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The Silence You Can Hear

Click! I have just turned off the TV. Every channel, every internet news hub, every radio station, every newspaper, all I can hear screaming at me is “COVID-19”. I had a chat with some ham radio buddies on other continents the other day, Africa, New Zealand, the US, they all said the same thing… “you can’t get away from it”… not the virus, but the words; the incessant mill of talking over the same facts and figures again and again, all day long, like some kind of global brainwashing programme. Wash, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, repeat… did I mention repeat?

Sounds familiar? I have been listening a lot to something else that sounds familiar, yet it is something I have heard less and less of for a number of years now. It is the sound of silence.

I remember as a child going out into the fields, climbing trees and fishing on the riverbank, when there were surprisingly few man made sounds. Even when it was quiet, it was if the sound of nature had been punctuated by some sort of silence that had a shape, conveyed some sort of meaning or information to me about where I was, though I would have struggled to put it into words back then. In classical music this is called tacet, so this is nature’s classical music and we are talking about the shape, of a pause.

For a number of years I have been noticing that there is something odd about the sound of silence. Do you know what I mean? It is as if the animal in me goes on alert when I hear that silence. Is it too quiet? Nature, in all her grace, is full of noise, but this is a silence itself punctuated by distant man-made noise and shaped by the reverberations of a man made world. It defines the shape of that noise, just like the negative space defines the objects in a painting. The scene somehow conveys to me the information of risk; it coaxes me to be aware, not to settle in too much, or to lose my alertness, because I might need to leave in a hurry. The sound, or scene, is hard and abrupt at its edges; it is not bounded by soft curving boughs or the shimmering riffles of a brook in the sunshine. We are all animals and even if we are not consciously alert to the information being carried to us by our silent surrounds, the animal within knows all too well what they mean.

Imagine my joy then. I stepped out of the back door and heard another silence today. It was familiar, sweet, charming my heart with whispers of adventure, of encounter with the natural beings, flowing between intervals of bird-call, billowing grass, rustling leaves and accompanied by an orchestra of smells; flowers, damp soil – known as ‘petrichor’ – named in the Greek from petra, stone and ichor, the divine fluid that (still) courses in the veins of the gods.

Image: Venus pulling a thorn from her foot in beautiful countryside. Pierre Audouin (1768-1822), after a drawing by Pierre Bouillon (1776-1831) after a painting by the School of Raphael, (1482 – 1520), Wellcome Museum

In this cacophony of sound, of smell and of silence, I remembered. A word itself that describes the re-uniting of severed limbs or a conjoining of old friends. I remembered, but the memory was not a single event, not a period of time so to speak, but it was of a state of being. As if transported, I was taken to a place so easy and free in my childhood; the days of wind in my hair and mud between my toes, and though it bought deep deep joy in those days it went unnoticed. Unnoticed because the deafening bars of the ‘man man mancub’ were not hemmed so close together around this silence back then. Instead, its edges were defined softly, the time signature of the tune also not as intense as it has recently become. Yes, I stepped out of the back door and the silence I heard was the old silence. Spontaneously, I ‘remembered’.

I understood its presence. It spoke to my animal. It spoke to me of hope. It spoke to me of the crippling pain of the world that we have created and it called to my soul for the mancub to waken, to change the sound by changing the beat of its heart. To pull out the thorn. I shed a tear, then many tears.

So how does lockdown look in my world? It looks, sounds and smells like the old silence.

I have been out tending the garden now for many many days. My hands in the soil, planting food and the medicinal herbs that we may need more of in the future. Creating habitats and feeding the wildlife, listening to the sound of calling-birds looking for new mates, hearing the rustling of the leaves and imbibing the complex symphony of smells. All of this is information that I know what to do with in the very core of my being, as do you! Information that we are hard-wired, through millions of years of evolution, to understand. It is too old for language and though the poet will grapple to put it into words yet still it can be understood by all. It doesn’t matter what language we speak, all of nature is part of the same orchestra and the arrangement is always perfectly composed for the ear. I am a forager and a herbalist. There is still time for these activities in the lockdown life and foraging puts fresh, valuable, very very local food on our table. What I gather on my daily walks and in the garden amplifies the dictum of Hippocrates; “Let food be thy medicine”. I would very much like to add to this advice; “Let the shape of silence be a guide unto your life”.

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