Silence takes many forms. At Cathedral Gorge State Park upon the indigenous territories of the Fremont and Southern Paiutes in Nevada it is the absence of wind whistling through the clay canyons. A deep, sacred silence. A contemplative silence in which I can detect the scurry of a mottled lizard seeking shade. It half-heartedly performs five push-ups on an outcrop before scampering back into the mouth of a mouse-sized cavity. Then the hot breeze picks up again, scattering sand up into my face. I choke and cough, but stay in place, thankful for the ravines’ cooler temperatures in the desert heat.
Outside the beige cliffs, silence is the sound of my feet thumping along the hardened kaolin trail. Juniper and sage fall from me on either side, expanding into a mirage of replicating undulations. Looking back at the buff spires, I can hardly believe all those slitted entrances exist to transport me into a world of shadowed textures. The naturally sculpted walls keep their counsel — preserving stories of Pliocene gilled creatures and eruptive volcanoes, hunter and hunted. A hawk circles the azure, uttering baleful shrieks which tear the tranquil fabric. I envy the bird’s boldness. The inexorable warmth stifles my voice, dampens my movements so that I skulk in the openness…watchful, though nothing materializes for miles.
Silence conceals as often as it reveals. Alone with my thoughts in this arid landscape, I think about the matters I’ve left unsaid for various reasons. Tales I’m unwilling to tell. Though every story betrays the storyteller, we are not the sum of our chronicles. Yet, how often I continue to mistake comprehension of an artist through their creations. How many have falsely believed the same of me. An embroidered butterfly flashes out of a primrose bush. I rush to make allegory of this scene, to imbue it with some sort of significance…again desperate to control the narrative, instead of letting it be what it is: a change disclosed to my lucky senses. The winged creature collects, amplifies, is its own outside of my intentions.
There is so much silence in the ordinary. Sometimes it can be misread as indifference. Or forgetfulness. Growing up I became used to silence. It filled our home and my days as I navigated two languages and two cultures. It sunk heritage and histories my family thought better left in the dark. It faded memories and wisdom they had no tools to translate. An unfillable gap. An irretrievable loss. The depositions of sediment around me speak of other losses too easily silenced: testimonies of those who’ve gone before and those who survive, cradled still within this land. Sagas vanished into the vortex of violence which I will never hear or read.
Someone I lost once told me, “silence begins with the mouth.” Do I always understand when keeping peace is helpful, when it is harmful? The silence of not speaking comes easily to me: I keep quiet in order to not be “the problem,” to not attract the “wrong” sort of attention. The silencing of truth is part of the human condition. Together with the silences born out of fear and shame, they perpetuate the harm I bring to myself and others. The pain does not lessen because I stay silent. Nor does death walk away from my muteness.
There is also the power of healing in silence founded on love. Not a silence of hiding, but in being together without speaking. Silence as a key to understanding the essential, not a choice bent from the desire to protect, or minimize future unpleasantness. Such quiet transforms the receiver into that brief puddle of light which illuminates the heart. I sit in the wordlessness of the desert, exhausted from the fever of my hike. I drink in the leaves of sky peeping through petrified dunes and listen to the sands singing. There’s so much to unpack in the silence surrounding me.
Cryptobiotic soil is the gel that holds life together in the sparse vegetated areas of the Nevada desert. As it stabilizes the top layer from wind and water erosion, it invites lichens, mosses, and algae to proliferate on rocks and other hard surfaces, promoting propagation of wildlife.
When have you kept silent and later realized you should have spoken? Has the opposite been true? I’d love to know about your experience in the comments below.