WHEN I WAS a sixteen-year-old naturalist in training, we were instructed to sit in the forest and wait for the return of something called “the baseline symphony.” The baseline symphony was the music of a landscape at ease—the confluence of insect, bird, and animal song, underscored by wind and water. The dynamics of that symphony shifted as day progressed into night. There were brief caesuras, but it did not fall silent for long except in the case of a disturbance. Silence signaled the onset of weather events, a stalking predator, the encroachment of loggers, or the footfalls of a teenager with punk rock looping loudly in her brain. As I picked down the forest path, an unnatural quiet fell, broken only by the occasional bird alarm.
With practice, I learned to still my mind and body long enough for the baseline symphony to return. Insects would take up their strings, their song swelling like groundwater all around me. It was as if my vagus nerve were a dial, tuning me from static to a sublime frequency.
A couple of years later, I sat on a beach in Tulum at midnight, in the strangest quiet of my life. What is this place? I wondered. Then a sudden and obliterating wind sandblasted my face. I spent the next few hours holding down one side of a cabaña, and later slept on the ground beneath it in the eye of a storm. I’d forgotten a basic lesson: where there is life, silence always means.
I have heard many silences over the years, but rarely have they meant peace or calm. I’ve heard electric silences, like the current that runs between one blues bar and the next; between the opera’s close and the first bravo! I’ve heard the suffocating silence of a collapsing marriage; the thrashing silence of deep water. I’ve heard pregnant silences, like those that precede difficult-to-say phrases: “I am in love with you,” or “I’m not in love with you,” or simply, “I have something to tell you.”
A few months ago, in a voicemail message, my father said that he had something to tell me. And when I called back, there was a nauseating silence between my hello and his news: “Your sister is dead.”
It took me several days to hear him.
The human ear is a blunt utensil, and whole worlds of sound hum with activity just beyond its range. Bats and moths and dolphins perceive these worlds, as surely as the elephant’s trunk whiffs the water she walks toward, sometimes miles away. We can’t detect those sonic ecologies, but we must sense that they are there. Maybe that’s why silence so disturbs us, why we fill it with chatter, to drown out those spectral songs at perception’s edge.
Silence will not stand, it seems, not even in our own creations. As silent film transitioned to talkies, viewers were unsettled by the soft blows of staged fist fights, by the absence of ambient noise. The foley artist emerged to create the sounds of footsteps and rustling fabric to sync with images in postproduction. Without the effects of cause, we become disoriented. We need the crisp click of boot heels on tile, the crunch of snow, to hold our bearings.
When the baseline symphony returns to a forest, it brings the “companion call,” a short burst of vocalization bounced between birds. Social animals of all kinds use these calls to keep track of their intimates, to affirm and reaffirm the wellness of the world.
Where are you?
I’m here . . . You there?
I’m here . . . You there?
If the question goes unanswered, the mate will call again and again, with increasing agitation and frequency. If a response comes at last: relief, a return to baseline. If not: distress, chaos, and eventual desertion. We lose track of our purpose when the beloved falls silent.
During the sleepless weeks following my sister’s death, I came unmoored. My brain conjured music and murmuring voices from the silence of my bedroom, a phenomenon I have since learned to call “involuntary musical imagery.” No pillow could quiet that intrusive music. It could not be dampened by external means. Silence is typically defined as an absence of sound, but in this case, it was an instrument picking up phantoms. At the reception following her memorial service, I was seated next to a man who described himself as a “paranormal investigator.” He told me about a special device designed to record the voices of discarnate spirits.
“What do the dead say?” I asked.
“Oh, all kinds of things,” he said. Usually single words or simple phrases. Hello. Yes. No. I am here.
Normally, I’d be skeptical of such a claim, but a terrible silence had shrouded my sister’s death. I understood, intellectually, that she was gone. But my body had not yet caught up to that information. My heart kept pleading, Where are you? I wished then that the man had brought his device to the dinner. I’d never known a world without my sister’s voice, and I was desperate to hear her speak again. Even if only to hear her say, “Hello. I am here.”
Nauseating, suffocating, thrashing, pregnant, electric. Silence is absence, or it’s an instrument. It can be avowed and entered like a cloister, or dispensed as “treatment.” Silence is the screen for our shadow play. Porter of desire, fear, mental noise. It is golden, or it is violence. It is the fence around wisdom, the scaffold holding the poet’s broken lines. It speaks the unfinished conversations of the sleep-deprived. But so long as there is a listener there to hear it, silence always means.