Not long after I moved to Durango, Colorado, my future husband and I ventured into the mountains to backcountry ski on a February weekday. The sky was a muddled grey as a storm silently raged. Broad flakes wafted down while we climbed through the empty forests, our jackets sodden and heavy. We didn’t see a single other person all day.
Andrew and I chose to ski a safe, mellow slope blanketed in aspens, and the monochrome of the trees’ bark against the bare white snow made it feel like we were skiing through an Ansel Adams photograph. Weaving down, I felt nearly weightless as the airy snow puffed up over my head like smoke. At the bottom, we stood there in the dim light, grinning then eventually fell silent, taking in our surroundings.
In that stillness, I suddenly became aware of a different aspect of the landscape, one that I was normally oblivious to. Utter silence. Snow naturally insulates the land and dampens sound. I had visited quiet forests before but somehow I had never been to a place this quiet. Or at least, I had never noticed. Perhaps it was the near weightlessness of Rocky Mountain snow or its sheer depth. In the windless gloom, all I could hear was the barely perceptible sound of snowflakes falling on snowflakes and the faint wheeze of our own cold breath.
It took experiencing the almost complete absence of sound for me to realize that so much of my life is shaped by it, from the way a song instantaneously triggers a memory to the irritation that arises from the drone of a lawnmower in the morning. I realized that this largely unrecognized force textures my days and seasons my moods, and I became curious. If noise influences vast swaths of my life, mostly subconsciously, what could a concerted exploration of quiet do for me?
This was the question that marinated for years in my mind and eventually ripened into a feature essay, “Sounds of Silence,” for 5280 magazine’s December issue. (Online, it’s called “Are Growth and Development Threatening Our Last Quiet Places?”)
My reporting ranged from the backwoods of Colorado, the stupas of Crestone and university laboratories to my own experience on silent meditation retreats. I hope that the story invites people to begin to think of silence not as a void or an absence but as a precious and overlooked gift. Click here to read the story on 5280’s website. Also, check out the awesome illustrations by Sarah Maxwell!