John Colson: Hit and Run
November 6, 2009
Say nothing, just sit, close your eyes, and imagine something, anything that is not wrapped in noise and tumult.
A cove on the ocean where the waves are small and the seabirds soar high and away.
A spot deep in a Sequoia forest where the loudest thing you hear is the drip of moisture from leaf to ground, or the flutter of wings as a brightly colored bird moves from tree to tree.
A rocky shelf in the desert, where, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of the sun baking your skin or the noise your eyelids make as they come together in a blink.
A dusty corner deep in the recesses of a large library in the midst of a city, at midday on a Wednesday, when even the librarian has gone to sleep and the few patrons in sight merely shuffle the leaves of books and smile inwardly at something they read.
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Just sit and imagine, and if no picture comes immediately to mind, just listen to the sound of your own heartbeat, of the blood coursing through your veins.
Nice, ain’t it?
I think so, and it’s something we experience so rarely in these hurly-burly days that it strikes us as odd to even think about it.
This is the kind of thing that proponents of the Hidden Gems wilderness effort want to preserve for all of us, places where we can go to enjoy the silence we’ve lost in our daily lives, as well as the vistas of unspoiled territory stretching in all directions.
It’s no surprise that fans of motorized travel in the back woods make up much of the resistance to the Hidden Gems proposal, which would create a string of stand-alone wilderness areas, encompassing several hundred thousand acres of land in western Colorado.
Silence and solitude are not the main goals of people who travel on noisy, gas-belching machines to reach the far-flung places. No, the goals of such travelers include camaraderie with their cohort, speed-spawned thrills, a feeling of triumph over distances and obstacles, that sort of thing.
Silence and contemplative immobility do not come into it.
And, interestingly enough, the battle over this clash has reached, well, a noisy crescendo.
It seems to me that many of those enamored of motorized travel into the back woods are fine folks, hardy examples of the breed that tore the West from the hands of the native tribes who were here before us, settled it and made it what it is. They have families and friends who love them, they are human and fallible – a lot like those of us who think this wilderness idea makes a lot of sense.
But they, unlike us, see nothing wrong with bringing the noise and hubbub of “normal” life into the woods with them.
And therein lies the rub. It is a conflict we cannot avoid, and one that is difficult to solve, since at its core it is a clash of values.
And the values dear to the silence-loving, solitude-seeking types are not ascendant in our culture, as you may have noticed.
A recent Newsweek magazine essay by Julia Baird makes much the same point, focusing on our cultural addiction to cell phones, television, car horns and other devices that fill every nook and cranny of our noisy nation.
Actually, she quotes a British author, Sara Maitland, who posits the notion that the cell phone is “a major breakthrough for the powers of hell,” in that Satan is famously believed to hate silence, and to prefer a place ruled by cacophony.
Maitland has spent a great deal of time and effort to get away from it all, and silence is her Holy Grail. She even wrote a book about it, titled “A Book of Silence,” in which she sought out the very kinds of places I mentioned at the opening of this piece to see how they would make her feel.
And they made her feel good, to put it simply.
And that is what is so attractive, to me at any rate, about the Hidden Gems proposal.
The number of places where we can go to find silence, or close to it, are disappearing everywhere in the U.S., and we would do well to hang onto the bits that we have left.