STEPPING out of my car at the trailhead to a favorite forest path on Anchorage's southern fringes, I immediately notice two disparate sounds: the cheerfully raspy songs of black-capped chickadees, and the rumble of nearby highway traffic.
Just moments ago, I was part of that highway noise, ears tuned to a radio program that largely drowned out other cars and trucks. Now I'm headed into the woods, intent on finding some "natural quiet," while also registering whatever sounds come my way.
Like residents in many parts of the state, I'm participating in a "Winter Day of Listening," organized by the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition. Our instructions are simple: Choose a favorite place on Alaska's public lands - or even at home - and do an hour or more of listening. Record natural sounds and human-made motorized noises, and estimate the percentage of time that "natural quiet" is undisturbed.
The afternoon is clear, cold, and windy, with blustery northerlies driving wind-chill temperatures near zero, so I'll do most of my listening on the move. This being a bright and sunny Sunday, traffic is heavy along the Seward Highway, and for 15 or 20 minutes I'm constantly accompanied by its hum and whine.
It's about what I expected, given past walks along the Turnagain Arm Trail. The highway's rush recedes as I move deeper into the forest, the drone of traffic gradually drowned out by the play of wind in trees and bushes.
Today, the woods are delightfully uproarious. Rushing air whooshes through the woodland's canopy. It pushes at trees, which creak and groan in their swayings and bang against one another. Along the forest floor, grasses and dried leaves rattle and rustle.
Now and then an especially strong gust roars past my ears, blotting out all else. Occasional lulls open me up to other sounds: the crunching of my boots against crusty snow, the distant chatter of squirrels, the soft exhalations of my breath, the tinkling of brooks streaming down the hillside.
A bend in the trail takes me behind a bluff that temporarily blocks all highway noise. Soon another drone emerges: a single-engine plane, crossing over Cook Inlet. Then, in rapid succession, three airliners descend toward the airport, their silver-streaked approach announced by low-pitched roars and screaming whines. Later, another winged one streaks across blue sky in black silhouette: A raucously playful raven caws as he rides the billowing air.
Beyond mile 1, my boots leave the crunch of ice for the squish of mud and the rustle of leaves: the promise of winter's end. For several moments the wind dies. No sounds at all, from highway, heavens, or forest.
Then another jet roars in.
Despite the day's chill, I take a seat upon the throne-like roots of a grandfather cottonwood and remain there for a quarter-hour. Somehow there's a melody to the forest's wind-driven racket, a pleasing - almost soothing - blend of whooshes, rattles, rustles, and groans. The wind gives the forest a spirited presence, while boosting my own.
I SUSPECT that all of us would benefit by spending an occasional hour intently listening to the soundscape of our favorite wildlands - and homelands. What sounds do we notice that we've learned to ignore? What annoys or frustrates, what pleases and soothes?
Everyone I know has favorite sounds that remind them of childhood, of homes past or present: the croak of a bullfrog, chirp of a cricket, screech of a gull, flutelike whistle of a hermit thrush. What sounds, I wonder, do we Anchorage-area residents most associate with our city and neighboring parkland? The wail of the loon, the whoosh of williwaw winds, the springtime honk of Canada geese? Or maybe the mechanized whine of jumbo jets, the rush of traffic, the roar of truck and snowmobile?
And which of those do we anticipate with delight? Which refresh our spirits, brings smiles to our faces and souls?