On Top of Silence


I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery.” H.D.T.- Walden

Not many people have had the experience of long wilderness solitude. Quite often the question is posed “What on Earth do you do up there all winter?” There is no wholly satisfactory answers for those who need to ask.” Calvin Rutstrum, Paradise Below Zero


Snow is a covert reductionist agent of life, distilling all we know down to its simplest forms and quieting the savage howl, inside and out.  It drifts in quietly on the wind, filling moraines and gullies while we are tucked away in our warm beds, giving us an airtight reason to sleep past noon and snuggle while outside the accumulating white obfuscates our nicely packed foot trails and smooths out the attempts we make at greatness. Some tepid souls hide from the snow as though there is any plausible danger in a little frozen water knowing full well that our most dangerous and pernicious antagonists exist behind our eyes, the same as light, color and love, collecting like spindrift in the cracks and recesses of our mind; when all is hidden under the snow all we have left is what we can remember.

We interpret winter’s white silence as either the perfect rush-grained filled cushion of Zazen or the great vise grips of the gods compressing the molecules of existence around our head, depending mostly on one’s feelings towards the day. The winter’s welcome quietude is the hushed river of Rachmaninoff, peacefully swirling in calm reflection before wildly erupting through a cataract of rock and diminished sevenths. Unwelcome solitude is isolation, the realm of Lucile and Trigger and Hank the First’s Cold Cold Heart. If solitude is the warming affection of a wiggling puppy, isolation is a cold wet dirty dog who for all of your protest won’t get out of your bed. To be able to live alone in the bush you must give up both, solitude and isolation and accept each as they are, because to deny either is to deny the other.  

There are those who live in a loud world, a world far from the wooded south shore of Lake Superior who have problems understanding the appeal of a muffled life in the winter woods, as though through a loss of voice they risk a loss of self. Do we need projected voice to solidify identity or do we need to be heard in order to make our lives valid?  By talking out loud do we draw the line in the sand between us and them, ours and the other?  I know I find that after a stretch of time by myself I get befuddled in the brain and tied in the tongue formulating even the most mundane cognitions, like David James Duncan’s main character Gus in The River Why who said “A month of solitude had raised havoc with my ability to speak: I muttered and stuttered, repeating short, meaningless phrases, my trains of thought uncoupling mid-sentence.”

On a side note, while I have found that talking to both inanimate objects like coffee filters and Sharpie markers and animate beings like gray squirrels and white spruce trees may make you feel better in the moment and does have some value in keeping the entropy of your voice box at bay, you run a serious risk of letting your life devolve into some weird Tom Robbins/ St. Francis of Assisi mash up where you will start nesting birds in your beard and carrying a can of baked beans with you everywhere you go, just for company.  Side note over.  

The snow filled month of Janus is a duality, Buddha’s life-death is the same. We look back this time of year to who we were in the last circumplanetary hot lap, balancing the ledger and raising a glass to the close scrapes and near misses while promising to live the new year hot as a tamale or cool as a cucumber depending on who you want to be this time next year. Reflection is only natural I think as the winter moves on, guiding our path just as the reflection of water in the clouds over pack ice can guide a lost polar wanderer. The cloud blink as it’s called, if seen at the end of your own set of footprints you just laid down is useless, only the water ahead matters. The past does not deserve our scrutiny for too long, just as how watching the shrinking images in a rearview mirror will not keep your truck out of the ditch; stare not too long into the abyss of the past my friend.  We can no more live in the past anymore than we can hasten the future to be the present, acceptance is all we can do to avoid the hibernatorial ho-hums the or brumatorial blues, depending on the temperature of your blood.

The more snow that falls, as is slowing drifting down now outside my tiny cabin, the simpler life gets. Lain bare, the Earth is a trove of life, complex fecund life that grows seasonally into an orgy of flowers, children and rivulets; feasting and mating on the remains of yesterday. It is a lot for a simple man to take it. In fly fishing they say a large river can be visually broken down into a series of smaller rivers in hopes of reducing the confusion of water, in hopes of understanding just where the hell the fish may be hiding, in hopes of knowing what kind of ‘optera they may be feeding on, in hopes that against all odds you can throw a 4mm menagerie of steel, feathers and thread into a spot of water the size of a quarter, and deliver that fly in a satisfactorily natural way in order to induce an equally satisfactorily reaction. It works sometimes the same way for understanding the complexity of life on dry land, aiming for simplicity and oftentimes settling for abstraction for no other reason than for our own sanity. If we practice we can occasionally glimpse other great truths of life the same way, I guess it just takes patience and the commitment to get hip deep while not falling in over your head, too often.

As the snow builds from a light dusting to a few inches, most of the tangle of life goes blind to my eyes. Marshes freeze, lakes ice over, mud and debris that would otherwise make walking a stumbly chore are smoothed over.  It does the same for people, if you sit still in the snow long enough, covering our outlines, rounding our features and leaving us all the same- cold, billowy and indistinguishable from each other, until we start talking.  At a foot of snow on the ground stumps disappear, fallen trees are little more that rounded white upside down animal trails and my paths become sidewalks heavily used by all my animal neighbors. Only the tallest briers are still visible now giving some scarce food to the grouse and turkeys that slip like feathered thieves around the perimeter of the clearing about my cabin. Each inch of snow brings a disproportionate amount of silence, an inverse square law in action where for each inch of snow you get the squared value in absorption and silence. I wonder what would happen at 10 feet? 20 feet? 100 feet of snow? The ice ages must have been some quiet times.

Then again, maybe they weren’t so quiet. After spending a couple days leafing through a few dozen books about antarctic exploration, exploration of a land buried under miles of ice and snow, I found only passing reference to the quiet on the ice but could quote numerous references to the howling ketabatic winds, the gunshot explosions of ice cracking and the growling of empty stomachs, from men and dogs alike. The winter covers are secretive, hiding sounds and signs of life but not erasing them or snuffing out life completely, no matter how many feet of snow.

In Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez confronts my idea of snow burdened sound and solitude by revealing the life that needs the snowpack to live, “It [snow] provides cover for the ermine and other weasellike animals that plunge into snow at the approach of a predator…It provides insulation for ptarmigan…it founders predators and allows longer- legged and broader- footed prey to escape…It shelters a creature like the lemming, too small to grow hair long enough for insulation…it creates a greenhouse effect for some plants.” Snow fleas, algae, and mold all are stirring at this moment in, on and under the snowpack. Even the red squirrel that used to live on my back porch with a long tailed weasel (not sure why that union failed) has made a tunnel system around my yard accessing acorn stashes, sunflower seeds from my sole and sorry bird feeder and shelter in my brush pile, popping up in unexpected places like a little rusty whack- a- mole.

Snow piles up, thin layer by thin layer like the wax of a candle. We put out little measuring wicks to quantify the depth but we can feel the pregnant stillness more exact in our bones, deep in our ears, cooling our red hot reptile brains. The sedimentary snow covers the sedentary more than the fleet of foot, but all become subducted someday; sending down some parts of ourselves to be remolded and reformed and returned to the surface in some new and fanciful form. We feel the tide of silence like the pull of the moon on the Earth, but are safe knowing all along that warmth is coming soon and will burst our ear drums with the sounds of frenzied pent up life. Like the breaking of a wizzard’s spell, we try to speak ourselves out of this snowy tar pit by uttering the magic word “spring” and it usually works if not spoken too soon. It’s still too soon.

It is too soon, wrong place at the wrong time, like speaking out of turn, so we go back to the cold and snow that is colder and snowier than when I started writing a few hours ago. Rick Bass, while wintering in northern Montana said “I can see a winter so lonely, a season of silence so long, that perhaps the habits of speech are forgotten…and nothing but the sounds of tinkling glass would come out.” I have heard tell of cold so intense that spoken words froze as they came out of your mouth and fell to the ground and had to be collected and reheated to be heard, not sure if it was a true tale though. I have left my share of words frozen on the ground this year, like broken frozen pieces of glass they were purged from a sharp tongue, waiting for spring to let them coalesce, mend and trickle back to the rivers where I’ll have a fair to middlin chance at fooling them with a dry fly this summer. Don’t worry though, I don’t think with this El Nino year we are in danger of that kind of cold, but if it should happen make sure you drop a quotation around your words so they can be returned to their rightful owner.

It is a mistake to assume we are alone the same as it is a mistake to ever think there is true silence. If it is not the wolves in my back yard crushing bone and tearing hide with tooth and claw it is a nuthatch chasing off a chickadee or the sound of a heart beating 182 miles away from me under watchful eye of its owner. We do not graduate from one life stage to another (silent to noisy) any more than the Buddha teaches we don’t pass from life to death, “Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears; there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death.”  I will ponder this, silently as I move into the jumpy month of Februum, where we are to purify ourselves for the upcoming year. Or perhaps I will go with the Ojibwe month of Namebini-Giizis, the month of the Sucker Fish Moon, which I couldn’t really tell you what that rough fish means to me other than a good chance of not getting skunked on a trout stream, or maybe that is it: value all life as even a causal smile may save you when what your heart yearns for is elusive. If that is too hard of a hook to set we could celebrate the old world “cabbage or kale month” or perhaps the good Old English mud month, very pragmatic, pragmatism my Scandinavian roots can really identify with; no pretense of God or Gods, just a worship of the dirty facts of life that keep us going. As we move out of two faced January it is time to stop looking back and decide how we want to move forward into 2016.



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