These four essays follow the course of water and its sounds: beginning from snow, moving through seasonal streams, to rivers, and ending in oceans. My hearings of place—in, respectively, the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia, the hills above Portola Valley in California, the Danube river near Bratislava, and the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Ireland—inspired me to think about the relation of sound, nature, and being human. Water speaks, in all of its forms. These essays try to capture some of what it spoke to me.
Snow in the Carpathian Mountains, near Bratislava (photo: Wiki Commons)
My first visit to the Slovak countryside was to a valley that sheltered a clutch of houses much smaller than a village, in the Carpathian Mountains above Bratislava, in the month of January. My cognizance of the qualities of the place was magnified by the winter night—where night sharpened, or even awakened, my perceptive faculties, and where snow gave to night the light and peace of the otherworldly. Snow is fascinating for the way in which it enables awareness of the quiet presence of the world, a mute affirmation that there is life, but no explanation. In so doing, it provides insight into silence. Silence is not conditioned by the physical absence of sound energy, rather, silence is a psychological state. Such silence is a simultaneous awareness, even if unconsciously so, of both the presence of the actively moving universe and the relative absence of one particular kind of sound: it is an awareness that the familiar and explainable sound of the human world seems to cease while the natural world continues in its revolutions. We see the impersonal activity of the physical world, the mystery that constitutes it, and the relative absence of human sound makes this all the more present.
I say the relative absence of human sound because even when such sounds are present in the experience of silence, they don’t always dictate our efforts to apprehend the world. They are a part of something larger, something difficult to reconjure and describe, but that which leaves the most lasting impression because it is endowed with the most quiet and overpowering intensity: the atmosphere, the combination of all elements in the environment and their impregnation in and with thinking consciousness, their intermingling with the active associative imagination. To the atmosphere in the Carpathians belonged the snow and the night (and it is a beautiful irony, one that speaks of the potency of the earth, that this winter landscape could trigger my perception of its irrepressible life), but also all else that was in the air: its scent and cold, and the human sounds it carried that could not prevent me from feeling the silence around them. The perception of sound even heightened my awareness of the silence—of the infinite openness of the universe into which the local sounds of the valley dissolved.
If silence seems to bring forth the presence of something that is beyond human, something older, of greater scale, and independent of us, I choose to believe nevertheless that there is no sphere “beyond.” There is nothing that is meta-physical. Whatever it is that is perceived as independent is independent not because it is different in that way, but because the perception of it is bound to an awareness that it will continue on its own course regardless of how we relate to it. Or, we might say that whatever difference it seems to possess results from the fact that although we sense its presence, the limitations of our perceptual faculties prevent us from grasping it, from comprehending it satisfactorily. And so my distinction, in the paragraphs above, between the human world and the natural world is both a convenient fiction and a compelling fact. It is a fiction because we can be nothing other than a part of the world from which we feel separated; it is a fact because our feeling of separation results from the real limitations of our capacity to perceive all dimensions of that world.
My first night in the Carpathians suggested that the paradoxical feeling of being separate from that of which we are a part can allow us to experience silence even in the presence of physical sound, for the silence we experience is a psychological state that results from a fleeting awareness of stimuli from the natural world operating in modes outside those of human perception. Said differently, silence is an inkling of the presence of something we cannot fully perceive, something moving in a dimension undetectable by human hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell. And if sounds are present in a moment of silence, they heighten the disjunction between the two spheres. Snow offers an opportunity to experience this: it obscures for a moment the stage of human activity and allows us to glimpse the incomprehensible theatre in which it occurs. We are confronted with the motion of life, but it is a motion that seems independent of us. From what does snow acquire this quality of silence? Perhaps it passes from its affinity with the ocean, Jacques Cousteau’s “silent world” (1953), which shares its medium with land through a process of evaporation and precipitation, then runs its course through streams and rivers that join sky to earth in an endless cycle of movement.
A seasonal stream, San Francisco Bay Area (photo: Wiki Commons)
A Seasonal Stream
The higher stretches of Alpine Road in Portola Valley, California, are insignificant when measured by frequency of travel. In comparison with the lower road, which is shiny and smooth, brightly painted and clearly demarcated for the masses of traffic it sustains, the higher road is unattractive according to the aesthetics of utility—it is faded and worn, and seems more a collection of patches, cracks, and crumbling edges than a road. Above Portola Road it turns in thriftless curves toward Skyline, and disappears into the hills that separate the Bay from the Pacific Ocean, reaching an end without having reached any goal.
This path, if unsuitable for the traffic of the masses, offers in its unfrequented rareness the possibility to experience a less common significance. The road itself overlooks a gulch and crosses others that feed into it. I once followed this gulch, in the quiet morning of a Northern California winter, until I reached a point high in green hills, where the wetness of the air, the dripping of the trees above, and the moisture of ferns and moss and fallen leaves enclosed me in a vegetal richness far removed from the frenetic rationality of Silicon Valley. I stopped there, aware of the fragile spell of the space around me and inhaled the sound of a seasonal stream following its course. As my mind attended to the sound of the stream, the entire space opened before me and revealed its secret: valley and stream and cosmos are alive, their motion is the life of being. The insight struck with exhilarating force: how could any witness to the persistent, anonymous movement of a rain-fed winter stream not see and hear that the earth itself is divine, that we merely human reside within a great dynamic process? How many thousands of winters has this stream been singing? How many billions of years has this process been in motion?
The presence that revealed itself to me on Alpine Road revealed itself initially through sound, through that seasonal stream. It was not the presence of another being—it was not centralized in that way. Rather, it was everywhere in every thing: in water, stone, tree, and air. And yet it was as though some other consciousness, outside of my own, was there with me and opened itself to me; or, more precisely, had been there all along, and I finally became aware of it. For it did not change once I became aware of it (though everything in me changed, as I saw revealed the entire world), but it merely nodded quietly and steadfast as if to say, “so I am, and so I have always been.” The One is repose, I thought (with Plotinus and Augustine), amid this quiet, irrefutable presence (Augustine 1991, 162 [IX.iv(11)]). My perception of the universe in this state apprehended infinity’s mute repose, its “mere” being: it said without words, “so I am, and so I have always been.”
Others who have had the good fortune to spend time in this part of the Peninsula Range of the Santa Cruz Mountains surely have seen it as I see it, as a paradise in the true sense of the word: not only an ideal space apart from civilization’s miseries, but also an enclosed area that is the preserve of those who somehow obtain the privilege to pass through the door. And indeed, the open space preserves that touch Alpine Road, and the many more that attempt to shield the Santa Cruz Mountains from the commerce and covetousness of the region, attest to the vision of others. My own years there were a blessing the grace of which I have felt every day of my life since.
The Danube, looking west from Hainburg (photo: Wiki Commons)
Rivers, when seen from far above, seem silent and inefficient. They curl and turn back upon themselves, lacing and dividing the ground with water. But from source to mouth, rivers can be seen also to possess a noisy efficiency, one that is rooted in adherence to a single force. All the complexity of their fluid surface, all the sound of their motion, and the power that moves past us volumes immeasurable beyond comprehension, this has as its cause that which pulls a mass toward a larger mass, always in the direction of least resistance.
The direction of least resistance is not without some resistance, and it is this which gives rivers their sound. And this sound, when we are near, provides the motion of water with its most obvious dimension of character. This suggests that you must approach very near the phenomena of the universe to know them differently—not necessarily “how they really are,” of course, for how can we say how they really are? Only differently. If there is a river, you will know it better, its other laws, only after you have got wet, have dipped your head beneath its surface, and immersed yourself in the sounds and the medium that seem different from afar. We are limited, then, as humans, for there are so many dimensions of the universe that operate in modes and on scales we have not the faculties to perceive.
For Claudio Magris, it was the delta of the Danube that brought home the limitations of perception. Despite all the insights the river gave him as he travelled the thousands of kilometers from its source, he found the delta, with its abundance of sound and movement, its living energy, beyond his perceptual capacities. Here the histories and cultures of the river dissolved into a sea of infinity:
today I am on the delta with its odours, colours, reflections, changing shadows on the current, wings flashing in the sun. The liquid life runs through the fingers and forces one […] to be aware of all the inadequacies of our perceptions, our senses atrophied by millennia, our sense of smell and of hearing unequal to the messages that come from every waving tuft of grass, our antique severance from the flow of life […] The immense chorus of the delta, the whole of its deep basso continuo, is to our ears only a murmur, a voice we cannot catch, the whisper of life which vanishes unheard, leaving us behind with our “hypoacoustic receptivity” (Magris 1989, 392).
The wonder and reverence of Magris’s prose recall, for me at least as an American now living on the Danube, a writer with a very different background: Henry David Thoreau (for example, Thoreau 1997, especially the opening paragraph of the chapter “Solitude” and the opening paragraph of the chapter “The Pond in Winter”). Both authors found themselves unequal to the messages that emanate—that literally flow out—from the living universe, and both felt compelled to point, through writing, toward that which they could not grasp.
There are unknown forces moving in all the things we see and hear (and touch and taste and smell). Whereas the river from above seems haphazard and inefficient, it also follows a different logic—if not the logic of the straight line, then the logic of the invisible and apparently universal force we call gravity. And perhaps the most natural way to get from source to mouth, from our origins to our dissolution into the vastness of the universe, is not to follow a straight line but to follow the serpentine paths carved by such forces. Therein lies a metaphor for life. The straight line is the logic of commerce, efficiency, and profit. And while this determinate line of enterprise is just as much a part of the natural world as the wayward course of rivers, we seem further removed from the essence when we follow its dictates.
But every way of seeing, from near and from far, determinate or wayward, is, ultimately, an abstraction. And you must choose the abstractions that will condition how you see the world. Having done so, you will be invested with a creativity that enables you to experience the world as a reflection of your own values, that enables you to see in all phenomena the logic of the laws that you observe, where “observe” means both “to see” and “choose to obey.” Nietzsche celebrated a similar idea in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” an essay in which he reassessed truth as a lie, and lies as the only possible truth (Nietzsche 1979, 86). Lies—as metaphor, art, and myth—are true because they accept illusion as illusion, whereas that which claims to be true has forgotten its origin in metaphor and subsequent growth as mere linguistic convention. His argument rests upon a belief that we, as humans, are driven to create metaphors that translate our perceptual experience, and that we can choose to fall back upon (old) conventions to express new experiences or we can cultivate the very genesis of experience by fashioning new metaphors that correspond creatively to what we perceive. To fall back upon convention is, for Nietzsche, not only to follow the herd but also to enslave ourselves to the lie of concepts, to divest the world of its richness, to stifle our fundamental drive, and to abandon any hope for happiness.
Nietzsche’s view is only one among many, and he knew it to be no more true than any other. Nevertheless, the excitement he found through engaging the world creatively, without the burden of truths, stretches beyond the confines of his particular life and can be felt by others who attempt to think the world according to their own perception and intuition. The words I have assembled here represent an attempt to train my own eyes and ears upon the world—not to convince a reader of the correctness of my way of seeing and hearing, but only to think through, and better articulate for myself, that way of seeing and hearing. And what I see and hear are affinities in the unity of diverse phenomena I am able to perceive, affinities that reveal themselves in sight and sound.
Trees, for example, are like the rivers with which they sometimes mingle: they have a noisy efficiency that we cannot hear and order from without, and they follow laws we have not the capacity to perceive. Trees also produce sounds that seem silence from a distance and they possess a logic that seems chaos from afar. Their roots are like headwaters that gather moisture from the earth and collect it into a central stream. The stream then flows to its end, through branches, to leaves, which fall in the autumn and dissolve into the vast ocean of the universe. The motion of tree-leaves produces a sound not unlike the rush of a river or the break of an ocean wave: a “white noise,” which combines a multitude of frequencies in unity. And the whispers of trees can speak to sensitive ears just as articulately as the singing of streams. (Incidentally, the sound of Germanic Strom, “river,” is not so far from Slavic strom, “tree”; and sonic affinities can be found in the English words stream and tree, which share a long “e” that springs from a common source interred in “tr”; to the former is then added the “s” of its wayward course.) Released into the larger pool of life, all is fed by that which has its origins in snow, streams, rivers, and oceans, then evaporates to fall again: water.
Rosscarbery Bay, Ireland (photo by the author)
As the source of all life, oceans are also the source of all loss and perhaps therefore a symbol of the desire to reconnect with imagined origins, with a prehistoric past. But this “silent world” is reticent only in its depths. Where we meet it at the shore, it speaks. As a professional musician with a severe hearing loss, and facing the real possibility of future deafness, I do not worry that I might never again hear music. Rather, it is the thought that I might never again hear the ocean that brings me to tears. Music is made by humans and can be imagined in a head with deaf ears. But the ocean was here before humans and will be here after; it creates a sound that could never be imagined with all the transcendent power it possesses in reality.
Now that I am a father, I realize there is another sound I could never recover in deafness: the laughter of my daughter. And like the ocean, she is a body of water. As a body of water, she delights in her daily reaquaintance with the medium: she is always soothed by a sip from a cup, and her baths are a splashing joy for her immersion into the essence of herself. As we get older, it can be easy to forget the pleasure and beauty of our daily traffic with water, and, unless we are directly affected by increasing desertification, by drought, or by thirst, we might take it for granted.
Drinking, for example, has a sound that is difficult to appreciate unless you are thirsty, for thirst prompts us to immerse the mind in the phenomena of drinking and then attend with sufficient concentration to the sound produced. Sitting in a hospital in Ireland (of all places to be thirsty!), badly dehydrated from a bout of food poisoning and vomiting anything that touched my tongue, I wanted nothing more than to have water pass between my lips. It seemed that I could feel it, or, rather, I knew what it would feel like. I could imagine with the most precise and evocative sensuous fidelity how it would feel to raise a small plastic hospital cup to my mouth, to have a little stream, its coolness and wetness the chief things in my perception, trickle between my lips, envelop my tongue, fall past my palate and down my throat, to bring relief as great as the very restoration of life. It is a feeling that may be shared by the hills above Portola Valley as every winter nears, just before the rain and seasonal streams return. And the sound of drinking water is as life-affirming as such a stream: a clean, fluid tinkle after a short slurp, as the liquid resonates in the esophagus while the ticks of a swallow move the inner ear. That mellifluous shiny tinkle seems captured in the word “drink” itself, with the clicks of high-pitched consonants like hard stones between which runs the “i” from “r” to “n”.
During my time in hospital, I told myself that I would always afterward savour and relish every drink of water that life would give to me. I am not sure I have done this. But that, perhaps, is symptomatic of my culture’s illness: we tend not to appreciate what we have and complain instead about what we do not have, all the while hurrying toward true misery and death. And what we have now are the good days, I fear, before the famine and the wars that will come with climate change, before the freedom to follow individual interests is curtailed by necessities of survival. Perhaps we can convince ourselves to find consolation in the fact that after humans have hastened their own demise and finally disappeared from the earth, the oceans will still be here, and with them the snow and rain, the seasonal streams, and the rivers that carry water back to oceans in an emotionless cycle. It is almost enough for me to sit or imagine myself sitting with that water before me. I want little more than its presence and sound—its analog verity, which can wash away all the digital striving of commerce without further rippling its own surface.
It is almost enough.
Augustine, Saint. 1991. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cousteau, Jacques Y., and Frédéric Dumas. 1953. The Silent World. New York: Harper.
Magris, Claudio. 1989. Danube. Translated by Patrick Creagh. New York: Farrer Straus Giroux.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1979. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” In Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s, translated by Daniel Breazeale. New Jersey: Humanities Press. Nietzsche’s original appears as “Ueber Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne.” In Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, vol. III/2, 367–384. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1973.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1997. Walden. New York: Oxford University Press.