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Silence in France

At the end of August we did our annual canoe trip along the Dordogne River. We camp on public land (any land which can be flooded by the river is deemed public), carry all we need, and spend our days drifting, paddling and occasionally negotiating (gentle) rapids. This year we added in a night so in all we had four nights on the river, and canoed a total of 160 km.

I am always struck, when we do this trip, by the silence that surrounds us as we canoe. On my Facebook Page I posted the lyrics of a song I particularly like called 'Easy Silence' but I have been thinking more about the idea of silence and my experience of it since we got back. It is rare to truly experience silence and I am not sure if I ever have. When we talk of silence today we really mean an escape from humanity's intervention into the natural world. Because, of course, silence on a river is not silence by any stretch of the imagination. We heard the songs and cries of birds, many birds, almost constantly; the swish of our paddles in the water; the energy of the river as it hit a stone or a tree branch; the wind shaking trees which seemed to have entered autumn early; cows, horses, donkeys, sometimes dogs; the sudden plip of a jumping fish returning to his home. In the night too: unidentified rustles, water rising and falling near our tent, night birds.

I was introduced to silence as a concept by someone called Frank Dawson who together with his wife Fev ran an educational outdoor pursuits centre in the Lakes called Castle Head. I have just got back from Fev's 80th and felt Frank's absence keenly (he died four years ago). When we arrived as teenagers on the first day of our holiday, he would take us off on a night walk to Eggerslack Wood, and leave us alone at set places in the wood (in the dark) to 'listen to the night.' Later, as part of my training to be a Young Leader, I was sent on a 24 hour solo in the Cumbrian Fells, where I met nobody and heard only the sounds of the natural world including the heavy breath of a lost sheep in the middle of the night where I was bivvying. I didn't talk to anyone but I wasn't in a silent world in those incredible 24 hours when I was 17 years old.

And then there is the noise in your head. It is even harder for most of us to escape that. Noise in the head can be good, it can be creative and exciting and dynamic, but we do need to help it to quieten down on occasion, and I think this is what I understand true silence to mean. A point of meditation, of mindfulness, of stillness, the 'still point of the turning world' (T. S. Eliot), a 'spot of time' (Wordsworth), a 'moment of being' (Woolf), when the world and you are connected. Poets and writers have spent their entire careers trying to capture this moment through words. Some have almost succeeded and I think Eliot's Four Quartets comes closest to it. Interestingly, by the time he wrote this sequence, he had converted to Anglicanism and had found a way of understanding his world and necessary silence through faith. Whatever one's religious views, I still believe that this poem is the greatest ever written. The novelist Sara Maitland, herself a Roman Catholic, has written a very interesting account of her relationship with silence which I highly recommend, called simply A Book of Silence.

From the second movement of 'Burnt Norton', the first of the Four Quartets

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time. The inner freedom from the practical desire, The release from action and suffering, release from the inner And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving, Erhebung without motion, concentration Without elimination, both a new world And the old made explicit, understood In the completion of its partial ecstasy, The resolution of its partial horror. Yet the enchainment of past and future Woven in the weakness of the changing body, Protects mankind from heaven and damnation Which flesh cannot endure.

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