As I took my morning walk today and watched the canyons fill with sunlight and shadow, it occurred to me: If I ever become deaf, I would move to the desert.Not so surprising, when you think about it. The desert is a place of great stillness, and a place that silence suits well. And after all, sound is the most evanescent of all sensations – here and then gone in an instant, leaving no trace. To be deaf in the desert would be to become more a part of it - a place that displays time and timelessness in its every ancient feature. The events or sensations of an instant – or indeed of a lifetime - don't cut much mustard in such a place as this. But let me not mislead you: soundless does not equate to lifeless. The desert is a vibrant place, especially at night, as the tracks in the morning sand make clear. Even during the day, any walk through a brushy area will flush cottontails and jackrabbits, the former hopping tentatively away, the latter moving on with greater determination, though both noiselessly. Lizards, large and small, are ever present, and freeze or silently scamper off, depending on what you do. And birds, while scarce, are often in view if you look for them, if not in earshot.
Nor is the desert really silent, actually, though it certainly is in contrast to the rest of the world. So it must especially seem to those that visit the desert briefly in air-conditioned cars to snap a few pictures and then move on. Which is to say almost everyone, including most that move to the rapidly growing cities of the southwest, looking for inexpensive real estate and winter sun, and not for the desert itself.
The twitter of two of Edward Abbey's anonymous "little gray birds," as they loop about each other, going about their business in the sage brush, trilling grace notes into the stillness.The ancient, guttural croak of a passing raven (or more often two), hinting at the secret wisdom suspected by native peoples the world over and reflected in their lore.The companionable back and forth calls of a posse of harrying pinion jays as they swoop over and around each other and from tree to tree, inspecting each to see how the pinyon seeds are ripening.
The sound of gentle desert breezes, felt as much as heard on your face and ears.The chirp of a single cricket in a brittlebush, unwilling to wait for dusk.The slow scrunch of your footsteps, mysteriously disappearing the moment you pause to hear them more clearly.
The soft gurgle and chuckle of a thin, evanescent stream in a steep canyon, appearing and disappearing above ground before it is lost entirely at the base of the canyon.The slow drip of a seep on a fern-draped canyon wall, weeping rain and snowmelt from many miles away. With patience, it can be captured cup by precious cup as you listen.The sporadic tap of raindrops on whatever you have spread above you, the lone survivors of the shower that has evaporated in the dry air above.The muted roar of a desert river as it rushes over rapids in its sinuous canyon below, wafted up through thousands of feet on the rising wind.
The first low, drawn out rumble that arrives from a thunderstorm that has been hanging in the far distance for hours, borne on a shifting slant of wind that with time may carry the storm itself.The multiple, blending booms that follow when a storm of substance mercilessly machine-guns a mountaintop into submission with lightning.The nanosecondic, earsplitting Crack! that arrives simultaneously with a flash of lightning, when the force and center of the storm is directly upon you.
The unwelcome, monotonous, and blessedly rare drone of a prop plane. (The sounds of jets flying far above are already on the verge of inaudibility, and are easier to ignore.)The greatly offended scolding of a ground squirrel, hidden on a high, brushy ledge of the slickrock canyon wall you are laboriously scaling. He wants you to know that he is not happy to see you there.The sudden, surprising call of a bullfrog in a run-off pool, just emerged from months of aestivation buried deep in dried mud, and madly intent on breeding while there is yet time.