The Sounds of Desert Silence

I'm currently hiking and camping in Utah, which explains this off-topic post. I'll continue to cover big news when I'm able to access email, and will also upload and time-phase these entries for posting when I come into town for gas and supplies. To find more of this type of writing based on past trips, look to the folder link at left titled Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal.

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.

But if sound is only an occasional sensory experience in the desert, therein lies its beauty. In contrast to the cacophonous assault of a modern city, one might say that desert sounds are tastefully presented, like delicate dim sum courses in a restaurant, each to be savored one at a time before moving on to the next. 
Certainly it is so with these desert bird sounds: 
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.
 Conversation is one reason why deserts seem so silent, as desert sounds are easily obscured. It takes little to overdub them, and less to distract two friends sufficiently to miss them entirely. Solitude is therefore best for appreciating the sounds, as well as the silence, of the desert (and for appreciating its other charms as well, in my opinion). Only when alone are you likely to notice what the desert and its inhabitants have to say, assuming you are disposed to listen for them. Such as: 
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 most wonderful of all desert sounds are the rare and reassuring voices of moving water. They sooth the ear, and the pleasant surprise of hearing them at all in such a place adds to their appeal. Here are some of my favorite sounds of desert waters: 
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.
 Sounds that demand attention are few. Most notable are the wind and thunder of desert storms, welcome as much for the drama they invariably provide as for the rain they only sometimes deliver. The desert would not be the rich experience it is without the sight and sound of summer storms. Here are some of the sounds of storms: 
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.
And there are other, not so subtle sounds in the desert.  Not loud, but distinctive and not likely to be missed.  Such as:

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.

If I were to become deaf, I would miss these sounds, and others, too. Like the squalling and yammering of the family of coyotes I dimly registered this morning just before dawn, celebrating an event known only to them. Or the complex chorus of insects that wells up at night in the pinyon-juniper woodlands of higher altitudes. And certainly the lovely, almost inaudible rustling of cottonwood leaves, promising the presence of water within reach of their roots.
But deafness in the desert would be a light burden to bear. Pleasant though the sounds of the desert may be, it is the silence of the Southwest that draws me back again and again. Silence as eternal as time itself. Silence for thinking deep thoughts, or for simply existing, hanging suspended in a sea of canyons and cliffs, of life and of death.
In any case, if I were deaf it would still be easy to match every scene with its well-remembered voice, though each were now as inaudible as the calls of the tiny bats that materialize out of nowhere each night to break their fast, and dart silently above in the dimming light of another desert day. 

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Comments (4)

  1. R. Carlos Nakai and Paul Horn love the sounds of the Big Res so much that they
    took recording gear and jammed with Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.
    Two amazing classically-trained musicians playing improv with the wind and the
    wildlife.  Listen for the part where they get into a canon with a crow.

    No secret how I feel about living here — and Nakai does too.  Obviously.

    • I’m a Nakai fan as well, and have several of his CDs, which I usually bring along as "mood music" when I’m out west.  Looks like I should get this one as well.  Thanks for the tip.

        –  Andy

  2. Andy, If the standards thing doesn’t work out, it looks like you might have a fall-back as a travel writer.  I’ve enjoyed your off-topic posts and am newly inspired to take my boys hiking in the southwest once they are a bit older.

    • Thanks for the kind comments.  If I could retire tomorrow, I’d sell the house, buy an EarthRoamer (T), and spend my declining years gunkholing from Point Barrow to Tierra del Fuego, doing nature writing.

      Maybe some day.  But I expect my wife might have different thoughts.

        –  Andy

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