The Importance of Whispers and Wide Skies

Last night I woke to a fairy forest. A glen made silver by a moon unfettered by city light. This fairy forest is comprised of towering eucalyptus trees. When I stepped out among them the slight breeze sounded a whisper through the leaves as if the trees were talking among themselves. Good Lord, does the man have no bladder? The whispering giants threw shadows against hillsides made almost daylight bright by the moon.

This place I speak of has become one of my favorite places in the world. It is wild and remote, but so close to my Ventura home that I can see it. It is a place of vast skies and plunging cliffs and rolling grasslands that run like rivers when the wind riots (which it does often). There are words beyond count to describe this place, so I will tell you just this. It is a place so quiet that when you bend to the tall wind-stroked grasses the sound you hear is like the softest snowfall.

It is the loveliest almost-quiet and satisfying beyond words. It is also a reminder.

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When I was given this column, my editor advised me it should have something to do with the local news, the talk of the town, something I heard at the grocery store. I will tell you (and not just because he reads this column first) that I take his decree seriously. I read the papers and I keep my eyes open for news of merit, although I confess I choose not to report most of what I hear at the grocery store because it might put an end to certain friendships and possibly the already questionable symmetry of my face.

This particular column has nothing to do with the news, unless you factor in avoiding it, but I think my editor will understand because he escapes to the same kinds of places, places that are very, very quiet and very, very wide. Places that fill our hearts as they should be filled, not with anxiety, confusion and maybe even fear, but with joy and wonder and no small amount of gratitude for our chance at a brief time here. Places that remind us that there is something far beyond our worries, something that has outlasted the noisy headlines of yesteryear and will do the same with today's noisy headlines too. We live with a great deal of noise. In some cases it is very important noise. But that doesn't mean it's bad to get away from it.

The name of this place I escape to, it isn't important. It's your quiet, wide-sky place that matters. I went to my place with my best friend Kathy and another great friend Mary. The three of us camped and swam and hiked beneath blue skies so vast they made your legs wobble. Often when we hiked I fell behind, partly because I don't move fast in most circumstances, but mostly because I am an inveterate dawdler, prone to stop and examine, say, a fuzzy brown caterpillar for so long that other hikers coming down the trail might mistake me for a happy idiot, which really isn't a mistake at all. Kathy and Mary often left me behind. Once, after crouching beside the trail like a catcher who has forgotten the last pitch was thrown two hours ago, I rose slowly, for my knees are creaky, and looked across a hummocked sea of hills. I saw my wife and Mary walking along a ridgeline in the distance, Lilliputian forms back-dropped by a sky so wide the birds seemed pinned there. The sight didn't make me, or them, feel small or insignificant. It made me happy to be alive. I believe I actually gave thanks out loud. In quiet, wide-sky places you can be yourself.

During our time in this special place we talked a lot, Kathy, Mary, and I. It's what people do. Sometimes they do it because they enjoy each others' company very much. Sometimes they do it because most of us are not entirely comfortable with silence. But we shared quiet moments, too. One of my favorite moments involved dinner, not because of what we ate (mostly things that involved only boiling water), but because of the way daylight faded without a whit of fanfare and evening, with equal subtlety, took its place. The three of us watched the entire unfolding, silent and respectful, until we spotted the first gauzy evening star and someone said, very quietly, "It's beautiful."

I know we each felt the same way because we all tried to articulate the joy we felt, being in this wide, quiet, and beautiful place. Many of the new friends we made tried to put their happiness into words too: a married couple from South Carolina, a young couple from Philadelphia, a father of two small boys who drew me aside and whispered, eucalyptus-like, in my ear, "Will they ever get tired?" I don't think he expected an answer, although when I walked past their tent in the moonlight I heard their soft measured breathing.

Even the park ranger smiled wide at the opportunity she had been given, not always the case with park rangers who have to deal with a clientele that blithely ignores all their advice and warnings, and then blithely expects to be rescued and returned home in time for dinner. This particular ranger, she beamed as if each visitor memorized every posted Park notice and then she said, "It's always a gift to me to see people smile at the joy and wonder of this place."

Not long ago I saw an advertisement that proclaimed, "The world is moving faster than ever" and I thought, Is it really? Last I looked, it was moving at the same speed it always has, although often now we become removed from this.

Perhaps this is why the woman from South Carolina said, "I don't know what it is about this place that makes me so happy." She paused, searching. "It's so distant from what we know."

They shouldn't be distant, these whispers and moon shadows and wide skies. This isn't news to you or me. But now and again we need to be reminded.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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