The Sounds of Winter

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

Coldest night so far this season. Already 16 degrees as the pale sun-disc sets, splintering into gold pieces in the frozen black trees. Absolute stillness. Gray threads of wood smoke go straight up from the chimney. A perfect crystal of winter twilight. Icicles on the southern eve stopped their slow dripping hours ago. Now the very thinnest sliver of moon hangs like a sickle---a sharp arc of silver in the cloudless southwest sky. There will be heavy frost in a few hours.

Tonight, the dark bulge of the crescent moon softly glows with earthshine---light of the sun reflected off earth, back to the moon, then back to us. This delicate ‘powder light’ only happens the first and last days in the moon’s monthly cycle.

In its long revolving kinship with earth, the moon shines into science, religions, all literature and the arts, our fleeting romances in its soft shadows. It’s radiance streams through our night windows in every season, while constantly pulling and crashing the great tides of the world’s oceans. Cultures and nations come and go upon the earth, centuries of moonlit wars and uncertain peace. We gaze upward, sometimes wonder at the beauty of this timeless turning satellite stone, reflecting light from the closest star. As I watch tonight, the sky deepens indigo, winter stars glitter the icy darkness. The thin curved blade of light descends into the bare trees. Another frigid fourteen hour night.

Even as I enjoy the rich and the subtle earth colors of the colder months, the sounds of winter also have their stark and singular beauty. We don’t usually notice it, but the air is much quieter than in summer. Silent now---myriads of insects buzzing and rattling their various mating songs, and countless birds, each daily singing the unique wild music of its species. But along with the deeper quiet, the quality of sound itself is quite different in cold air, devoid of the plush layered curtains of summer leaves. And since cold air holds less moisture than warm, sounds have a sharper edge, a brittle resonance in the crisp dry air.

Following are a few of my favorite sounds through many winters: the soft warbling of bluebirds in cold blue daylight, the bird whom Thoreau said “carried the sky on its back”; the sibilance of pale freeze-dried beech leaves still clinging to their branches---such shivering music in a brisk winter breeze; the snarl of a chain saw across the farm in the distance, gnawing a log to keep a family warm; the bright giggling of a chickadee from a fir tree as I hike along a snowy winter ridge; the ominous roar of strong north winds howling through the large oaks in the darkness, a sound wild as wolf-song, powerful as the sea; the low staccato hoots of two Great Horned Owls talking to each other in the dark hollows of a January night; and the softest sound of all, almost a no sound---the hush of snowflakes drifting like down through the trees, almost silently, a windless winter night.