I have stepped into the house of silence.
The path led through a hidden cleft in remote mountains unstoppable on the horizon. It smelled of winter on the way, the smoke of mingled woods, and the heartscent of Jeffrey pines. (Vanilla, the fieldbooks note, clinically. I smell butterscotch.) It followed a clear, swift river, crimson with spawning Kokanees carefully spaced for their final, essential dance. It offered me long and solitary mornings, walking quick to keep warm. It tossed me casually beneath one frozen night of popping stars and the white-washed spaces between, and the black.
All of this I traveled at no particular speed, in the silences of natural things: sparrowsong and finch-flutter, the whine of wind flying north up a narrow lake and ruffling up the pines like winter grouse. There are these kinds in the house of silence. And there is another: a mystery perhaps not more deep, but this one ruffles up the soul, and counts each nerve.
That mountain path spilled me out onto a prairie – one I had not known was even there. It does not hang its flag on the horizon. I had heard its name in passing, a half-remembered legend of the mountain west, and set a course for it.
The Zumwalt, we call it now, though what that is is not so simply told. It’s the homeland of the Nez Perce, for one, and the carrier of brutal memories of colonial destruction that have yet to heal.
The Forest Service has a go at simplifying it: “One of the largest remaining intact tracts of bunchgrass prairie in North America.” This, my settler-descended, science-worshipping brain can grab ahold of. Theoretically, I know about bunchgrass: the name describes the habit of growth, and refers to perennial grasses that build deep, rich soils. But all of that’s in English, and in the centralizing speech of the Anthropocene. And in the language of the regulated wild, requiring the bureaucratized protection of the very species that seeks its unqualified submission.
There may be other places on this earth where the silence settles so intense you can hear it, just as if it were a sound. I have met just this one, and it swallowed me whole. I stepped from the car and froze, a prey animal, a praying animal. And when I moved I hesitated, approaching with the kind of reverence you grant to the sudden appearance of a very large and very wild beast.
The track before me held, indeed, abundant evidence of coyotes, deer, and elk. And I hear tell – signs in surrounding towns declare it with righteous bile – that the wolves have returned.
From a green-fringed watercourse, yellowing with the trickle-end of summer, a bull elk startled. He was there before me – wasn’t he? Perhaps he grew from the land in that tense moment, frightened into clattering creation. He turned at the base of a hillock and was gone. And he was not: his antlers, canted over to one side, floated forever above grassy hummocks and balding outcrops of basalt. Hooves drummed into the distance for incredulous minutes. You could get so, so lost out here, I thought, and then I did. A trail marker was moved, or one was missing, and the prairie really does look endlessly repetitive, just the way the Little House books taught me. I had to follow a fence and a sightline back from higher ground.
No wind spoke, while the great weight of sky deliberated rain in the distance. Grasses stood gold against the black volcanic soil, their compact heads a pleasant weight against my palms. At midafternoon, no bird sang. No cars rumbled, cattle muttered, raptors cried, or humans blattered on. The sky stole my breath into itself. I did not fall down. This was my sole accomplishment.
I was away less than a week. A long weekend with a good friend, camping and then a short stay in a cabin, exploring an unmet corner of our state. We returned on schedule, but my heart has lagged behind. There’s an Everything But the Girl song that gets stuck in my head, especially this line: “the heart just sulks, and it whines and remains a child.” My heart is a toddler, throwing tantrums I can probably predict.
I lack a single home, the sort you’re born to and return to and belong as part of. I think of the three good faeries granting blessings to the Princess Aurora, and I imagine I got just one well-meaning, slightly bumbling fairy, who saw that I would never have that sort of home, and gave me instead the gift of quick and irreversible connection with certain shapes of land and sky and weather. It’s like falling in love – just as crashing, just as glorious and invincible. Just as ruinous: to sever the physical connection shakes and sunders something in my deepest self.
My prayer on leaving any such place is to return with gratitude for the experience, and more for the quiet beauty of the town I have adopted, wrapped around a particular green drainage and clustered along two rivers I depend on. I’ve lived in this one place for a decade and more. I cannot live everywhere I love, and I’ve made my peace with that. This is my story, anyway. I spend a lot of time shouting inside my soul.
From the Zumwalt, I wished to bring back dreams. I woke halfway for many mornings after, searching behind the veil for that wide unconquerable sky. I went to sleep each evening craving dark of mountain and silence of prairie, inviting the endless grassland to my sleeping brain. It turns out I cannot command my dreams.
But memory writes in curious, twisting paths. My waking thoughts return at random to this place. At first, they sounded like my speech. One afternoon cooking chili three months later, I caught myself contemplating with joy that such a place exists, that it can stop our tracks. I hope, I was thinking, they never pave the roads that lead there.
Of late those prairie thoughts have begun to sound like nothing much at all. Which is to say: like everything, like Mystery. I have stepped into the house of silence, and it has come, sometimes, to dwell in me in turn.