Simplicity’s sweet serenade

Russell Wangersky
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Two months ago, in Cape Breton, it was a cool, damp morning with the sun playing over the tops of the hills around North River, not a soul in sight and the sound of one lone dog barking up into the mist-holding air. On a porch, on a hill, on a Saturday in autumn: every now and then, a single coloured leaf dropping, alone, from its branch, catching your eye with its sudden motion.

Later, walking the Cape Breton road in the complete and pitch dark, eyes dazzled by occasional cars, then crossing the highway bridge over the river itself, caught up all at once by the lack of visual information and the way the sound of the river — a broad, slow curve of river with one riffle-falls just below the bridge — filled not only my ears but essentially every sense. It was as though, with the other senses blackened, the sound and smell of the river was so much more.

This past weekend, on an empty St. John’s street with the first touch of snow to stay more than minutes, no cars in sight, the orange of the streetlights holding pavement in stasis.

No real sound: the undercurrent of industry rolling up from the harbour apron, backup alarms and fugitive clangs and thuds, but this street itself was still, no traffic, no walkers, no sirens or horns or tire hiss, only the harbour tympani beating its gentle, regular round of background.

It’s funny: I once thought that beauty lived in the complex and the ornate. The calculated, ranging structure and combination of a choir: the careful chosen magic of paints or photographic artistry.

The particular design; the great cathedral; the chord shift that sounds at once intuitive and carefully wrought — perhaps it is the more impressive artistry. I’m not sure.

It’s hard to reconcile man-made design with a late-evening planet hanging — just so — below a half-moon, so that the sky’s balance looks as effortless as socks peeled from your feet and thrown towards the laundry basket, fallen in those fabric-roll arches you could never reproduce.

This is not going very well. I had hoped to be as clear as the North River was in full daylight, as clear as the street on a night when even the parked cars decided they had somewhere better to be. Instead, I wonder if the prevailing thought left will be “Socks? The moon? Is he on drugs?”

The point I’m trying to make is that perception might be like hearing: even now, I can hear plenty of things from far away, when there are only single sounds.

When I’m in a crowded room, the tangle of overlapping voices almost seems to confuse the part of my brain that understands language.

Likewise, great complexities of construction now leave me somewhat overwhelmed, focusing more on the edges than on the whole. Or like time, which seems now to collapse so easily, accordion-like, this year into next, so that I’m still thinking in August and December’s suddenly here.

Enough on the why, then. I’ll stick to the fact of it.

Perhaps, before the rush of Internet and the roar, ebb and flow of modern life, there was a finer note.

Now, sometimes, I find that beauty is most poignantly in the big clear, the most empty of nights and the most still of days, when if you listen carefully, you can identify a breath-held subtext that makes the world all the more complicated and perfect.

When timothy grass goes straw-coloured and the seeds are all shed from their cattail tops? When they stand, thin reed instruments, and the wind carries dry snow through them so that their sides hiss sibilant?

A simple, empty, lonely sound. But a fine singular one, just the same.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Geographic location: Cape Breton, North River

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