Nothing cures cabin fever quicker than a brisk walk in the woods immediately after a snowstorm. Making tracks in the fresh snow can be one of winter’s unique pleasures. After the most recent nor’easter, once the wind stopped blowing and the snow stopped flying, the stillness outside was practically audible. The only sounds were those near at hand or underfoot: the squeak of powdery snow with each step, the sharp retort of frozen planks of the boardwalk complaining with the weight of each footfall, the cheery chatter of a chickadee in the underbrush, and the chip-chip of a downy woodpecker flitting from branch to branch.
In winter, a preternatural silence prevails, particularly at night or predawn. It never gets so quiet in warmer seasons. Just as snow-cover transforms the scenery and puts landforms into high relief, the silence of winter calls attention to the soundscape. In this sense, winter is a time for listening, an opportunity to hear sounds from nearby and far away.
As the river ices over, the seasonal sloshing and splashing of waves is quieted. Instead of the pattering of raindrops, precipitation falls softly. Fewer sources of natural sound roam the woods as wildlife migrate or go dormant. Fewer songbirds. No chirping frogs or insects. People, too, are less active outdoors in the colder weather, especially on the river. Gone are the powerboats and jet skis. Against this backdrop of relative silence, the remaining sounds stand out.
Some days, the wind dominates the soundscape and drowns out all other noise. It howls down the valley and moans through the tree branches, unaccompanied by the whoosh or rustle of leaves. It plays upon an old house like a musical instrument, drawing upon the flue pipe, whistling under the eaves, rattling the window panes, and tugging at the front door.
In the absence of wind, a different soundscape presents itself. Once again, silence reemerges. This silence is not merely an absence of sounds. It is also the result of the acoustic qualities of winter topography.
On a calm and clear morning, while standing on the front step of the Lighthouse, I heard the distant drone of the Thruway traffic, like a basso continuo sounding through the river valley. Over this ubiquitous bass note, a train sounded its horn at a faraway railroad crossing. Interesting that these sounds carried so far and were so distinctive on this particular morning. Why does sound seem to travel differently in cold weather? How does winter transform the way the environment sounds?
For starters, there are no leaves on the trees to act as a barrier to distant sounds. The frozen ground and the icy river add solidity to the sound environment — the smoother and harder a surface, the better it reflects sound. On still nights, colder air pools in the river valley, and warmer air above acts like a lid, refracting sound waves downwards. Channeled into the layer of cold air clinging to the frozen ground, sounds can be heard over longer distances. Thus, the train horn is piped along the valley for miles and miles.
Fresh snow adds its own sonic signature. Snow absorbs sound, particularly midrange and higher frequencies. This muffles ambient noise in the landscape. Nearby sounds can be heard with greater clarity since there is less background noise to interfere. In a snowy woods, everything seems close and compact since the only sounds to reach the ears are those in the immediate vicinity. The dry air, too, adds a crispness and brightness to sounds. In the daytime, a tiny wren calls out, and owns the entire forest with its song. A coyote whoops after dusk, loud and clear. Nearby? It is hard to judge the distance.
A discussion of the winter soundscape would be incomplete without mention of the river ice. The ice makes all sorts of sounds, many defying description. It groans to the rise and the fall of the tide. It resounds to the daytime expansion and nighttime contraction of temperatures changes. The naturalist John Burroughs listened to the river ice and imagined a slumbering ice-god, snoring and grunting, with the occasional thunderbolt leaping forth. Or a gigantic phantom skater, “one who covers a mile at a stride and makes the crystal floor ring beneath him.”
Just for fun, I compiled a makeshift catalogue of ice sounds:
1) Puffed-rice breakfast cereal sounds: krack, smack, krunch, kapow; knuckle-breaking comic-book brawl.
2) Squeegee-like: squeaks like furry little mice complaining about the icy cold.
3) Old man noises: the grumbling of old age, groaning with the rough creaking of joints; a few coughs, as the ice complains under the stress of a shrinking tide; when the tide expands, a surge of gurgling and belching, followed by one long sigh.
4) Space-age special effects: high-pitched, ethereal pings, transmitted through the ice sheet like snapping piano wire, like steam-pipes and radiators singing with an ancient boiler. If you ever stood on a railroad platform and listened carefully as a train approached the station, you’d recognize this thin icy sound as something similar to the high-pitched pings darting through the rails in advance of the train.
5) Primal animal motion: the kind that make dogs bark into the night; they sense something out there in the dark. It’s the river ice, like a large, lumbering beast on the move.
The ice, the wind, the snow — these are not only essential elements of our wintertime scenery but also the source and structure of the frozen soundscape. Sometimes it is worth it to peel back the parka hood or lift a fold of a wool cap to expose an ear to the cold and soak up the sounds or simply enjoy the stillness.
Patrick Landewe is keeper of the Saugerties Lighthouse. His column appears monthly.