The Walton brothers leave in two days for their epic paddle on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and as they pack and plan, I find myself wondering how Mark and Hugh will adapt to a group setting, because when it’s just the two of them, the trips are filled with long, contented, contemplative silence. A group of 16-20 paddlers is sure to be filled with whoops and the idle yakking that an exciting adventure can bring out in boisterous, bombastic ways.
Silence and wilderness are comfortable companions. Big, wide, primitive, and timeless spaces like the Grand Canyon almost demand our reverent silence. So much so that the human tendency toward ceaseless chatter is nearly a sacrilege. I say ‘nearly’ because there are times when a gasp or sigh just won’t do, when, in our inability to find the words to describe God’s perfect creation, we can only utter an awe-filled, praise-pregnant, “Wow.”
A few weeks ago, at a gorgeous state campground in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we were surrounded by such surreal beauty that we could hardly speak at times. Yet, there were our neighbors, blasting their base-thrumming music right up to the stroke of the start of quiet hours. Beautiful wilderness, birdsong, chipmunk chirrups, the wide river lapping the shore, thunder in the distance- all crowded out by someone’s idea of a sound so beloved that it just had to be shared with everyone.
We seem to have arrived at a cultural norm in which it is another person’s right to fill “my” personal space with any sound, at any volume they choose, and if I don’t like it, I can leave. I get to listen to their cell phone conversations, their music, and their video movies on line at the store, in waiting rooms, restaurants, and, yes, even wilderness campgrounds. They may find it entertaining. I find it immensely thoughtless- storms, earthquakes and fires of our own destructive making. But, God told Elijah that he was not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. God was a whisper so low that Elijah had to go outside and be silent to hear it. (1Kings 19)
Where in this whole, big world can we go to find real silence-that quietness of space and soul that God can speak into with his whispers?
And why do we shun God’s silent places with noise that distracts and numbs us while overflowing into our neighbors’ lives? I find this mindless and endless self-absorption disheartening at best, a habit-forming and careless* practice of escapism that effectively shuts God’s voice right out of our lives, and, what’s more, intrusively does so to the people around us.
Just look to the creation! The sun rises and sets without a sound. The caterpillar curls up and noiselessly becomes a whispering butterfly, the trees mutely leaf out in a stunning welcome to spring, and the snowflake somersaults in freefall in glorious silence.
I think this is why I gravitate toward rowing, sailing, paddling, fishing, and beach walks. No, these are never silent, but the music is God-given, rarely brassy, harsh, or discordant. The rills of water against the oars, the foaming gossip of a white-capped wave spilling onto the beach, the scree of the hungry hawk, the wind like a cellist’s bow against the cedar boughs, and the laugh of the blue jay- now this is a symphony of harmonious delight, free for the listening. The wilderness preserves silence on this busy planet, which is one big reason it is important for us to be committed to the preservation of the wilderness.
The wilderness can give you the concert of a lifetime if you’ll learn to hush yourself.
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- by careless, I mean that a person could care less