We’re walking through the forest in autumn. The sun slants through brightly trimmed clouds, and falls through the branches of the trees to a carpet of soft pine needles where it lands gently. I stop walking to listen. Just to listen. I don’t really hear anything, but I let the quietness in.
As we come near to the waterfall we step inside a silence so profound and arresting it’s like walking into a panel of glass. Words do not describe it, because words are sound, and this elemental quietness is sound’s own absence. The idea strikes me suddenly that spirit talks to us only in silence, that this is the only medium to truly communicate feeling. How else can it be that this place tells me – no, compels me – to be both solemn and joyful? Only by being here can you understand that this is not a contradiction. ‘Is this why you never hear a prayer answered the way it’s asked?’ I wonder. Should we be listening not for a voice but for peace? For feeling, instead of words?
This silence is not silent in truth. The forest stands on a steep hillside, through which a white waterfall runs down stairs and cascades with spray flying to the ferns at its edge. But water is a quiet sound. It’s the first sound there ever was on earth, besides the wind, and it’s music is not done yet. It is one of those rare sounds that reminds you of the presence of the silence inside.
I realise that I am kneeling, both knees on the ground and sitting back on my heels. I don’t remember choosing to do so, but the ground is nice and soft and dry, warm in the autumn sun. It is a pleasant place to be, so I sit down more comfortably. Here I can sit, and look at nothing in particular, yet not feel like the eye lacks for anything. It is drawn down to a rock beside the water, where the ripple of the stream casts a web of dancing lights across the mossy grey stone.
Then my eye shifts, and travels along the brilliant line of a glowing filament of spider silk. It drifts minutely in the breeze just enough that the light plays along its length from end to end. It’s not the only one. Gradually, more and more of the place reveals itself to me. I notice the brilliant quartz rock beside the river for the first time, and now I can not unsee it. The spreading shockwave that grows within the pool as something impacts the water. Is it a drop from above? To dry for that – is it something alive? I don’t think so. Ah, here it comes again – it is the bursting of a bubble from the tumble of the burn. And now I have noticed the brown sword blades of grass, and the rusty zigzag of that fold of rock and the way the water fills it with such precision.
My sight lingers on the rock as I realise how similar it is to the one I saw yesterday being hauled out of the ground by a mechanical digger, then broken into pieces with hydraulic drills. A literally earth-shattering noise that hurt my head. The rock that the water wears down oh so slowly, that sits in silence for so many thousands and thousands of lifetimes. It was in the way. Broken open in a day.
It doesn’t matter. But also, it does.
I stand again and turn uphill, coming back to the present. There is an island all the way down the middle of this waterfall so I hop across the narrow water and make my way up, with the fall on both sides. My thoughts are drifting somewhere along in the water, imagining or somewhere close to believing that this water carries the spirit of this place. Why not? I would not be the first to see sacredness in such a place. Staring into the creamy foam as it cascades across dark and shiny mosses, I feel for a moment that the water is actually still. It’s only churned into such whiteness by the upward surge of the landscape through it. Everything depends on your perspective. But whatever the water is and does, it’s simply so because it can’t help it.