This is the twenty-second installment of the ongoing place-based essay series at Ecotone. This week’s topic is Sound of Place. Please feel free to drop by and read what others have written, and if you’d like, to contribute your own essay. (Note: Ecotone has since disbanded and the site is no longer available, though many of the writers still keep popular blogs and stay in touch on Facebook. Many of us have become close friends.)
I wrote this essay quite a number of years ago, about a two day hiking trip I took with some very close friends in New Hampshire, U.S.A., in the autumn of 1989. The sound I heard up in the mountains has haunted me ever since.
(a note: my experience and style of mountain walking have changed considerably since this trip. I now walk with a full pack weight of about 4 to 9 kilos (10 to 20 lbs)…. much lighter than previously, and much safer and more comfortable)
I can’t say why wild places draw me. The call originates somewhere out there where four walls end and the horizon catches the last light of the sun. It is something old and frightening, sets my heart drumming, and comes upon me when I am least guarded. I seek it again and again, as if expecting an answer to a question that was asked before I was born.
The call was with me again one gray day in the middle of autumn, when I had a weekend free and asked some of my friends to join me for a two day camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My friends Steve and Julie, my brother Teja and his girlfriend Barb and I all hopped into Steve and Teja’s cars and off we drove. It was the height of the leaf-peeping season, with families out to view the Foliage. We crept along with them until we were able to break free of the crowds up by Franconia Notch and escape to the quieter northern area of the White Mountains. We sang songs in the car, dredging up old favorites, and making up new songs on the spur of the moment. The night before, consulting the map for possible places to camp, I had found a secluded route going up to Mt. Hale and Zealand Falls which would allow us a two day circuitous walk.
Up here the foliage fire was already waning. The gray bodies of the beech and maple trees showed through the threadbare layer of leaves and the darker blight of winter encroached upon the lingering greens and reds and yellows. The forest floor was carpeted in leaves turning brown.
After we parked the car and hefted our packs onto our backs, we started up the steep trail into the woods, our boots crackling among the dry leaves. If any birds or mammals lurked in the surroundings, our noise warned them of our presence long before we arrived, and the woods were silent.
We were a ragtag bunch. Most of our equipment was picked out of the shadows of our closets after years of disuse. We hung and strapped and stuffed the utensils and gear onto or into our various bags and sacks, tying them off and hoping the whole conglomeration would hold together until the following day. Steve trudged under an old canvas Boy Scout backpack, loaded down beneath by an enormous, rolled, navy blue sleeping bag that was nearly as big as he was. He wore a new pair of leather mountaineering boots which thudded over the loamy soil as his muscular legs forced their way up the hill by pure, dogged determination. Julie, the most fashionable in her azure, Gore-tex jacket, bright yellow day pack, and lightweight hiking boots, lagged behind under the extra weight of those things that were strung from all sides of the daypack. We had relieved her of most of the heavy equipment, but still her slender legs, not having encountered such steep trails in a long time, did not have the strength to keep the pace we started with. Teja labored under an old external frame backpack I had given him. He carried most of the canned goods and refused to delegate the weight to the rest of us. He strode easily up the trail and deflected our attention from his heavy pack with a constant flow of jokes and witty remarks. Listening to him we could almost forget that the walk was a strain. And Barb, on her first camping trip, wearing sneakers and a jury-rigged shoulder bag-turned-backpack, led the way with the stubborn silence of hers which seemed to be directed at the men in the group. I carried my trusty old navy blue internal frame pack and my camera fanny pack, and wore my ten-year-old leather hiking boots. I lagged behind to accompany Julie so she would not have to walk alone and so I could also snap photographs of the group and linger with my camera in the stillness of the forest in our wake.
We soon left the trail head far behind and the hush was disturbed only by the murmur of our voices and boots kicking leaves, or during the moments when we halted in our tracks to listen, the creaking of a tree trunk rubbing against another tree trunk or the whisper of the breeze among the remaining leaves in the forest canopy. We encountered only three people—— a young couple bouncing noisily from rock to rock, and a lone young man who offered no smile.
This time of the season allowed views between the tree trunks to the surrounding hills. We could make out their purplish-blue forms and occasionally catch glimpses of hawks or crows beating their way over the tree tops.
The sunlight was beginning to slant through the trees after two hours of steady trudging uphill. We were all soaked with perspiration. Julie, though she said nothing, was lagging further and further behind and obviously having trouble. I suggested we stop alongside the trail in a little clearing. The clearing lay at the same steep angle as the trail and four big outcroppings protruding from the mossy soil offered no level surfaces to sit on. Slipping off our packs we squatted amidst the leaves or up against the sharp surfaces of the rocks, but none of us could find a comfortable position in which we could stretch our legs and relax. Steve’s face was apple red and Barb massaged her shoulders where the narrow straps of her makeshift backpack had dug in. My own shoulders were aching from the weight of my pack. Teja sat back and closed his eyes, seemed to fall asleep. It had been years since we had camped together and gazing at him now, both of us older, with years of separate lives between us, it was as if no time had passed at all. Yet Teja was a man now and I could see the air of self containment and worry in his face.
We shared swigs of water from Steve’s water bottle, then decided to push on. The clouds began to clear and a weak sun shone like a pale bulb through the chilled air. Our aim had been to climb to the top of Mt. Hale and find a campsite nearby, but the sun was beginning to get low and we wanted to set up camp while it was still light. We also needed to find a source of water that would be accessible from the campsite.
The hillsides angled down everywhere we looked, providing no level pitch for our three tents, and when we did glimpse level ground it was grown over with impenetrable tangles of thorn bushes or boggy from water settled in the kettles. The sun sank further and further among the trees, until the shadows stretched long and parallel across the forest floor. A stone-littered stream joined the trail for a way, then dropped away far below, and its rushing gurgle became a whisper rising from the unseen depths of the ravine.
Steve and I began to worry about whether we’d find a campsite before dark. The trail entered a shadowy area surrounded by steep outcroppings that allowed no space for camping at all. Here we found the stream again, splashing down between the dark, moss-covered rocks, right across the path. Imprints of lugged boot soles from earlier hikers marked the bare mud along the trail at both edges of the stream. The trail beyond the stream made an abrupt upswing along a much steeper rise. When Barb saw the steps of natural rock leading up into the dark crown of the mountain, she groaned. Julie stood panting and pale, unwilling to admit how tired she was. Steve complained that he had developed a bad blister on his right heel and couldn’t walk much farther.
Barb left her pack on a rock and clambered up the trail to get a look at what lay ahead. I conferred with Steve and Teja while she was gone and we decided that we had to find a place near here, where we could have access to the water from the stream. When Barb returned, with news that the trail continued on at the same steep angle beyond where she had gone, we headed back down the trail to the place where we had been able to hear the stream at the bottom of the ravine. I left my pack among the leaves on the ground and bushwhacked up the embankment along the rise. I struggled for a hundred feet or so through thick underbrush, out of sight of the group. There I found the ground leveling off, and finally, amidst a stand of white birches whose trunks seemed to shimmer beneath a canopy of glowing gold and orange leaves, discovered a series of small, terraced, leaf-strewn clearings that looked out over the valley to the mountains in the east.
I stood transfixed by the tranquility and autumn color and light. A lone birch branch oscillated amidst the stillness, catching some slight stirring in the air, and giving the impression that the tree was waving at me. A warbler that I couldn’t name, like a brown leaf, twitched and darted amidst the shrubs, alarmed at my unexpected presence. He shot away when Steve’s voice punctuated the short reverie, asking if I had found something.
I showed him the clearings and he nodded. We both went back to retrieve our packs and lead the others back.
Setting up camp required removing pebbles from the ground beneath where the tents would lie and in my case, tying back some of the thorny bushes to open space for my tent. All three tents were pitched in about twenty minutes, We laid our sleeping bags and packs in the tents, then prepared for dinner.
There is something nostalgic and comforting about a campfire and we would have loved to have built one, but the woods are no longer our homes. We lit our two white gas stoves instead. I thought of the heat of former campfires in my face and chest and knees, and of the cold of the night and forest at my back, and remembered that balance between the familiarity of our tiny dome of light and the immensity of the darkness around. The pressing inward of all that non-humanity urged my companions and I to talk, tell stories, and stave off the great silence. A writer once suggested that the hissing of the escaping gas of the stove could be used as an alternative to the firelight, that the sound was an auditory shield against the silence that rushed in when the stove was turned off, but it just was not the same.
Still, our company spoke through the hissing and settled back among the cushioning piles of leaves and between the tree roots, to savor the taste of canned chili con carne, curry rice, lentil soup, steamed rice, and cranberry juice. The warmth of the food coursed through our insides and loosed the tension of concentrating on our climb. Teja started a round of puns that set us all off, groaning and laughing and eager to up the others. Barb hummed a tune that was on her mind and we all fell silent to listen as her trained soprano voice rang through the woods. Julie sat back with her cat-like self-possession, curled into a ball, and wrapped up in all her layers, until nothing was visible but her half-lidded eyes. Steve busied himself, as always, with the cooking. There was something almost maternal in his attentions, as his fingers gently prodded a can open or stirred a bowl of soup, and one could see the pride in his eyes as the mechanics of throwing ingredients together and the possession of the tools that worked the ingredients coalesced into a finished arrangement of texture and flavor. I sat helping him, but mostly absorbing it all, watching these friends sharing with me these rare moments of a past time that went deeper than most activities I had joined them so often in in the city.
As we heated up a pot of water for hot chocolate. a sudden movement in the darkness outside the circle of our electric lantern and candles, caught all of our attention at the same time. We peered up at a branch dipping and swaying and caught a glimpse of a large, dark shape balancing amidst the darker canopy. Without thinking, I pulled out my flashlight and shone the beam up at the figure. The light caught two enormous yellow eyes staring back down at us. It was a short eared owl, swiveling its round head. It glared at us with an outraged flare of its wings, then leaped into the darkness behind. The branch that had dipped under its weight swung back up to its original position and nodded up and down in the light.
“What was it?” came Barb’s whisper in the ensuing silence, in which the hissing of the stove seemed to fill the woods.
“An owl,” said Teja.
“Did you see those eyes?” whispered Julie.
“I didn’t know that owls were so big,” said Barb.
We all sat silent for a few moments more, each of us hoping the owl would return or call out of the woods.
Steve asked if anybody needed the stoves any more. When we replied no, he turned them both off. The sudden silence held us still. We listened to the leaves rustling in the wind, to bark creaking against bark, to occasional twigs and branches dropping to the forest floor. Steve leaned forward to start cleaning the pots; Teja bent to help him. I heard an immense sound, like the roar of a freight train, sweep across the distant dark mass of the mountain opposite ours up from the river below. I listened as if I were hearing the hunter of my soul calling me; a strange, disturbing sound. It came again and I wondered what it was. I looked at the others and noticed that none of them seemed to have heard the sound, and I felt a chill run up my spine. The mountain called again, a deep booming roar, and at that moment the full moon’s shining edge peeked above the horizon. All of us stopped what we were doing and stared. The light seemed to pierce the fabric of the night and changed everything. We watched spellbound as the full disc rose, becoming larger and larger, slowly defining the serrated, tree-lined outline of the distant dome of yet another mountain, and stealing the shadows from among the tree trunks around us.
We scrubbed the pots and plates with silent haste, as if we were afraid we might lose something precious if we didn’t get back to the serendipity in those moments. After the light of the moon, the grease and mess of the pots on our hands, the cold shock of the water, even the abrupt banging and clanking of the metal jarred with the emotions we felt. As if to mask his disconcerted reaction, Teja played with oozing food remains, joking about how it would probably grow eyes and legs and chase unwary travelers through the hills. We laughed, our voices somehow too loud. We stacked up the washed pots and put away the stoves and extra food.
“Nature’s calling,” said Barbara. I didn’t understand what she meant the first second, then understood. “Will you come with me, Julie?”
The two stalked off into the darkness among the trees, their footsteps snapping and crackling among the leaves until the spot of their light winked out behind the rise of the hill and we could no longer hear them.
While Teja and Steve went to busy themselves in their tents, I climbed up to the rise behind my tent from where the valley below was clearly visible and settled back against the base of a large birch tree. The moon had lifted above the distant mountain and hung in the blue darkness like a silver bubble. Its luminescence seemed to cascade over the entire forest. As the light penetrated the shadows beneath the heaviest canopies, infiltrating at an angle nearly horizontal to the ground, it lit up the white bark of the birch trees until the birches shone with a silvery radiance. My eyes could feel the glow like a soft breath upon my retinas. I was so moved by what I saw that my chest ballooned with emotion and tears spilled from my eyes. Just then that enormous roaring sound swept across the opposite mountain again and I realized it was the combined rustling of thousands, a whole mountainside, of trees in the wind.
I heard a snap beside me and Steve joined me. He crouched down without a word and sat gazing at the view. I watched the glint of moonlight on his glasses and wondered what he was thinking and feeling. Just a year before, both of us, at the same time, had spent a month traveling alone by bicycle in Europe, he through Ireland and I through Denmark and Germany. Often during my trip I had wondered where he was and what he was doing. Upon return we put together a joint multi-media show, with separate slides of our separate journeys coordinated to music and visual effects, as a big presentation in an auditorium where Steve worked. We often conversed about the incessant rain that had hit both Ireland and Denmark that September and our loneliness and fatigue showed in our pictures. As we crouched there beneath the big birch tree, watching the moon, we both seemed to understand without words what the other was seeing. This night brought to rest, for an instant, the searching unrest that our trips had exacted from us. No words were needed.
Teja moved into the scene a moment later. He glanced back at us and I caught the look of seriousness on his face that always came as a surprise on his usually animated features. He hunched down upon an embankment beneath a beech. More snapping and crackling followed and Barb and Julie appeared. They sat down beside Teja.
We watched the moon climb above the hill and high into the sky. Time seemed to lose the momentum of its march. The long shadows of the trees wound upon the ground like the cast umbra of a sundial. I didn’t even notice when my left calf fell asleep. As the light spread out, the shadows withdrew until the contrast between brilliance and darkness quelled clarity of texture and form and the surroundings lost their preternatural secrecy. The forest became just a forest again. The others stood and retired to their tents. Steve patted me on the shoulder as he stepped past me. I sat for a long while after they left, waiting for the roar of the mountain, but it never came.