Silence Is Relative

Solstice 2004
Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee


Even before I open my eyes
my ears are open, awake, eager as children
anticipating a treat:
Solstice. Their favorite ribboned package,
the annual morning of silence.
Tugging on that ribbon of quiet,
my ears are always first
to unwrap the longest day of the year.
The long sunburned Summer.
Melons ripening on the vine,
corn in the field. Long sunny afternoons
slanting across
the swollen belly of the Earth.

Silence in the woods is always broken
like the sunlight, a tradition
disrespected by gossiping birds,
rocks endlessly
interrupting the laughter of streams—
the thousand voices of Summer.
Silence, washed in waves of sound.
A holiday feast for ears from the city.

But this morning the children woke first.
Their splashes, giggles and screams
mingled happily
with the conversations of the forest
just upstream of my tent,
as if the whole Kids R Us camp
had moved in next door
under cover of the shortest night.

And listening from my bedroll I can hear
so clearly
why I came so far.
I have none of my own. Here
I have many, every boy and girl I see
or hear, mine forever
like the trees and vines and moss
of these woods, the rock under my bedroll
that will remain when I
and my tent
and the just-arriving Summer
travel on . . .

Summer after summer
we come home to the woods. One by one
I know their names.
And year by year they grow.

Opening my eyes at last to squint out
into the long day's early light,
I see them
piling up rocks in the little creek,
muddy and content.
Behind them, people pass along a trail
that I gradually recognize.
I came that way
looking for a place to camp.
The farther I thought I'd wandered past,
the closer I was winding back
to Kids R Us.
To the summers of childhood.
To the ancestor-memories of generations
that grew up in these woods.
To the ultimate relativity
of silence.