I can’t say that I unreservedly loved the landscape of the Boundary Waters at first sight; rather, it was a place that slowly wore a groove into me, through appeal to my other senses. Early Thursday morning, we packed up camp and reversed our direction, and began paddling back to our starting point. We had been gifted with a cool, overcast day laced with a gentle mist. The wind was at rest, and so the water was too.
My partners climbed into the canoe and I took the kayak. The three of us had been talking endlessly all week, covering every topic from relationships to personalities to rock music trivia to environmental philosophy. But this morning, our tongues stilled along with the water. This was not a morning for talk. We were there to listen. All three of us seemed to sense that we were in the presence of something, that perhaps the place had chosen that morning to dispense its wisdom.
Halfway down Loon Lake I understood that I was experiencing the difference between quiet and silence. Quiet is the absence of din; but silence is total, all-encompassing, and, I know now, vanishingly rare. I used to think I had experienced silence in my home, perhaps in my bed at night, but I suspect what I was really experiencing was quiet; the context held other, prolonged sounds, but they weren’t obtrusive.
But if you still your paddle on water like this, there will be long moments of genuine and unbroken silence, punctuated briefly and occasionally by the distant chattering of a ground squirrel, the snap of a twig under a paw, or, in the luckiest of circumstances, the call of a loon.
The paradox of silence is that it promotes the most delicate of sounds, and enables the listener to hear and experience things that would otherwise remain unobserved, like the journey of a single yellow aspen leaf from the canopy to the leaf litter below.
This is the true genius of the Boundary Waters, where these vast stretches of water are a nursery for silence.