An Under-rated Experience at a National Park, Refuge, or National Forest
The space
Between clear water
And muddy
Excited to make my first stab at the #NatureWritingChallenge, I sat down with a thermos of strong coffee and my warm cozy blanket, cracked the window for fresh air, and fired up a blank page. “An under-rated experience…”. Immediately, all thoughts of what I should write about evaporated, replaced with blue-sky, mountain-high memories of hiking the Wonderland Trail this past month. That my IT band is still healing may go some small way toward explaining why I am choosing to sit around on a day off, writing, but I digress.

“An under-rated experience at a National Park…” All my experiences at my local national parks are very highly rated, of course. I am surrounded by the grandest national parks and forests, wildernesses, refuges, and monuments. I love my national lands, and treat my annual All-Access federal pass as a gym membership, and a key to the temple. Some of the grandest spaces in our nation are in my backyard. I’m pretty damned fortunate.

It took my most of that thermos of coffee to figure out what’s missing from all the reviews, trip reports, write-ups, travel guides. I find it on my hikes - long or short. Briefly, in a deep forest. For longer stretches on a high ridge. It doesn’t show up on Instagram, though. Nobody has ever photographed it. It is that thing between the things I do. I sit and sip and contemplate… and wish for a space along a river where I could just sit and be still and collect my thoughts and write. In silence.


The thesaurus shows me dozens of words for silence, many of them even almost describe the silence of say, The One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park - a more absolute silence. This is the silence of sound absorbed. Moss, lichen, rough tree-bark, countless leaves and needles all conspire to absorb and muffle any sound that might dare to wander the under-story.

But silence is not always absolute. Silence is not always quiet. Stand on a high ridge on a warm summer day, and you’ll hear the drone of insects working over the meadow surrounding you. This is silence, but of a different nature, perhaps a more evaporative silence. There is nothing up here to bounce the sound around, and it simply bleeds off into the sky, wafts away.

Sometimes, silence is more of an presence, of being present. Stand alongside the river during the day and  you’ll hear the water rushing over the stones. That sounds rises above the sighing of the wind in the trees. Absorb the two together, and your mind will experience silence, right there in front of you. Shift your perspective ever so slightly, and the water sounds drop out, and you can hear a twig snap, or a bird call. You can hear your heart beat.
Stand along the same river at night, and the silence might be more of an absence. Remain present, however, allow your heartbeat to drop out of your conscious mind. Still your breath. Vacate wakefulness, and let go of all the sounds you think you might hear, and you’ll catch something else - absence. An absence into which the stones tumbling under the river can be heard. Thunk. Bonk. And almost-voices rising up from the water.


Silence need not be a physical absence or presence of sound. Often, silence is a space, into which my own mind can project calm. Some days, I just need to go sit by the river. To be surrounded by the dark firs and bright maples, to feel the grey and red and green boulders and cobbles and gravels under my feet. To let the icy cold rush of river water pull at my  legs. I feel peace here, which is nonsense, as this is not a peaceful environment - that tree has crashed over into the current. This cliff is slowly crumbling as I watch, and this pool will be filled in with the next flood. These boulders were ripped from the mountain above, and will reach the sea as sand. And yet, I find a silence here, too. I am simply a human, and what is that when standing along a river? Perhaps silence is also a matter of scale.


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