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Kershner: Silence can indeed be golden

Mon., Aug. 15, 2011, midnight

Columnist Jim Kershner  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Columnist Jim Kershner (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

When I was young, one of my favorite songs was “The Sound of Silence.”

Today, one of my favorite sounds is … silence.

I have 1,495 songs in my iTunes music library, yet I find, increasingly, that I prefer to listen to none of them. This occurred to me with surprising force today. I realized that I had loaded my entire iTunes library on my new iPhone about six months ago and yet I have never, not once, listened to a song on my iPhone. I have never even used the earbuds that came with it.

This is not because I have grown to hate music. If anything, I love music more than ever, although perhaps less obsessively than in 1966 when I listened to the radio for hours just to hear such musical masterpieces as “The Sound of Silence,” “Good Vibrations” and, of course, “(My Baby Does The) Hanky Panky.”

Sometimes, when I am hiking in the hills above Hangman Creek, I see people trudging along with their earbuds stuck in their heads. Sometimes, these people are actually humming or singing along with their music. That would have been me, years ago, but not anymore. I have never been tempted to don headphones on my walk because, for one thing, I might miss an exciting raptor alarm.

You may not know what that means, especially if you hike with headphones. Yet I have heard it with surprising frequency lately. I’ll be ambling along a trail, listening to the chickadees and nuthatches twittering (to use an obsolete meaning) when, suddenly, the air will be full of shrill, urgent squawks. An entire quadrant of the ponderosa pine forest will suddenly be filled with agitated alarms, coming from the meekest kinglets to the most swaggering crows.

It took me a long time to figure out what this squawk-fest was about. Now, if I look carefully enough, I know I will see a sharp-shinned hawk perched calmly in the middle of this circle of hysteria. These hawks make a living by snatching smaller birds right off their branches. And the little birds know it.

The hawk does not seem to mind that he sows consternation wherever he perches. It’s just the cost of doing business.

Also, I don’t want to miss the rest of nature’s music, like the pleasant hum of the wind whisking through the ponderosa pine needles, which John Muir once described as the “finest music” produced by any pine.

Yet my newfound love of silence goes deeper than that. I’ve discovered I am also less inclined to listen to music at other times, like on long car trips. That’s because I have discovered that, even more than I love music, I love letting my mind wander uncluttered.

Sometimes, I can simply think more freely without competition from any source whatsoever, even a source as glorious as Beethoven’s Ninth or “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis.

Despite all of this, there are still occasions when I am happier than ever to immerse myself in music. I can’t imagine cooking up a big pot of homemade spaghetti sauce without chopping to the rhythm of something on my iTunes library. And I recently spent a glorious evening atop the Arbor Crest Winery’s knoll, watching the sunset and listening to Eilen Jewell and her band perform a spectacular “Shakin’ All Over.”

And I just bought another season’s subscription to the Spokane Symphony, because those musicians play better than Mother Nature whispering through 1,000 ponderosa pines.

It’s fortunate that I am learning to appreciate quiet at this stage of my life, because there may be plenty more ahead someday. The rest, as Hamlet noted, is silence.

Contact Jim Kershner at (509) 459-5493, or at

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