Immersed in a profound silence

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: SILENCE.

SILENCE. Sometimes I notice it. I pay attention to it. I don’t know why I notice it. It is just there, suddenly. Then I stop what I am doing, gaze out the window in an unfocused way and just exist in that silence. Just for a few moments. It’s then that I notice the call of the magpie, the squark of a passing crow, the drawn-out squaaarrrkkkk of an overflight of yellow-tail black cockatoos or the subdued sound of the city, the hum. Always that low, quiet hum. Yes, silence is seldom complete.

One silence I did notice was up on South West Tasmania’s Western Arthur Range. We were a couple days into the cool temperate wilderness, having trudged across the button grass of the Cracroft Plains the previous day, crossing creeks hidden amid the tea tree thickets along their banks, their dark brown, tannin-stained waters cold but refreshing to drink after the tramp across the open plains. By late afternoon we had started to ascend the long, steep, open lead into the range somewhere in the vicinity off Mt Scorpio. The lead was a climbing ridge and it proceeded upwards as a series of narrow, flatter areas — never really flat, mind you — separated by steep pitches that somehow seemed to increase the weight of our packs such that our leg muscles grew more and more weary.

We camped that evening part-way up the the range on one of those narrow flatter sections where there was a pond — the locals call them ‘tarns’ — of fresh water. This far into the mountains there was no need to boil or filter the water before drinking and cooking with it. It was pure, fresh Tasmanian rainwater blown in from the Southern Ocean not all that far away. A meal cooked, we sat around talking and watching evening come over the wilderness. Then into our tents and sleeping bags.

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Bushwalkers pass through a tea tree scrub thicket. Tea tree and associated thick, wiry vegetation grows on the banks of stream flowing across the plains and down the mountains, forming long, winding, linear patterns across the landscape.

The silence

The silence — it was the next day that it came. It followed a severe thunderstorm in the middle of which we were caught. We sat that out on the top of the ridge, wary of the lightning striking around us and well separated from our packs the frames of which had started humming due to the electricity in the air. That happened as we reached the top of the range and started to ascend the sharp dolerite blade of Mt Scorpio summit.

The silence came upon us after the sky cleared as the four of us sat just off the top of the ridge looking to the north, looking over ridges turned blue-purple by distance. We speculated on what some of those ridges were though some of the peaks visible in the  distance we knew, some of the party having walked and climbed them. Yes, we could see a long way… way into the mountains towards the centre of this big island.

As happens at these moments, our occasional chatter gave way to quietness, an effect that I put down to the presence of the landscape revealed before us, a presence that stilled speech. A growing silence you might call it, a being-in-the-landscape under the big blue dome of the sky. Trivialities fell away. Our minds expanded to fill the void.

Like the city, the silence of the mountains isn’t always silent. Just as there is a discernible hum to the city even in the early hours, so there is to the wilderness too. It’s made up of the wind, of distant streams flowing and of something else indiscernible. Maybe I imagine this, maybe it’s just that absolute silence is so rare my mind fills it with some kind of imagined white noise. It’s just there, this background sound. Barely audible. Pervasive.

Mind tricks

But that day. We sat there for some time, each of us in our own mental bubble. Then I experienced something odd. My mind started playing tricks.

I well knew that I was sitting here on the side of this high ridge with the morning’s sun beating down on me, a mild, not a hot sun this day. Yet I had a strange feeling that I was somehow a part of this landscape, the plains far below, these mountains, those distant peaks and ridges, that blue sky. That came with the realisation of this vast silence engulfing us, as if this corrugated, ancient landscape the product of glaciers some 20,000 years gone, had decided to cease its motion and enter into a profound quietude.

I don’t know how long we sat there in our individual silences within this greater silence of the land. But I do know that strange feeling of unity with all that surrounded us. It was a sense that I can only describe an no-separation, a blending of person, landscape and sky. I find difficulty describing it and I suspect that the words and phrases I choose might sound corny. It wasn’t anything intellectual. My intellectual faculties had been dialled way down. No. This was a psychological phenomenon and in being that it was delicious, it was like something in an ongoing, neverending present. It might sound mystical (and I am not a mystical sort of person) but it was a few minutes of being-in-the-landscape.

Quite some time later I read that this psychological state, this state brought on by altitude, distance, landscape and silence wasn’t imagined. It was real. I learned it is called ‘oceanic feeling’ because it is so all-encompassing of the moment, the place and the silence.

I have never experienced anything quite like that since. Sure, as I said, I notice moments when the city about me goes quiet, but that is noticeable because silence is usually missing. You notice its presence through spending most of your time immersed in its absence.

I haven’t been back to the Western Arthur Range since. I think if I do sometime venture into that landscape again I will look up to Mt Scorpio and remember, remember fondly and perhaps with more than a little longing, that late morning long ago when I was for just a short time immersed in the immensity of the mountains, the vast blue sky, those serried ridges purpled by distance — immersed in the world in its ever-present moment, in its profound silence.

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