Calm Sounds From the Woods

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GOAT bells from Greece is what Alice, the wife of my friend John, thought she heard when they visited my Little Bear Retreat in northeastern Washington state.I've had goat bells on the slopes of Tiger Mountain just east of Seattle. But "no," I said, "these are wind chimes. The one in the gable of my sleeping loft was given to me by a lady who'd been on the mail route which I carried for 18 years. She makes them, all sizes and melodies." When I pointed upward, Alice saw them hanging at all four corners of my lodge and in the gables. Later, when she and John had walked to the river, they returned to report: "You have wind chimes hanging in pine trees down by the lower garden!" They'd discover more in branches above the long, wire-enclosed runs of Golden pheasants, Chinese blue peacocks, and domestic poultry. I had suspended the chimes nearly 30 feet up in the trees, with the help of the logger who thins my ponderosa and yellow pines. Some had been made by a man in Buckley, Washington, who had come into a plethora of pipe-organ pipes, cut them to various lengths (mine are about three feet long), repainted them, and sold them throughout the state. Winds move chimes on my 20-acre homestead almost perpetually, although there's no breeze steady enough to work a windmill for electricity, which I do without, save for a generator to pump up water from a drilled well. Last July, Alice and John flew to Spokane, rented a compact car, and came to visit me in a cul-de-sac of mountains in the Kettle River Range. They'd gone for a walk the first evening, and returned to where I stood after watering flowers, herbs, and squash in their various raised beds east of my lodge. Standing silently near me, Alice said: "I hear a repeated tapping noise. What sound is that?" "Woodpecker?" I asked, listening to where she pointed: a grove of tall pines with a scattering of young Douglas firs beyond it. Then, hearing it, I said: "A saw-whet owl, I think. It makes a series of low notes, all in a line. They're about eight inches tall. Probably lots for them to eat around here right now. Grasshoppers galore." After dark, John came into the kerosene lamp-lit house, asking: "How far to your nearest neighbor?" "About a mile," I told him. "I hear a lot of little dogs barking at each other. Weird." "Coyotes," I explained. "A little night music." "Other worldly," he said, and I thought of Oriental music, remembered notes of a never-ending Chinese opera I'd once heard in Shanghai. Another evening, Alice beckoned her husband to look out the window of the back door and see towhees, black, red, and white feathered, eating on the back porch. They stay year round and are the spirit of the house, just as western bluebirds and house wrens are in the summer. My father called towhees "catbirds," because their call is similar to a "me-oww." When I asked if I should turn on the battery radio for PBS news, Alice said: "Oh, no, no." Sometimes the best sound is silence. Alice said: "Whenever I wake in the night and there's no wind, except for the ticking of the wall clock, there often is no sound at all." "Sometimes in the night, still dark but towards first light," I said, "logging trucks will be going along Highway 21, across the river, getting to the woods early because loggers start about 3 a.m. in fire season, and quit about noon." John said: "And roosters about 4 o'clock. One crows - another answers. And I heard what sounded like a juvenile one. Didn't have an adult crow yet." Thoreau wrote that he didn't hear roosters in his cabin near Walden Pond; he wondered how they could make out if released in the woods. Fine, in Walden's woods, maybe, but not in these woods inhabited by red-tailed hawks, and great-horned owls large enough to kill adult peacocks. Everyone's ranch should have roosters, I think. When my friends Mary and Arnie slept in their motor home on my land and came in for scrambled-eggs breakfast, Mary said: "We heard them crow at 3:30 a.m.; we talked for about an hour, then went back to sleep." And Arnie said: "About daylight I heard mourning doves; I looked out and three were walking on the road in front of your lodge." Calm sounds from feathered creatures, these, as are the sounds of nighthawks, white bands on their lower wing-sides flashing as they soar and swoop to "graze" the pastures of the sky. And often, on a summer or fall evening, a thunder rumble follows, presaging more "tenpins" in the sky that night and a "light show" across the sky to a far wider audience than that of nightly summer light shows projected onto the spillways of Grand Coulee Dam.

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