The silence you listen to in the woods when you’re by yourself is not at all like the silence you listen to with another person.
Of course, when we say silence, what we really mean is, absence of human noise. The woods are rarely quiet — except when people are talking or running machines. I imagine only someone from a true forest culture — the Mbuti of the Ituri rainforest, the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia, or the Penan of Borneo — would know how to talk in a way that harmonizes with the natural soundscape.
The woods are peaceful, we think, meaning not simply that noise is absent, but that harmony is present. It seems very likely that all members of an ecological community occupy distinct, non-conflicting aural niches, says bio-acoustics researcher Bernard Krause.
Experienced composers know that in order to achieve an unimpeded resonance the sound of each instrument must have its own unique voice and place in the spectrum of events being orchestrated. All too little attention has been paid to the fact that insects, birds and mammals in any given environment have been finding their aural niche since the beginning of time and much more successfully than we might have imagined. Indeed, combining an audition with a graphic print-out of the diversity and structure of natural sounds from a rainforest forcefully demonstrates very special relationships of many insects, birds, mammals, and amphibians to each other. A complex vital beauty emerges that the best of sonic artists in Western culture have yet to achieve.
Of course, the soundscape of a temperate-zone forest in the winter is minimalist in the extreme: a twittering of juncos, the tapping of a woodpecker, the sudden burbling of a Carolina wren. Trees creak in the wind. A chickadee sings his spring song — two descending, minor-key notes — in the middle of a snow squall. If you stand absolutely still, you can just barely make out the sound of snowflakes hitting bare branches. Drop a pin and you’d probably drown it out.