Listen, and be rewarded

JOSHUA BESSEX — The Daily Astorian

Story by Matt Winters

Like most everybody, I carry in my pocket the opportunity to listen to any imaginable song or book, and for a few years indulged my literary tastes while walking from home out to our cape’s sunset-facing cliffs. Neil Gaiman’s “Ocean at the End of the Lane” and “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss are a couple favorites.

But I literally have an ocean at the end of my lane, and learning the name of the wind is a pursuit that requires infinite patience and close attention. So my earbuds have been plucked out, in favor of listening to the world that surrounds me and my companion — an undaunted (and sometimes kind of wimpy) soft-coated wheaten terrier, Duncan. He chases off plump black bears 10 times his size but shies away from getting his blond locks wet in the rain.

The Columbia River estuary, Oregon’s North Coast, and Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula and Willapa Bay are a world-famous gourmet banquet for the eyes — as this magazine or Google Images easily attest. Less celebrated, but no less splendid, are its sounds.

The first that deserves praise isn’t a sound at all, but absence of it. Silence is a precious resource. Just as clean, cold water sustains life, a natural state of pure quiet sustains the soul.

Silence is a precious resource. Just as clean, cold water sustains life, a natural state of pure quiet sustains the soul.

If you have always lived in a city, lack of constant background din might be discombobulating. But for us who live here, visiting Portland or Seattle means adjusting to the ceaseless ambient noise of traffic on all sides and aircraft overhead. Much as we love Pacific Northwest cities and all they have to offer, their chaotic cacophony of sirens, air-brakes, engines, horns, and voices is sandpaper on our nerve endings.

Quiet, like our night skies largely free of light pollution, is part of this place’s fundamental DNA. Unblemished by the harsh static of modern life, here we are free to savor the music of the earth and sea.

By a subtle alchemy of the atmosphere, some mornings here you’d swear the surf is crashing only a few feet away from your bedroom when in reality it might be a mile to the nearest beach, cliff, or jetty. Other times, the ocean is silent as an ancient sturgeon lounging down in her hole, and I’ve topped the foredune before its soft rumble reaches my ears. It’s like a cat that either roars or purrs depending on mood.

Its most operatic performances are generated by unseen storms out in the distant Pacific or fierce south winds right along the shore. All this pulsing energy clutches the ocean surface and pulls it into exploding walls of water, an assault by giants against the land. These winter armies put on one of nature’s greatest shows, but you’ll need Gore Tex armor to comfortably observe them. And best be nimble, best be quick — the waves can snatch you if you’re not on your toes.

Other things to listen for:

• Pacific tree frogs look like green enamel ornaments for a faery’s Christmas tree but emit peeps like a garbage truck backing up. This sound is so closely tied to spring, I’m unsure whether tree frogs signal warming or personally create it. A bit later in the season, red-legged frogs gather in their thousands in local wetlands for love and tabernacle lullabies into the April nights.

• You might think you’re alone on a walk through the lichen-encrusted alders and old-growth conifers of our coast. You’re wrong. Coyote pups and parents are aware of your every gesture. Often, the first they make their presence known is when some distant police siren incites them to a duel. Suddenly, their high-pitched barks and howls swirl up from the woody hollows, a witch-like but amused chorus, the sound of joyous, unabashed life.

• Of the human sounds, best are the foghorns of skyscraper-sized ocean freighters pushing through the thick vapors and idling fishing boats at the river’s mouth. It is a Cyclopean sound, reverberating around the estuary’s circling hills, a musician’s bass note as it might sound from inside a stadium-sized speaker. On a foggy morning, it commands drowsy sleepers to snuggle deeper into our comforters, guiding us on a path back into complex dreams.

• Of all the potential offerings on this delicious menu of sounds, I’ll end with birds. Going down to the Pacific, there nearly always is a trapeze of flickers that swoops into flight at my approach, scattering with a swiftly diminishing tap of wing beats into the surrounding branches. If ever overtaken by blindness, this sound will still make these cautious woodpeckers visible in my mind’s eye. Coming back uphill through the woods, a different trail leads past owl roosts. Gods and goddesses to the forest’s small creatures, their flight is the distilled essence of silence, so profound it’s hardly audible at all. It is the sound of watchfulness, of being completely present in the moment they inhabit. An uninvited guest lumbering past their home, I wait for them to call my name.

Take time to be quiet when you come here. Listen, and be rewarded.