Some Silence

The power went out sometime after midnight, only the eventual beeping of a draining phone battery alerting the house to electricity's absence.

Thanks to the moon and the nearly cloudless sky, the night was brilliant; without power, the night was silent.

That's incorrect, that's nonsense. The night itself was no more or less silent than any other. Listen carefully enough even as the power meter spins, and you could hear what I heard last night: the creek making its way past the rocks in its midst, the call of nightbird, dogs barking in the distance, some small animal's (final?) cry.

What was different was that last night's sounds, the most real voice of the night, were apprehended — and, indeed, apprehensible — without any effort on my part other than listening for them and, more instructively, listening to them. My insomnia, chronic but not to me an affliction, often finds me stepping outside in the small hours, sometimes walking across the meadow to the edge of the forest, occasionally walking a ways into the woods. I rarely carry a flashlight.

On such insomniac walks — excursions, sometimes explorations and adventures, tests of will and nerve when my presence rouses the rustling of larger animals — I generally take a few minutes to grow accustomed to the silence as well as the darkness, and open myself to the night. Those few minutes are transitional if not transformational, a passage from one world — the farmhouse, heated, lighted, radio or, too often, television of computer on — to another, realer world. Standing as still as I can once I am away from the house, I endeavor to shed even the echoes of the sounds that fill the world within its walls. But I do beyond any real prospect of forgetting that when I return, those sounds will be there waiting, either from a device left on, or available at the flick of a switch, the touch of a button on a remote, the tap of fingers on keyboard, summonings that bring me — what?

Noise, mostly, so different, and in ways mostly not good, from sounds.

Other than a moment of sirens — responding to the cause of the outage? — in the distance, there was no noise last night, though some remained accessible. Eventually, and at the time against my better judgment, I connected an older, battery-less, phone and called the power company, finding myself quickly reconnected not only to the powered world but also and unavoidably to the contortions and commands that world subjects us to. Push this button for this sort of information, touch this number for that. Noise.

Promised by recorded voice after several navigational button-pushes that power would be restored by 4AM, I settled myself on a couch in a pool of moonlight complimented by the flickering of the propane fireplace, and became aware of the night's sounds. A bird shrieked — victory or terror? Trees rustled in the breeze.

Eventually I went outside for a brief walk, no transition needed now. The moon was bright enough and the sky clear enough that shadows were cast.

Coming back inside, a bit after 3, I experienced again that absence of transition. All connections with the electric world were savored, save the phone line, and I had no one to call at that hour. Nor, when the power company's 4AM promise was broken, was I curious enough to be told what buttons to press to get an update from the power company. The juice would come back when it came back. There was nothing I could do to hurry its return, and nothing I particularly wanted to. The current would come back.

Or not — still powerless as dawn began to hint its approach, I remained untempted to find out more, untroubled by any of the absences electricity's absence caused. I had a small vague pang or two of desire for morning coffee, though not enough to light the grill and heat water outside. (One memorable Christmas, years ago, when the power went out, I made coffee, cooked and sausage and biscuits there; I could do plenty on that grill if I wanted to, but this morning I didn't.) My long night of silence — and sounds — had put me in a mood to do without, and do so not unhappily.

Even the absence of running water — no power, no power to the well — didn't trouble me too much. Plenty of jugs of water on hand for drinking — power outages aren't uncommon here, though rarely one that last so long as this — and a creekfull for dipping bucket and refilling the toilet tank when needed. The night had been chilly, but for once not excessively so this season, so the pipes were in no danger of freezing. Our propane fireplaces needed no electricity. I felt no urge and certainly no urgency to switch on a battery radio.

I sat in the moonlight. I dozed. (Oddly, and, again, instructively, I realized that I slept more deeply with the power gone than I did otherwise.) I stepped outside from time to time.

On my couch I read a bit by booklight, aware as I did of the concessions and implications — and hypocrisies as far as my insights went — of AA batteries, bulb, plastic case and clip carried, but they were concessions and implications and hypocrisies I could accommodate. I turned the pages of the book — a collection of essays by Joyce Carol Oates — avidly, aware of how crisp the sound of paper when not competing with the noise of a radio or television or computer.

(Would I have felt differently were I reading on a Kindle or Nook or iPad? No way of knowing, as I have none of those devices yet. But neither do I doubt that the nature of my rationalizations and my sense of hypocrisy would have been altered.)

By 8AM, when my wife rose to a house still without electricity, my sense of adventure and insight began to seem selfish, and finally self-indulgent, and I drove out to get newspapers and convenience store coffee, collect some gossip. The crew and the customers at the store were happy to oblige — the Minute Market had power, which gave indication that the outage was at least relatively small. A tree had fallen across lines somewhere on the other side of the Pigg River, word was. A few more hours before restoration.

Back home I delivered coffee, put fresh batteries in the radio,  tuned in music. I went for another short walk.

In sunlight on my couch now, I took up fountain pen and yellow paper and began this blog, knowing that for it to be posted, the power would have to return, and with it connection.

Which happened, as this blog shows. The power came back at noon, a bit less than two hours ago, twelve hours or nearly so after the outage.

The return of lights, TV, Internet.were inevitable and were, I supposed at the time, welcome, and would after a few more hours as another night approached been welcome without doubt.

But at that first moment of reconnection, and for a moment or two thereafter, every bit of it felt to me like an intruder, as sometimes, as so often, I feel myself to be at night in the darkness in the woods.



  1. LeslieJanuary 20, 2011 at 5:11 AM

    First time-- stumbling onto your blog. Fitting as I woke at 3:30 to swirling thoughts. Have often had the same feelings about the intrusiveness of the E-World. I wonder (fantasize) about the benefits of a whole week without "E." Do they allow kids to have cel-phones and Nintendo in "Wilderness Camp?" Thanks for sharing and painting that lovely, moonlit picture of your nocturnal ramblings.

  2. moreFRONTJanuary 20, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    As I expected, a simply marvelous new blog. Thank you, sir, for the observations and your manner of expressing them.
    Dan Smith

  3. fredJanuary 21, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    I can't claim to have known the pleasant consequences of an accepted insomnia and the rambles they allow, but I know the darkness and the silence you speak of. So many do not, and think such excursions "eccentric", I imagine. But as I've replied when called by that name, "In today's culture, who wants to be centric?"