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Sounds Without Sirens

I read somewhere that musicians "paint with sound," paradoxically using a visual metaphor to explain an auditory action. Painters use light and color, among other visible cues; I tend to the intensely visual to the dereliction of my sonar acuity. But when I am over stimulated with sights, or just exhausted, the sonic realm rises to the surface to be heard with new ears. This happens most frequently when I walk far from civilization. After a mile or so, as my eyes begin to exhaustedly stare at my shoes, my ears perk up and I am, once again, exploring.

The sound a skink makes when it knows you are near, that little rustling in the leaves or along a branch, is uniquely hushed: just a tickle of feet that sets a leaf stirring. It usually happens too fast to be seen, but as a sound it is unforgettable. So, too, the urgent rush of a snake, hoping to escape discovery but dislodged from its sunny spot. The swizzle of the snake is longer than that of the skink, but it takes place at the same spot - just a few feet ahead on either the right or left of the walker. Unaffectedly, the snake stops before it is completely concealed, finding a break in the leaves to eye its usurper but often trailing a dark tail in clear sight.

A bit further away from the path, but also near the ground, is the frantic jumping of the winter birds. These small creatures, hoping to survive sudden spells of icy cold, sit on low branches of shrubs and briars. They invariably hop around in the undergrowth, creating a stir of leaves and soft noises. Moving along a path disturbs those small flyers about 10 feet from where I am; since they flock, the birds move in an arc like a wave extending from the path. Birds a bit further on move in sequence, so that I become a moving pebble in a pond of anxious chirping that, as I continue, recedes behind me, once again resting. Resting until I return down the same path and repeat my bird-wading.

Above and beyond, loud chittering characterizes the squirrels. Some places are full of squirrels, arguing, digging, eating. Some places are squirrel deserts. There is no rhyme and reason as to why this might be as much as I can tell; I could be in deep woods and not see a squirrel or instead have walked into a squirrel convention for all the noise. Squirrels make their own individual sounds, however. Their movement follows a discernible, auditory pattern. Scratching noises - loud, aimless - with the short silence predicated by a squirrel leap to the next spot. These are industrious workers, inured to the traveler for the most part, intent on hoarding and eating, eating and hoarding. I find it soothing.

I used to confuse deer sounds with those of squirrels, but experience has informed me otherwise. Deer make sounds when they move. When still, the only sound would be their breath and their heart, and these are too quiet for the walker to hear. To me, the sound deer make is when they leap directly from where I am. Noisier than squirrels, but of shorter duration. A scramble through the underbrush, knocking leaves and twigs aside, receding up the hillside or across the stream. Their noise demands observation. From a loud crash of movement, the sound slowly ebbs until you can't hear it. This doesn't mean the deer have vanished; instead, they have stopped down the way, looking over their shoulders to see whether I am going to further bother them. They are just waiting to return to wherever they were eating; so they hope I am moving away from their spot.

Walking in nature's organic cacophony doesn't diminish the beauty of the inorganic sounds. Mostly, water. Water sounds are gorgeous. Rivers, creeks, rapids, falls, ponds, streams...sirens of adventure all. The Potomac rewards its fellow travelers with gurgling, rushing sounds; water pushing past trailing sycamore branches, stumbling over rocks barely covered. A large river carries sounds from all parts of its extent and delivers them to my ears; I hear the nearby burbling annexed to the sounds of rocks in mid-stream and the whisper of movement from the far shore.

And then, rapids and waterfalls. These start on the edge of hearing, slowly building or receding when I move forward. Sometimes these are massive sounds that echo a mile or so upstream, bouncing off trees and riverside hills to entice me downstream. Other times they are false prophets, loud rushing noises that turn out to be no unexpected waterfall but just an oddly shaped rock noisily interrupting the flow. Waterfalls from streams smaller than the Potomac are just as majestic as Great Falls, but humbler in origin. These smaller cascades make up in sound and movement what they can't pull off in volume. Showstoppers, sometimes, whose show ends as soon as they hit the larger river, their whole spirit absorbed by their larger cousin. But these are the splashed and sharp tones that entrance me the most. When near the bank of a large river, with its reverbating bass tones, the tenor of the small waterfall first harmonizes then, as I approach, a high-pitched solo. Once behind, its power over me is lost; but the memory always flows.

These, then, are the sound paintings that await me on the trails or paths of my home region. Is it any wonder that I refuse to put on headphones anymore when walking in nature?

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