And it is more.
Human ecologist Joseph Meeker tells us that birdsong, like all human conversation, is play-talk. Birds sing and tell us where they are. In this sense, they also tell us where we are.
Birds for writer Peter Matthiessen are great teachers. “One has only to consider the life force packed into that puff of feathers to lay the mind open wide to the mysteries — the order of things, the why and the beginning.”
So there you have it.
You make the call.
Am I wasting the moment or searching for bigger game?
Hard to tell at a glance.