By Robert Samuelsen
‘If a tree falls in the forest, does it make sound?’, is the age-old riddle of challenge. Some years ago in northern Ontario, I had just portaged my canoe 3 miles over “the pig” from one lake to the next. It was a brutal day so when night fell, I embraced a nice fire, relaxed with hot cocoa, and bragged about the day’s struggles. Then collectively and simultaneously, the conversation stopped, and nature took over. It wasn’t a decrescendo of banter and a crescendo of nature but rather a sudden channel change from Iron Butterfly’s ‘In a Gadda Da Vida’ to Puccini’s ‘Madam Butterfly. What was imperceptible with human chatter, now became an 80-decibel symphony directed by Mother Earth; the haunting hoot of the loon, the slap of a beaver tail, bullfrogs looking for a mate, wolves calling for the hunt, fish jumping for insects, and waves hitting the shore, all in sync and on pitch. Incredulously, what hadn’t been heard, but was always there, was now dominating the soundscape. A tree fell.
In today’s world, we are inundated with sound. Ironically, to cut out sound, we add sound. Ear buds, Spotify, play lists are the rage and the other rage pollutes our ears with profanity, horn honks, and hostility. There is so much noise, we literally can’t hear ourselves think.
I was in total darkness a couple hundred feet beneath the earth’s surface. I had turned off my headlamp to demonstrate the stunning absence of perception. In the sensory abyss of a cave, the mind plays tricks on itself while it searches vigorously for a single lumen of light or a single decibel of sound. All perception is heightened as you see imaginary floaters in your eyes and hear nothing but your heartbeat in your ears. Then you hear a single drop of water falling from a distant stalactite that resonates like timpani in Carnegie Hall. It’s one of the most profound experiences one can encounter!
Animals make sounds of bliss, attraction, and warning. This spring with the Palo Verde trees in full bloom, I took my decibel meter to the tree. The bee hum was an astounding 60 decibels of nectar ecstasy. While the gentle coo of a morning dove whispers love, the White Bellbird call can match the decibels of a jackhammer. And, the rattlesnake warns predators by rapidly shaking the keratin segments of its tail. It’s such a distinct scream of danger, people tremble.
Maybe not the smartest thing I’ve done, I was solo camping in bear country. In the middle of the moonless night, I was suddenly awakened by the noise of a very large critter right outside my tiny tent. Like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, I felt oddly secure surrounded by millimeter thick nylon believing that what you can’t see won’t hurt you. Bundled in my sleeping bag, I later realized that I might have looked like a yummy “piggy in a blanket” meal to a carnivore, and no fur! After some minutes, I bravely unzipped my tent door to see what it might be. I was prepared to be eaten! It turns out my fear was unfounded – it was an elk munching on grass next to my tent. I could have reached out and grabbed its leg if I had wanted to. Relieved, I slowly fell back to sleep.
American composer John Cage famously wrote his 4:33 musical composition – a 4 minute, 33 second piece of rests – performed in the absence of deliberate sound to highlight the sounds of the unintentional. Rather than music by the performer, it was the sound of the audience that made the song! One of the wonders of wilderness is human quiet, making the background the foreground. Just like John Cage, it obfuscates the obvious. It allows the whisperings of the spirit to speak to your heart. It resets your soul back to its roots. It allows us to ponder and consider the deepest yearnings of the mind. All of society would benefit from the miracle of silence – heart, soul, and mind.
To dispel the “tree fall” mystery, sound is created by the displacement and pressure of air. A falling tree would cause those mechanical waves to emanate. Even if the sound was obscured, it would still be there. Even if humans weren’t present, it would still be there. Even if the sound waves exceeded the limits of the human experience, it would still be there. Turn off the worldly noise and see what the natural world is saying to you.
Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!