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Seeking stillness

Nature's Notebook

I was up before dawn on a cool autumn morning to listen to silence. The air was still and sounds carried from far beyond my range of sight. I heard a crow calling high in the pines, and a loon somewhere out on the water. I heard dry leaves landing, and an engine, far away.

The gift of stillness sharpens my senses. It grounds and turns me outward. I feel the wind that barely stirs the treetops, and notice small movements that are often overlooked. A vole in the grass, or a bird in the branches, reveal themselves when I am still. Birdwatchers know this well, and attune themselves toward what they seek. But some of these veteran birders have turned their fine skills to new observations, and regained the thrill of fresh discovery in learning their moths and butterflies.

Stillness is about letting things come. The hunter in a tree stand sees far more of the natural world than just his or her quarry. The beachcomber who searches for something too specific— the elusive message in a bottle, perhaps — will miss treasures of other kinds in the pebbles and sand. What the moment offers depends less on expert knowledge than on our own receptivity. As e.e. cummings reminds us, “feeling is first.”

A clear night strewn with stars electrifies me. I have been known to stand in my driveway, out of the glare of the street lamp, and stare on frosty nights at the rim of our galaxy with constellations swirling in its wake. I have forgotten some of the forms that the ancients gave these mutable patterns, but those that I do recall are like pins on the map of heaven, places I have seen and return to as seasons shift and the wheel turns. Even here, in the vast stillness of space, there is light that does not come from stars, but bleeds up from what lies below, or follows the curve of the Earth, pulsing signals to our machines for us to perceive. And even space is not still, and the lights that we see are but visions from the past.

Chet Raymo, one of the most gifted observers of nature and the human spirit, has movingly written: “Silence is more than mere absence of sound ... The natural universe we inhabit may indeed be infinite, and in any case is effectively so. The finite is that which we presently understand and speak of reliably in language. The infinite is that which is yet unspoken. The infinite is the great silence in which we live and move and have our being.”

My grandmother’s favorite lines of Scripture are from Isaiah 30:15: “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” This was her usual advice to those about to face examinations. The full verse speaks of salvation through “returning and rest.”

The noise and distractions of daily life are like propellers and sonar that provide for modern living yet prevent whales from singing across oceans. They keep us from hearing what is all around us, in stillness, in truly knowing where we are.

Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.