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Russell Wangersky: Quiet’s hard to come by

Listen for the snow’s singular hiss through dry grass.
Listen for the snow’s singular hiss through dry grass. — 123RF Stock Photo

I was somewhere so quiet; so still, that, when two birds flew over, even 20 feet above me, I heard their feathers moving through the air. It is a sound that almost defies description: both a swoosh and a rustle, and a hint of the sweep of a soft brush.


Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky


If you had told me that was possible before I actually experienced it, I would not have believed you.


I think they were crows, heading south across the Nevada desert. I was so riveted by the sound that I didn’t look at them as carefully as I should have; all I really remember looking at was the tip of one wing, connecting the unusual, unique sound to the fingered feathers spread out against the air.

I have never heard that sound before. I don’t know that I will ever hear it again.

But it makes me think about just how much sound there is all around us, and how that complication of noises gets ever-larger.

Standing in the kitchen, there’s the whirr of the exhaust fan, the hiss of gas on the cooktop, the rattle of a pot lid. A computer fan. The click-and-whirr of a hard drive. Water in the pipes from sink-action somewhere else in the house. There’s the house shifting in the cold with cracks and occasional thuds, the backup alarm of snowplows snuffling up and down the side streets. The endless idiot wind and its crescendo: the garbage can toppling over next to the back door and taking the trio of snow shovels with it.

Ambulances roll along the main drag, heading east from the hospital, sometimes with the siren on all the time, sometimes with that additional growler they use to get the attention of drivers who aren’t paying attention. Other times, you hear the ambulances in short yelps and fits, as if the paramedics have grown tired of the incessant wail, and only turn the siren on for those few moments before and into an intersection, and then off again.

Sometimes, my head simply surrenders. Put me in a loud room with a lot of people, and eventually, all I hear is starlings. Lots of starlings.

Then I wonder about the mindset of paramedics, about what they’re thinking about where they’re heading, about how they’re ordering up their thoughts to deal with whatever small amount of detail they already have.

There are televisions chatting and podcasts burbling and cars with fat blatting mufflers and dogs, always dogs. We are surrounded by sound now, our heads full of trying to figure out what they mean and where they’re coming from, if they’re important or if they’re just stray and scattered images, the audio equivalent of a floater in your eye or the stars and flecks you see moments after rubbing your eyes.

Sometimes, my head simply surrenders. Put me in a loud room with a lot of people, and eventually, all I hear is starlings. Lots of starlings. I watch people’s lips and try to figure out what they’re saying, and if I can’t, I simply try to smile in all the right places. (Tip for those who hear every word? I’m far from alone in the noisy starling set.)

Noise washes over us, confuses us, busies our thoughts and pulls them in strange directions.

Pardon me for telling you this, but in the washroom at work, someone in the stall was sending and receiving text messages, his phone chirping and dinging, and for the life of me, the only thing that occurred to my peculiar mind was that even R2D2 from Star Wars goes to the bathroom.

Soon, I hope to get to hear one of my favourite sounds again: the whisper of dry snow on a very cold day, blowing through dry dead yellow standing straw, working its way across the stiff leaves like a bow across strings. You might have to lie right down in the snow on your stomach to hear it well.

It has a singular hiss, a different hiss than snow alone working against itself, and different too from the hard rasp of snow working against a pane of sharp, upturned puddle ice.

Until then, I might just keep trying to reassemble the sound of the feathered beat of those four wings against the still air, heading away, not one other sound to overwrite or interrupt or distract from it.


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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