Aural postcards from a Maine lake

Its name alone sounds like whispering wind and the waves lapping at rocky shores: West Grand Lake. No wonder, then, that after three days of paddling its coves and bays, sleeping on a slender island where blueberries grew in bunches like grapes, it is sounds that best carry my memories of this place.

Anyone can leave with a scenic view of a wilderness lake (and we did, snapping the regulation photos), but I am struck by how much more is stocked in my imagination by the auditory snapshots.

The day we set out from Farm Cove Dam, I remember the first moments of the trip as sound signatures: the thumping of tent, sleeping bags, and food box being dropped into the canoe, afloat in shallow water; the coaxing of Gus, our big black dog, into his berth between thwarts; the rattling push-off from the graveled shore and silky glide into the channel, coasting past the spillway.

With the first few strokes of our paddles, we thumped the gunwales like timpani. In the interest of hearing what else was occurring on the lake, we dampened our noise -even talking starts to seem intrusive - and focused on receiving only.

On such a day, in a big, sparsely inhabited Maine lake, visual details seem static, wind and wave changing imperceptibly against the backdrop of stolid green forest and unlimited sky. But the details, the excitement to be discovered in the scene, are aural: We are notified of changes in appearance by the sudden arrival of new sounds. Things occur as sounds before they occur as sights. Something splashes a few yards to starboard. A fish jumping? An otter? A turtle? Missed seeing it. Some things, never sighted, are filed away as unincorporated sounds, like the numbered townships charted across this wilderness quadrant of the state, never characterized with a true name.

As we slowly sweep from small cove to intermediate bay and finally to the lake at large, heading for an island camp, we exit the lee of the forested shore. The wind makes a new sign on the water, piquing the waves into a ribbony chop that chatters against the side of our boat. Gus stretches, tilting us precariously, and our paddle handles drum hard against the gunwales as we hastily restore balance. Loons wail. Too far off for us to see them, they are transponders of our progress. I hear a hummingbird zoom by, hundreds of yards from shore. He dips a shoulder to eye this yellow canoe with big black dog, but hardly deviates from his flight toward another small island. (Would he conceive his route "as the crow flies"?) At noon, a bald eagle circles soundlessly above us.

The lake pools sounds from its far shores and funnels them to our ears floating midlake, carrying and magnifying brief cries, steady calls, and mechanical overtones over miles of water. From the north, a small outboard engine, too far in the distance to be seen; to the west, a dog barks from a shoreline camp we cannot distinguish; thousands of feet above us, a jet's arcing contrail leads away from its plume of searing sound.

Our hearing extends further than does our sight when we are placed in a landscape of such exaggerated scale. How near-sighted we are; how far-hearinged we can become, given retraining.

As we bump between boulders, landing at our island destination, a pair of crows heralds our arrival. There's no sneaking into the scene now, as their calls echo shrilly from the spruce spires. They cast off from their perch and swoop away, cavorting on the light gusts that shiver through the poplars at the water's edge.

And then the red squirrels commence their discourse on the nature of this big black dog splashing ashore. A 48-hour discourse, as it turned out, which left Gus sleep-deprived and frustrated, scolded from limb to limb and from one end of the island to the other as he panted beneath their perches.

All night long we listen to Gus's feet padding on the pine needles or scurrying on the granite outcroppings outside our tent as he chases his frustrating quarry; to the rain fly on the tent luffing around us, like wavelets.

For two nights, a strict sonic sequence prevailed. The din of cookstove and clanging pots sputtered out at dusk. The sun went down and the wind ceased its whispering. The crescent moon presided for a few hours over the intermediate sleepy talk of boulders soaking up the last laps of waves, and then silence deeper than starlight. Now "the ears of my ears are awake." wrote E.E. Cummings.

It takes the absence of sound to be this aware of hearing. No longer listening for sounds, we simply listen - anticipating nothing, but open to anything that speaks up within range.

I recall a line from Wallace Stevens. In "The Snow Man," he writes of

the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Little by little the background tapestry of noise has yielded, including the sounds that we brought to this island, gradually pared away to leave a share with squirrel and crow and loon: looking out from silence, becoming a denizen listener as if (brief impostor!) of this place, listening as this place, to this place.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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