I made a deliberate attempt to listen past my own noise, to discern each sound of snow.
T he wind blew a hail of snow across the path. Ice crystals scratched against each other as if made of shards of glass. An arc of white, tossed into the air by a flick of cross-country skis, landed with a shoosh!
Snow is not silent. It rattles and clatters, patters and skids. Like a percussion instrument, snow needs to strike something to set in motion its delicate sound waves. Wet flakes against a windshield smack like kisses. Hard, tight crystals grate against each other when blown over the knife-edge of a wind-sculpted drift. When piled high on an imbalanced perch—the top of a birdfeeder, the curve of a branch—snow plunges earthward with a thud.
I have been listening to snow for days now, as the Chicago area where I live is being treated to what can only be called a “real” winter after a few mild attempts over the past few years. As I write this, about eight new inches have fallen since yesterday afternoon, and the temperature is a slim, single digit with a cavernous wind chill. This weekend, on cross-country skis for the first time in years, I left behind my suburban neighborhood, where the snow-related sounds are decidedly mechanical. Snow blowers grumble and grind against the persistent accumulation. City plows bulldoze the pavement. Shovels cut and scoop embankments.
“I’ll be right out, Mr. Stanley,” a woman yelled from a downstairs window of a house on a corner. The window had been raised a few inches, letting in the cold and letting out her voice. “Mr. Stanley, I’ll be outside really soon with the snow blower. I’ll clear your driveway and ours.”
Mr. Stanley, I presumed, was the elderly man leaning on a long-handled shovel nearly as tall as he. He smiled and waved at his neighbor, and took a tiny sip of snow with his shovel, like he was spooning whipped cream. “I’ll be right there, Mr. Stanley,” the woman repeated.
The sounds of neighborly snow, I thought to myself, and kept moving.
On the next block, children patted the rounded belly of a snowman. A little girl in a pink and purple quilted snowsuit slid on a tiny plastic sled down the bank along her driveway. In the flatness of Illinois, real sledding occurs in designated places—like the giant, manmade mound behind the Community Center, with stairs up one side and a long, steep glide down the middle. There, screams and cheers provide the necessary propulsion. The same sounds echo from my childhood, when an orange disc known as a “flying saucer” sent us down the icy driveway and over the embankment.
To hear the voice of the snow itself, I had to head into the woods on cross-country skis. At first, the predominant sound was the ski tread, like a zipper being pulled along the track of a jacket. I made a deliberate attempt to listen past my own noise, to discern each sound of snow. In trying to name each slight variation, I allowed images to come to mind: A light scattering of snow became silver glitter on brown construction paper. Ice crystals rattling against dried stalks of prairie grass became a mouse skittering through autumn leaves.
Alone on that trail, meditating on the sounds of snow, I thought of how much went unheard not only there, in a wintry forest landscape, but in my daily life. Even now, concentrating on word choice and sentence structure, I am deaf to my clattering fingertips at the key board—the punch and snap of nails on plastic keys and the broad spacebar. I shift in my chair, and fail to hear the groan of the leather or the faint rumble of wheels on a hardwood floor.
We call it noise—ambient, background, “white”—and block it out. If we allowed ourselves to get distracted by every hum and rumble, we’d sit mesmerized by the computer hard drive or the refrigerator motor or the furnace blower and never get anything done. We couldn’t drive because the tick of the engine would hypnotize us. And so our senses must screen out the background, letting us see, hear, smell, touch, and taste only what is relevant in the moment—or startles its way through the filters.
But if we truly listen, we hear the serenade, a rich cacophony of natural, human-made, and human-emitted voices. The melody sings us awake and lullabies us good night, and the back beat thrums with the pulse of a human heart—the reassuring sound of being alive.