By Otha Barham / Outdoors Editor
Otha Barham ©
One day I dialed a number and waited for the telephone to ring, I could not have known I was in for a pleasant surprise. When the ringing stopped, I heard the familiar call of a whippoorwill; distinct, penetrating staccato whistles in precise tempo.
For a moment the recording put me on a hardwood hillside in spring as the night was coming to a close. I could not see where to step, so I stood as still as the dew-sprinkled spider webs that hung all about in the moonlight like silver beaded drapes. I was waiting to hear the gobble of an anxious tom turkey when the recorded message of the answering machine brought me back from my mini-dream.
Such recorded sounds are wonderful reminders of times when we were there. The sounds of the outdoors can be remembered much easier than they can be communicated to those who weren’t there. Photographs, videos, paintings and, to a limited extent, the written word, can recreate some of the blessings of outdoor experiences. However the limitations of words in describing the visual, auditory, tactile and spiritual aspect of nature’s beauty are memorialized in the words of Joyce Kilmer: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.”
One can bring pieces of the scenes to provide the aspect of touch; a stone or some blossoms or a captured insect. Limited examples of the smell of a cherished scene are available; the sweet aroma of a crushed sassafras or ginseng leaf, a fragrant blossom.
But the sounds of nature are a particular challenge to convey to someone. A friend has his cell phone ring out the ear-splitting gobble of a nearby rut-crazed tom turkey. This recording is so realistic that it is impossible for those of us addicted to spring gobbler hunting to avoid a quickened pulse and shallow breathing. When I hear it I want pull down my face mask and jump behind the nearest bush (couch?) to hide from probing eyes.
I once found myself in a mountain thunderstorm over 10,000 feet above sea level in southern Colorado, up near the continental divide where the snowmelt trickle from Embargo Creek joins with other tiny streams to form the famous Rio Grande River. I was there just exploring, hoping to get lucky and see a mountain lion or a bear or a summertime elk. I had climbed from the trailhead some two hours when the storm hit.
If you have never been in a mountain thunderstorm, you need to experience one if you have ever doubted nature’s power. In our cities we are actually under a thunderstorm. On high mountains we are inside their thunderstorms. Lightning is busting stuff up not only above but for a thousand feet below you. You seem to feel the electrical charges dancing in the air and passing through your body like X-rays. You can smell the electricity.
I was prepared, as one always must be in the wilderness. I suited up in Goretex and crawled under a thick bush to watch the marvelous show. My big parka also covered my backpack that contained 26 pounds of sleeping bag, tent and overnight provisions.
As the thunderbolts temporarily deafened me and clean, freezing cold rain pounded me in sheets, I was warm and snug under the parka. I have never felt more awestruck and at peace than at that moment. I pulled out my tape recorder and attached the remote microphone, which I poked outside the parka. Lightning crackled and blasted great holes in the air. Thunder shook the whole forest. Rain pounded the earth.
To this day, over 25 years later, that tape recording takes me back to one of my special days in the outdoors.
I spoke no words on that tape. Words would have diluted the message. It is a recording of a time when only nature breaks the silence. And she does so with celestial power and at no one else’s command. Such display of one of nature’s most impressive sounds feeds our adoration.