Stories in the Quiet

The sudden movement of a small shadow, cast from behind me by the morning sun, alerts my birdey-sense and I look quickly around in hopes of spotting a warbler or flycatcher. But it’s simply another yellow leaf tumbling through the backlit canopy.

Drops on autumn leaf

These days, the slightest breeze releases another fluttering cascade of dry leaves, withered or faded or simply tired, and the forest floor is starting to rustle with its annual autumn carpet. I’ve had to learn not to look up at every little sound. It’s Aug-tober (as the West Seattle Blog recently dubbed this season), when our trees are parched by the same sun we winter-soggy humans so treasure around here, and we get that sad-sweet feeling that fall’s flittering around the edges.

I still see the occasional flycatcher, and was lucky enough to spot a warbler last week. The pileated woodpecker family has also appeared a couple of times recently.

Pileated Woodpecker family: Father at top, daughter middle, son bottom

But the woods sure seem quiet these days: no hawk whistles or wildly chattering little birds raising the hawk alarm. No eagles, who’ve been pretty scarce around here since they gave up on their nest this spring. Even the conversational little nuthatches and chickadees seem to have turned down the volume a bit as they forage around the just-ripe blackberries.

So I have to find my stories in other ways. A walk along the trail below the hawk nest takes me past the branch about three feet above my head, where after swooping low over me, one of the young hawks perched for perhaps half an hour, grooming itself while I watched from a distance of no more than eight feet or so. Oh, and up there in that bare snag, that’s where I saw all four young hawks perching and tussling early one morning — and over here on the ground near the flicker hole is where we found all those flicker feathers, their owner taken to feed growing nestlings. Stories define places.

Sagas in stones

“You hear the rocks sing?” asked an older friend of mine incredulously when I told him that I’m fluent in both reading and hearing rock language. It’s a soft-spoken language for sure, but one rich in time and place if you know how to be attentive to it.

Each rock tells its own unique story, some of them covering billions of years; you can read it in the particles and the way they’re arranged. And yes, there is music in the rocks. The arrangement of atoms in a quartz crystal —

Artistic rendering of silicon (gold spheres) and oxygen (glass spheres) as connected in a quartz glass. Not quite a strict mineral structure, but almost, and so beautiful!

— can be represented mathematically, and math can be expressed musically; so I think of a crystal as a harmonious chord, and a rock as a song with lots of congruent chords, and a landscape as a symphony in stone.

Symphony in Stone: Olympic Mountains at sunrise, from West Seattle

Anne Whiston Spirn writes eloquently about the “language of landscape,” and I’m a strong believer that we’re born into this language and can learn its dialects wherever we go.

So here’s a truth about natural history. Every creature whose life you follow for a moment or years, each stone you hold in your palm to savor its smooth heft, every place you live into like Rilke’s questions, becomes a story or a song in your library.

Thomas Huxley famously said that “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.”

But once you’ve absorbed these tales, their faces are always turned toward you, the forest becomes a library, and every walk brings them whispering from the woods. Maybe quiet places have an advantage, after all.


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