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Posted December 20, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Roger Barbee: A hushed morning

By Roger Barbee

It is not yet Christmas but another winter storm has blanketed us with snow. Last Sunday churches closed as did schools the first two days of this week. Now, this Saturday is all white but for the Angus silhouettes in the pasture across the road. I can see across the white landscape a bit of traffic moving along the Pike, and a few hardy souls have ventured out to drive on our little road.

Although not a deep or big snow, it is enough already at noon to cover tree limbs and soften the green of the large boxwoods out front. In some spots, it has accumulated on them to make a few soft limbs droop. Sparrows, wrens, and other small birds gather in the closed space of the thick leaves to bask in the flocks' sheltered heat. The insulated bush provides what they need on this cold day as do the filled bird feeders and suet trays.

On days like this I do not wander out because wheelchairs do not do well in the snow. However, I do go out on the screened porch for a bit of fresh air and to ride the stationary bike. On Red Hill and all about it, the world seems to be hushed by this powder, and no noise is generated even by traffic. All is closed in, and I can't see Short Mountain, much less Great North Mountain off to the west. At irregular intervals a cow off in the pasture will call out or a bird will sing some notes. But each is soon captured and put away by the whiteness that acts like a scarf over your mouth. Off in the near distance, the trees that line an old lane to the now-empty site of Bethel Church and its small cometary sitting along the North Fork stand like sentinels guarding a secret.

Today strikes me as a perfect one to go on a long 10-mile run on a trail or to take a walk through a field or wood. Because of the cold and snow, few people will have gone out, and there is a chance of having it all to yourself. The fresh snow reveals earlier travelers if you look for tracks, and it will hold your footsteps until a thaw. Beneath the leaden sky you will hear everything if you listen carefully as you crunch across the terrain. But how many of us dare go out for a walk or run on such a day? It is too easy to sit inside where it is warm and full of distraction. Venturing out into this white world the walker will find the world silent. That silence, I think, is the issue.

Our world is full of pollution, and one of the worst types of pollution is that of noise. We are surrounded by noise that we create and seem, at times, to be addicted to. It is as if we are frightened by silence and what we may encounter in a world, however temporary, silent.

In his book "The Wisdom of the Desert," Thomas Merton translates sayings of the 4th century B.C.E. hermits who went to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine to be alone. Merton points out that these men and women did not reject their individual society, but embraced the solitude that could be found in the desert. Merton asks, "What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?"

Now, a bit of snow in the Shenandoah Valley on a December Saturday is far from the life of a hermit in the deserts of Egypt or Palestine. However, if we would dare go out into the snow-covered field or wood we likely would experience "a kind of hush all over the world" that would give us a brief time to be still and listen to whatever message that comes. If we are still, we will hear what we can't hear in the world of interstate highways, airports with every corner holding a television, the constant blabber on cell phones, or the noise of one more person reporting on the weather.

Get out. Take a walk by yourself and hear the cold wind blow through the naked limbs of a
wood. Hear the scrape of dried grass as it brushes against drifted snow. Mark each step you take with the crunch of your boots breaking through the crust. Listen for the call of a crow as it knifes across the leaden sky. Hear -- and know that you are alive.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.

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