i woke in the middle of the night with the sound of wind blowing the trees outside my window in every direction. i’m not sure if it was the incoming storm that made me take notice or if it was the absence of silence. it is so quiet up here until a storm comes in. the wind really rolls up this valley, with the hope of bringing snow or moisture of some kind. today, it also blows in reflections of the soundscapes of my life over the past few years.
as i have moved from place to place and activity to activity these past 5 years or so, i’ve been struck by the sounds that i fall asleep to and the ones i wake to, and the ones that were companions through my days. as i begin re-reading undrowned by alexis pauline grumbs, and working through the ideas, the meditations she presents on black feminist lessons from marine mammals, i have also taken up the practice of waking early and listening to the darkness, in the darkness. what am i listening for? it depends. her practice is to listen for/to her ancestors. at the moment my practice is just to listen, to still my mischievous mind. what i have heard is all the thoughts, but when i do manage to get quiet i hear the elk eating the grass and flowers right outside my window. i hear the bull elk calling to whomever they call to. now i can hear the slight changes in their call depending on how separated the herd has become. this practice has also reminded me of the other beings i have heard through the years when i have been in this morning and evening practice that moves as the sun moves. i actually miss many of these beings deeply and have begun thinking of them as ancestors.
the first sound companions that come to mind were in oregon. i use to wake to a bunch of crows. the humans living in our house began to be able to tell a difference in the sounds certain crows made. one crow, in particular, was able to copy the beeping sound of a neighbor’s car as it was locked or unlocked. it had that beep down! i can’t say i miss them, but i remain more fascinated by crows than i previously was.
walking then biking down the pacific coast, the ocean was my constant companion. it was spring then summer and fall. i watched storms roll in and began to know that she was bringing storms or calm by the shifts in the sounds she created, the rhythm adjusting my rhythm. it was the mysterious near silence that often filled me with awe. one morning waking to fog rolling down the mountains of baja towards a smooth and calm ocean; the surfers sitting on boards on a sea as smooth as glass. the silence was thick. as thick as the fog. as thick as the coffee made by a local woman on the side of the road. thick as my head that wanted to keep going, but…well it made for a good day to mark the turnaround point of that venture.
the next big bike adventure, i don’t really remember the sounds of nature. i was in full suffer mode. the voices in my head followed me around the country. heat exhaustion, tick examinations, mental torture fests day in and day out as i wrestled with unprocessed emotions, grief, depression, thoughts and feelings from the past i don’t even know how many years. in retrospect, i can see i hadn’t dealt with a depression that had set in while still living in portland. the sounds i do hold close to me from that trip are all the conversations and visits i got to enjoy with close friends and oh so many strangers. without those moments, i don’t know where or how i would be now. sounds of community come in many tones. but also there were fireflies, lightning bugs, sparkle butts…whatever you want to call them, and as hard as i tried i could never hear the sounds of their flashing beauty that i have since learned is how they communicate. dusk filled with their messages flashing around the grasslands fills my mind and kinda makes me want to dance.
i think it was las cruces where the sounds of beings got me really going and connecting me to place. first, there was the family dog. i’d be awake waiting for the rest of the house to stir, and i would hear the little pitter-patter of the pup running along the tile to go outside. that sound always got my day moving with a smile. and then there were the birds of all kinds. but it was when i started spending every night out on public lands that connections connected.
i can still remember that first night sleeping out and hearing the coyotes as i began to drift off. eventually, i would learn how to hear their call and response across the valley, especially just after i would experience the sunset. then i would wake just as dawn cracked and there they would be again as i greeted the morning and sun. then it wouldn’t be long before i heard the magical amazing sounds of the desert quail. oh how i love hearing them as they moved around. as i learned the contours of the land, i could picture their fun shapes as they run through the sagebrush and up and down the landscape, disappearing into some bush, all in a row as the adults herded the young ones to safety.
these two beings, with their sounds connected me to the movements of the day. first, it was the sun’s movement. which as i paid more attention to how it moved across the sky by day, then, also by season as it made it’s way south and then back north along the ridge of the organ mountains as the seasons swung us in time. then i could feel my body doing much the same. i started to notice when the moon would rise and set and where. i could start to feel these cycles shifting in me. i would rise each day to greet the sun and be sure to watch her move over the western horizon. if i missed one or the other, i felt off. when i was able to catch all of it, the sun and moon rise and fall…well no matter how challenging the day was, i knew, i felt complete in ways i don’t know if i can explain. all of it complete because of the sounds of the other non-human beings around me. naturally mixed in there were the sounds of various birds migrating through as the seasons moved. the more i paid attention, the more that revealed itself: the sounds of lizards on rocks, the wind moving through a canyon, cows on blm land…
as i began the move to the worst job i’ve ever had, the coyote sounds were traded out for wild burros. i was camping for several days in central arizona and i knew that the area i was considering camping in was full of these wild beings. i began to really love waking to their braying in the early morning, and even if i woke in the middle of the night…they pretty much communicate all dang day, and i really enjoyed it. i had to leave when the sounds of atvs drowned out everything, including my random thoughts.
where we lived in arizona for the worst job ever (i know i need to write about this and i will) i rarely heard coyotes. we did see lots of my beloved desert quail, but they were so quiet. connections there with nature were challenging. i guess this is what happens to a landscape that has just been so extracted: mining, tourism, ranching…the sounds of nature that i do remember the most was the wings of the ravens when visiting the grand canyon, also, the one condor i did finally get to see glide across the sky. there was also the sound of wind…so much wind that brought so many dust devils. some of these fleeting vortexes would get so big and powerful they lifted some of the large canvas tents from their foundations or ripped the sides in half like a piece of paper.
next was montana, at the northern entrance to yellowstone, it had been fairly quiet. i walked along the amazing yellowstone river and its confluence with the gardiner river. i began to hear the shift in water levels, or the way the wind moves down the valley and across the water, or the fish jump, the birds’ wings as they fly in to catch a meal. i see and hear wildlife everywhere. but shortly after that first moment in early september, you know that moment that the sun has moved just enough that you witness shifts in light and shadows. this moment marks fall for me every year, not the calendar, but that moment i see that the light shifted. it is one of my favorite times of year. anyway, not long after that moment of movement, the elk, always present, took over the town. and just like that, it is rutting season. the bull elk are with the rest of the herds moving in this area, and they are very talkative. it is now their sounds that fill my days and nights. if i pay attention, i can hear them move around the valley. it is helping me connect with this shift in season. just before i left i was gifted with the sound, finally, of the howl of a yellowstone wolf. my one wish while here was to see or hear a wolf, and i got to experience both. talk about feeling connected!
it is these sounds that pull me in and connect me with the ebbs and flows of life. it is what keeps me from spinning out from the world that has felt in constant chaos. it slows me down and makes me pay attention. these connections fill me with a deeper sense of community. helps me answer my questions on who are my ancestors, and what are they trying to tell me. helps me feel part of something i can not name when i hear the massive cliffs lecture me on all the things. or when i hear the stories whisper in my ear from the wind. or the awe-inspired when i finally got to witness a wolf walk right by me as i prepared to walk the same trails they follow. these are the moments when i know i can greet my aunt, my grandparents, friends and lovers, people i’ve known in this life, and those i’ve never met, the animals who have walked with me, and pals i haven’t talked to for a while. a place that no matter how lost i feel in life, i know i am on a good path full of many who have passed before reminding me what a damn fine life i have.
these are the events that fill me with delight.
they have also filled me with the beginning hints of purpose and voice. these sounds bring to light the times i have been silent. when i have not used my voice, my experiences, my truths. there are many reasons for these silences, even when i shouted “silence = death” during the early days of the AIDS pandemic. even with all the times and ways i have chosen to “come out”. this work i have been doing in the dark silence is becoming my next big adventure and is what will be influencing the changes in the writing you will be finding here in the future. i hope you come along with me, as we are all connected.