There is a small red stone in Olympic National Park which marks “One Square Inch of Silence.” Billed as “possibly the quietest place in the United States,” this location is far from any permanent human development. Some airlines are even said to have rerouted flights to avoid sending noise pollution into this well-publicized independent research project. A nexus of human silence, this site is engulfed by all the vivid hustle and bustle of the rainforest, where visitors can often hear the trill of migratory birds or the baritone of the local frog. Far above the ground, tree branches sway noiselessly until they brush across their neighbors’ boughs, straining to be heard above the din.
It was this silence I had in mind as I cracked open the sliding porch door at my rental by the sea. As I imagine that moment, I envision myself crossing the threshold to be engulfed by the sound of waves crashing and gulls calling, but, in truth, I could hear the faint rumbles of this seascape from inside the house before my hand ever reached the screen door. Transformations are rarely as sudden as we imagine them to be.
Many things about language are unresolved or, worse, ambiguous. What do we say about a date on the calendar which used to signify a recurring event? The date still recurs, but the event itself has ceased to be celebrated. Was my grandfather’s birthday last month, even though he’s been dead for seven years?
In my case, this would have been my tenth anniversary – our tenth anniversary – and we would have celebrated in style (or, at least, in our style). We would have broken open the tequila as we listened to bossa nova (her favorite) or smooth jazz (my favorite) while looking up at the heavens. We would have overindulged Jerry with too many Milk-Bones. As it was, Jerry and I were alone, each taking a more measured approach to this short holiday by the sea.
Over the years, I’ve heard of almost as many frameworks for types of listening as frameworks for types of personality. Deep listening, evaluative listening, informational listening, biased listening, relationship listening, acute listening, dialogic listening. On the porch that day, I’m not sure I was doing any listening at all. Sure, I heard the steady flow of the waves and the distant whir of a helicopter – probably either doing routine military or Coast Guard drills, or perhaps taking some tourists for a sightseeing tour that they were trying to convince themselves they were enjoying – but I wasn’t consciously processing auditory inputs into a coherent map of my external environment or parsing them for informational content. Although I had come, against my better judgement, to celebrate my anniversary alone (the deposit was nonrefundable), I found myself blocking out the waves I had driven so far to experience. On the porch with my beer and my stack of books, I was all set.
Then, I heard the scream.
It didn’t sound anything like what you just imagined. It wasn’t shrill or loud or noticeable. Likely I would have perceived a more urgent sense of danger had I been closer to the source, but, as it happened, I was sitting high on a porch on the cliff, and the person who screamed was down below at the waves. It took a few more shouts for me to realize that it was a human calling out for help from another human and not some background noise that I could safely ignore.
I would like to say I got up, jumped over the four-foot railing, and bravely bounded down the 99 stairs to the beach, despite the ocean swell at relatively high tide crashing into the rocks. I would like to say I found someone in distress, and I rescued them. I would like to say I did some unambiguous good in the world that day, that I saved a life that otherwise would have been lost.
In fact, I tripped on the leg of the unfamiliar chair and came crashing backward into the screen door. My sprawling left hand ripped an eighteen-inch hole vertically through the door. When I examined the hole later, I got the sense that the tear looked vaguely like an ice cream cone that was about to tip over.
Although my hip felt a little bruised, adrenaline pumped through my body, and I made my way quickly enough down to the shore. The screaming had stopped. There were three surfers sitting on the rocks in their wetsuits and two more fifty yards out in the ocean, bobbing up and down on their boards like children on carousels.
“Get pitted, Dave! Yeah!”
One of the surfers out in the water paddled a bit, stood up on his board, and – miraculously, to my eyes – rode the wave down toward the impossibly slick rocks.
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Noticing me, one of the surfers on the rocks smiled and said, “Beautiful day. Beautiful dog!”
Only then did it occur to me that Jerry had come bounding down the stairs behind me, unwilling to miss the fun. Whenever I look down at him, I have never been able to suppress at least a brief smile, no matter the mood I’m in.
“Thanks. Everything ok out there?” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Vern wiped out pretty hard, but he’s doing ok. You surf?”
“No,” I said, “never could work up the nerve. Almost drowned the first time I tried.”
She boomed out a laugh that would have melted snow in winter.
“Didn’t we all? Well, maybe you’ll try again someday!”
She and her companions paddled out to sea, fanning out across my field of vision.
Jerry and I stood there for a while, watching the waves roll up and down, in and out. A crab crawled across the rocks in front of me, bright red somehow, and sideways. To my surprise, Jerry only registered it with a quick yip, then he looked away. The sea was much louder here, much closer. The sun beamed down from 90 million miles away, blocking out all other stars.
I found a place to sit and let my heels sink into the sand.
Much later, Jerry and I made our way back up the 99 stairs to our seaside rental, back toward the silence.