Sunday, December 23, 2012

Civilization Silence

In our modern world, absolute human silence is among the rarest of commodities. For thousands of centuries our nature preserve– or more precisely, what would become our nature preserve, was devoid of all noise pollution caused by the machinery of civilization.  There was of course still sound; yes, trees falling in the forest would've been heard by a multitude of non-human ears. There were sounds created by water (including glaciers), wind, thunder, wild animals and other natural phenomenon. But incessant noise from vehicles, airplanes, motorized equipment and firearms was not an issue until the relatively recent past. 
The Northern Cardinal is commonly encountered in our winter woods
We've become habituated to many of these sounds, so much so, that most of the time, we don’t even notice them, even as they are churning away all around us. People usually look surprised when I tell them that there are airplanes flying overhead nearly all of the time. I only know this because I sometimes try to record bird songs, and it’s rare that I’m able to record an entire 2 minutes without a jet plane interjecting an unhelpful sustained note. Motor Vehicles are the most pervasive noise makers, and even on Sunday, traffic sounds are always with us. Even at the nature preserve where it’s possible to get more than 2 hundred acres back into the wilderness, noise from loud trucks can still penetrate. In fact there is no wilderness area that I know of in Central New York where it’s possible to get to a true state of civilization silence.
White-tailed Deer
There is no time of day, or day of the week, that is completely free of noise, but the very early morning is distinctly better than other times of the day. Early Sunday morning is perhaps the best – for the obvious reason that most people have that day off. Holidays that fall on Sundays are even better – particularly when that holiday is Christmas (only because this is the holiday that the most people tend to have off.) A Sunday Christmas morning – shortly after dawn, may in fact be the quietest (post sunrise) time of the entire year. So last year, on Christmas morning, I took full advantage of the quiet and toured the Sanctuary to hear what the typically drowned out set was doing.
One of our friendly Black-capped Chickadees takes a seed from my hand
The silence was absolutely golden, and was initially broken only by my own footfalls on the frozen ground. Soon it was also broken by the animals that I was most interested in hearing. The honking of migratory Canada Geese as they traversed the sky was, for a short time, the most prominent sound. More subtle was the distinctive hissing sound that each goose’s wings made as they cut through the cold air. A couple of Gray Squirrels issued harsh, creaking alarm calls from the top of a dead Elm Tree – perhaps betraying the presence of an unseen predatory hawk. A flock of over-wintering Robins conversed with each other in muffled tones as they fed on wild grapes.  A few were issuing volleys of sharp alarm calls, which sounded like “tut-tut-tut”, but some also sang short musical phrases that were reminiscent of their springtime caroling.
With temperatures near the freezing point, several species of spider remained active

In the forest, mixed flocks of winter resident songbirds like Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches were all giving their own respective call notes as they forged among frosted branches. A crisp flapping sound issued as each bird moved from perch to perch. On top of it all, the Golden-crowned Kinglet emitted high-pitched, “pssssst” calls, as if they were keen to divulge some secret to their feathered fellow travelers.

As I proceeded up the trail, one of the streams began to be heard. The water introduced a constant rushing sound, which became more articulate as I got closer to it; I could hear the water describing its rocky course –trickling over rough stones in the shallows and pouring between boulders.  A female deer with her 2 offspring from the previous spring galloped by me – I noted the sound of their hoofs rhythmically beating the frozen path, and then when they diverted into the brush –the sound of one after the other thrashing through tightly knit branches. Dozens of Crows were heard “cawing” in different sectors around the preserve’s woodlands. A particularly shrill group of them were likely harassing some kind of predator –most likely a Red-tailed Hawk or a Great Horned Owl, but it could have been a coyote.
The Stone fly is one of very few species of insects active in winter

Most of these creatures, including the subtle kinglets, would've been heard on any other day. But when the competition from human noise is removed, the animals and their environment could at last comprise the entire orchestra. On a normal morning, this fine orchestra must compete with a brash garage band made up of snow blowers, chainsaws and the like.
The beaver pond is iced over except for the area right before the dam
Of course, even the Christmas silence ends too quickly, as town residents begin their days traveling and the motor noises steadily increase. Even Spring Farm contributes to the noise since barn animals require care no matter what calendar day it is, and that care necessitates the use of a tractor.
The female Northern Cardinal
Each Christmas – believe it or not, some of our rural neighbors receive firearms for Christmas presents and they are anxious to go outside to try them out. Apparently, for them, nothing connotes the sentiments of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men more than a few rounds squeezed off into the winter wonderland.

So the next Sunday/Christmas convergence won’t happen until 2016; and when it does hopefully, some of you will know how to celebrate it – take an early morning walk into the wilderness and let your ears feast on the sounds of nature.

No comments:

Post a Comment