Sounds and Silence

A good friend, who is a multi-talented musician, just told me about a project he completed in a week of intense collaboration with a former student – she wrote a play, he wrote the music and she submitted the ten minute musical comedy score to a competition. It was so well received that it will be performed at the awards presentation. My friend described the hectic back and forth of the week, as the script was modified and his music had therefore to be adjusted as well – all under the pressure of the immediate deadline. “Sometimes that is what it takes to get me composing” he concluded.

Apparently it takes something similar to get me writing these days. I have been posting my reflections on the events of my life with regularity, despite a demanding work schedule, for many years – until sometime last autumn. Retirement was supposed to expand my time to write, but instead it seems to have shut me up. While Covid prevented my engagement with many of the activities I anticipated would fill my days, it cannot be held responsible for the silencing of my written voice.

Or can it? Whereas I have mostly felt that I needed time away from interactions with people to reflect and write, is it in fact the case that I need interaction with people to stimulate the reflection that produces writing? Is the reality that I and most of those around me have been vaccinated and can begin to meet in person, out least in outdoor venues, enlarging not only my physical boundaries but also my verbal ones?

Is the persistent urging of a writer friend, that I submit an essay or story for a project she has undertaken, also a  necessary condition (and perhaps a sufficient one) for me to haul out the laptop and start putting words together? It would seem so, as here I am, writing. The criterion for inclusion in the pending project is a connection with northern New Mexico, one I easily meet as I have lived in this beautiful high mountain community for more than forty years. In newspaper columns, blog posts, short stories and even an unpublished novel, I have written about the foibles of local culture, weather anomalies, the healing tranquility of vast open sky, highly talented local performers and, in the words of Anna’s Siamese king, et cetera et cetera et cetera.

Called on now, under almost as tight a time constraint as that faced by my musician friend, to produce an essay worthy of inclusion in a book focusing on my home region, what new do I want to say? 

That on May 17 it is spitting snow? The weather in this area is absolutely uncertain, changing from summer back to winter and then summer again, not just day to day but often hour to hour. The only aspect of weather that is certain is wind. Enough sunny days, most years, for solar power to be an effective alternative to carbon-based energy and what feels like enough wind to power the world. Two benefits of living with permanent weather uncertainty.

That yesterday I watched antelope running free across a neighbor’s pasture? We have quite a variety of wildlife sharing our space. Deer, wild turkey and the antelope are seen frequently. A herd of elk also ranges over the open pasture beside the county road where I go for my walks. Covid shutdowns have limited dining out, and prevented me from attending classes at the nearby NM Highlands University but have not otherwise hampered my routines. I walk (weather permitting) amid pastures occupied by cows and the elk and antelope. I raise my chickens, eat and sell their eggs, and have ample space for a garden. The unpredictable weather means mostly growing only hardy vegetables until I can place a roof over the beds. When that will happen is another uncertainty, on a par with when the university will reopen campus classes. 

We are doing very well here on the Covid front, and are national leaders in vaccination rates. More activities are now permitted at the same time that people remain vigilant, masked in indoor  spaces and mostly caring for the health and safety of our neighbors and communities. I am told by those living in more urban areas that the noises of social activity have increased. I would not know – where I dwell the predominant theme, Covid or no Covid, is the semi-silence of the natural world.

Another friend, a music lover, actor and writer who lives 140 miles away in Albuquerque mentioned recently that he appreciates silence at home in ways he did not used to do – choosing to play music only when he intends to sit down and listen to it with focus, whereas he used to have music playing almost all the time. We talked, without reaching a conclusion, about whether this change is a function of aging, or is another curious adaptation to life with Covid.

I consciously avoid any created background sound when I am alone at home, preferring the silence that is not silent. I hear my rooster crow, and the several hens who lay each day warbling their productivity. Occasionally a woodpecker is attracted to one corner of my house. After an hour of his intermittent drumming I squirt him with a water pistol, to regain some semblance of peace. Winds vibrate metal trim on the house, creating a whistling that cannot be terminated with a well aimed shot from the water pistol. Those I have learned to ignore, knowing the wind is both intermittent and perpetual, one of the factors that must be accepted as central to life in this area.

On warmer, less windy days, I hear the zoom of hummingbirds, and always there are the rowdy crows and less rowdy but equally insistent doves making their presence known audibly as they compete with the chickens for daily grain rations. My active guard dog barks away most four-legged intruders, keeping me aware of what is going on around the edges of my acreage. 

Some years ago I had house guests for the summer, two African girls who had graduated from the United World College nearby, but were stranded waiting for arrangements to travel to their next destinations. Both were urban-raised and admitted to being afraid of the quiet. While I was away during the day at work, they would play their music loudly, covering over the sounds that to me are evidence that this country is not silent. They managed to hear my car engine pulling into the driveway despite the music and would turn the volume down to what I consider a “listenable” level as I entered the house. In the three months they spent with me, I did not succeed in my efforts to help them hear the natural sounds within what they thought of as intolerable silence. I try to keep that failure in mind, when I talk with others about the pleasures of my home environment, reminding myself that not everyone has the same preferences.

It has been many years since I recognized that I was unlikely to ever have the kind of income that would permit much travel. I have been grateful to live where I do, in the high mountain desert where I would choose to come on vacation, if I lived elsewhere. And of late I have been especially grateful to live where, despite the pandemic, I have been able to enjoy the outdoors, continue my walks, work safely and comfortably from home, and appreciate the noisy silence of an airy, uncontaminated natural environment.

For those who seek the same, welcome to my world.

One Response to “Sounds and Silence”

  1. Sharon Vander Meer Says:

    Oh, Niki! I love this. Beautifully written. The sound of silence is music to my ears.

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