To one who stands outside, the woods is a wall of leaves impassable by sight, passable by foot or wing. Come in and walk among the shades.

Wendell Berry, IX, Sabbath Poems, 2010

Falling Water, TN. Behind the sprawling homes closely and orderly placed as potted plants, there is an old shed. It is hidden and cramped on the edge of thinning trees near a creek whose length runs like twisted wire down from the mountains above. I stumbled upon it accidentally during the long, wet cold of last year’s winter. It is a faded, lost structure, its remaining boards warped and loose from uncounted soakings and seasons. To look within, the refuse of yesterday’s intent lies broken everywhere. Plywood, cracked, rotted, and ruined. Paint cans rusted shut. Decay only vaguely resembling some original shape. Always plastic wrappers. A fallen tree rests upon the shed’s top, denting it in by its collapse as if to crumple it like a discarded can.

I lean my head into its doorway to watch the light play through the cracks and gaping holes in the walls. Whatever plan sparked that shed’s raising has gone missing in the summered soil of the fertile valley. It’s a failed effort, ignored and left to rot, to be built around, not deemed worthy of even knocking down. A close friend, however, taught me the joy long ago of seeing these places, taking the time to map forgotten spaces with our steps. So I returned to the shed as spring gained a fragile footing around it, then again as summer, gathering its strength, straightened itself and its green abundance high and close on the ramshackle sides. It became the place I went to visit with silence.

Silence seems to be an old friend of humanity, one whom we can’t help but feel we once knew well, even loved dearly, but to whom we barely know how to speak to any longer. We are strangers now, and know it. So we awkwardly avoid silence whenever it is found unexpectedly in our company. How to even begin? There is some sense of having done poorly when it comes to our relation to silence. And so we have banished it to reside only in these forgotten corners and broken places, spots we rarely stop to see and so are blind to seeing. And there are so many such places. They are quite literally everywhere; often veiled by the bandages of natures’ faithful growth, or discarded along broken strings of unraveled road, or festering like sores in the great metropolitans in which we trust. More and more, I cannot seem to stop seeing these incidental, crumbling monuments left behind us.

Here, in this shed’s unremarkable pool of silence, I am reminded of other places where silence stretched like an ocean. I happened upon one of those waning shores the previous year when I resided in the mountains of the high desert. From our cabin sitting high atop the mountains’ flanks, I watched as the long, hot days passed and the mountains, after months of bearing the summer’s creaking life upon their backs, relaxed beneath the loosening influence of October’s hands, quietly undoing the thick, tight knots of August. It was a beautiful place and it was, for brief moments, very silent.

A road’s needle has been woven through those mountains’ gaps rising slowly up to the crest. From my deck, cars sped up and down it in an endless stream of destinations sought after and presumably found, before seeking others, the engines pulsing in the air like a rattling breath stuck in the swollen lungs of the rocks on either side. It was the very road I needed to even reach where I lived. So I was a participant and perpetrator in that droning corrosion which almost never ceased.

But when it did, when our world’s hungry travel faded for a moment, the weakened tide of the land’s ancient peace welled up. Even in that sapped state, the span and breadth of it was humbling to encounter, for in those tiny seconds, its former power was met. A silence once deeply filling the great space between heaven and desert, spreading out further than any person could then imagine ever journeying. What a feast it must have been for almost time immemorial, this quiet; a stillness praised and rippled by birdsong, and breadth and edges ruffled by the wind’s steady hand joyously smoothing it. Its might once mirroring the very stone foundations on which the wilderness rested.

But no longer. That silence can only be experienced for a few fleeting seconds, before the road resumes gnawing the air. The noisy decades’ cracking and fragmenting have broken this great silence into pieces, to split them into smaller chunks, before finally reducing them to grit beneath our grinding busyness. The land’s predecessors would not have been able to imagine such a state. Its suggestion might have sounded as believable to their ears as if to suggest the mountains themselves might collapse suddenly into a pile of pebbles at their feet to be driven and kicked until they were scattered beyond salvage. What a difference a lifetime makes.

From the seeds of abuse and neglect, that mutual estrangement blooms. It is difficult for us now to even imagine whatever positive influence silence may possess. So inversely, we fail to recognize the lack of that influence writ large on our souls. Our great, brittle society leaves little room for silences in its loveless efficiency, crippling connectivity, and gluttonous consumerism. Why? For the simple reason it is easier to learn to be dry than to learn to thirst. To be dry is a state that can be mastered, adapted, endured, even perhaps fixed. Thirst, rather, admits a fearful existence that exposes us for what we truly are: dependent. Dependency, to actually need and live from that humility, might be the highest sin of the modern age. The implicit hope seems to be that the very continued momentum of countless comforts and new technologies might carry humanity out of the reach of any memory of our many needs.

But they haven’t.

Instead addiction, destruction, exploitation, poverty, despair, and suicide are our reward. Silence might find few places in our lives to rest, yet the need for it remains. And what do many of our collective rewards share in common? A denial of our need. Our need is greater than just a need for silence but it is not less than that. For, to be silent is active submission or adopted posture of needing to receive from the outside what we cannot create on our own. Or in other words, if we are not silent, we do not receive.

The tacit admission of silence’s need is not easy on our pride, though. Most of the time, if we stop long enough to feel need, it is quickly unendurable and rejected. Rather, we construct and build anything we conceive might expel that thirst, no matter the cost, result, or obvious failure. And so it is. Look around. The earth is laid barren by the piles of altars written as the lettering of our history, withering and cracking in resistance to need.

We are left at the mercy of the always receding “Objective” (as Wendell Berry names it in his wonderful poem) toward which all our labor, our exertion, our desires, our hopes, our trash, and our ruins are spent. And there is no end in sight. Soon a worse thought comes to mind: how will future generations, reared in the clamor of this sort of living, even have a chance to know silence? How can they receive it when it is actively being wiped out of daily living? So a once neglected silence might be forgotten and to be dry will be, horribly, simply to exist. And as many astute minds have pointed out before me, existing is not the same as living.

But within the shed’s failing walls, remain some of the greatest treasures granted to us. With the days’ waxing and waning, the sunlight applies its endless hues patiently as a timeworn painter, tireless and affectionate to the detail, layer, and color of familiar, beloved work. The sun’s brushes lie everywhere at hand, for they are every green thing of the forest. Leaves broad and slim, high and low, vibrant and muted, are the bristles through which the light filters to coat the shed in light’s glow and textured shadow. The result is a place always made anew. In the morning, the sun cuts through the weak boards bright and clear, sharply illuminating the shed’s sagging, empty floor. Then in the evening, the sun’s angle yellows its light, now steeped in a thousand leaves before its spilled upon the dust; and those useless, bowed floorboards are suddenly heaped with gold; gold we cannot hoard or spend, but gold all the same.

In silently watching this, I discover I need terribly to see such beauty, and my delight is great in its presence. In watching, my heart is struck like a chord by a master’s hand. Such “small” beauties are grace experienced, soothing my weary heart, gaunt with worry. Beauty is given apart from us, even despite us, but nourishes any who will slow enough to enjoy it. It endures beyond the handful of time I so desperately clutch. It reveals humanity as a living contradiction. We feel that all that happens to us in our lives deeply matters, yet we also never feel so alive as in those fleeting, transcendent moments where we are freed from our relentless self-awareness to forget ourselves entirely. Beauty is able to do this like little else. But in our world we are accustomed to beauty as a commodity bartered, not grace received; and commodities are to be marketed, produced, sold, and bought, so we miss beauty entirely and wonder at our continued need for it when it is advertised and peddled everywhere we look.

As I exit the shed’s door, I return to the trees’ company. I remember in winter where once the lean porous lines of naked trunks descended like a threadbare coat down to the mountains’ feet, now a full, green wall stands impenetrable. Every gap and crack is filled by leaf and life. While not a new sight, after the last four years of living in the high desert, it has become a new discovery. This forest, fortified by heat and humidity, is a wonder into which I am welcomed to disappear and walk within. If I give my company and attention, those limbs and beams harbor a peace and silence not offered to the rushing passerby without. The forest’s beauty stands stubbornly counter to the pain, cruelty, and bleeding around us. It’s a resilient, silent proof able to minimize bloated, conceited lives. Reach out to touch the rough bark; the rings beneath will ripple far further than the small number of your years’ preoccupations.

The melody of the woods when raindrops spring from the tongue of every blade and bud of summer is a joy to hear. In downpour, it rises to a full-throated roar, as if the great, invisible current of life’s miracle is passing close by, just out of sight. It is powerful. I am reminded in this beauty that my own efforts should adorn my living as these leaves their trees; both serving as part to a greater whole, both destined to fall forgotten yet unquestionably good and pleasing in their time, and finally both sustained through graces received not earned or made.

So I keep entering the shed’s threshold to poke around its corners as I keep walking with the trees. To be silent and receive. We, like the ancient Hebrews, leave altars in our wake. Our drained silos, diseased factories, diluted wilds, rusted sheds, and the plundered soil beneath our feet serve as shrines and witnesses to our covenant to be dry and free of thirst. We reveal more than we intend in the places we abandon.

Photo credit: Ryan Davis

Local Culture
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  1. Jerimiah Johnson: Something on your mind, boy?
    Caleb: (silence)
    Jerimiah Johnson: Ahhhgh. Leave it be. Nothin’ wrong with quiet.

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