To hear this essay read aloud, check out An Irrevocable Condition.
“Wait, do you hear that?”
My voice breaks the stillness we’re sitting in and sinks away into the shadows around us. We’ve just settled into our trip and are lying out on a flat expanse of rock, up the hill from where we pitched our tents. I feel the silence squeezing us; I feel my senses sharpening. We’re eight miles from the nearest trailhead, hidden in the northern reaches of Yosemite National Park, where it abuts Emigrant Wilderness. The California backcountry: expansive, remote, and wild.
The sky was moving in and out of clouds when we arrived earlier in the day, periods of warm sun chased away by puffy cumulus pillows. Kyle and I braved a swim in the lake, paddling across to the small island there, getting out to declare “this land is ours!” and running around whimsically as the others looked on and snapped photos from shore. Even as we slurped our ramen in the encroaching dusk, casually slapping at mosquitoes on our exposed parts and each other’s foreheads, the overnight weather remained uncertain.
The sunset over the rock and pines to the west bathed us in a creamy, orange wash. The sky was a slurry of pastel hues, the clouds singeing at the edges like small bits of paper held above a flame. Jonathan climbed a boulder and sat watching as the earth delivered us the night. His silhouette against the horizon was a modern day “Thinking Man” as John Muir might have sculpted it.
When night finally did come, the moon came with it, drawn out from behind the mountain to our east as if tethered to the sun. And it was full, the moon, or close enough for us to marvel at. With every degree that it rose into the night, brighter was its surface, deeper shadows did it cast on the monochrome palette of our surroundings; extra appendages growing out from under trees, oily slicks pooling beneath rocks.
I lie back onto the smooth stone we’re sitting on, arching my neck to look behind me at the moon. The thin cloud cover of dusk has given way to neat little heaps of moisture; smooth, ethereal marbles, backlit and dotted haphazardly across the sky, like how vinegar separates from oil on a plate. The stars, I can see now, and the clouds with them, are being pulled into the moon, helpless to resist its gravitational pull. And a minute later, the stars are fireflies, jittering like stray electrons on a slow conveyor to some mother eternal, gathering her celestial offspring.
We’re quiet, at first, wavering between awe and anxiety as we adjust to our new consciousness. Eventually we talk; Kyle tells a story about being sent to French immersion school with no forewarning, of his confusion and helplessness as he was suddenly made to learn chemistry in a language he didn’t know. Andrea tells us about her bunny. Jing, cocooned in her sleeping bag, is quiet except for the occasional, soft chuckle.
At some point I leave the group to pee, and I’m seen off into the shroud of night with well-wishes and words of comfort. I walk a short distance into the shadows for privacy, but when I turn to look back I realize I’ve walked much further than intended. My friends, far in the distance, are spotlit in what seems to be a perfect ray of moonlight. And around me, a perfect stillness.
“Wait, do you hear that?”
This was later, and we’d settled into silence again. I yawned, and it seemed to stretch on indefinitely, nearly unhinging my jaw, seeming like it would never end. “One yawn,” I think, “under the moon, indivisible, with gratitude and friendship for all.”
In the next moment, all sound seemed to separate, broken out into layered skins like those animations of the earth’s crust in high school science films. There was the silence, yes, but there was more beneath it, subtle. My ears tuned into it like a hidden frequency, amplifying it so that I could hear it clearly.
What I heard were owls roosting, and hawks nesting. Birdsong from somewhere deeper in the woods. A snapped twig underfoot as some animal moved stealthily past us. Gnats and fleas and mosquitoes buzzing past my head, an insect freeway in each direction.
Loudest of all were crickets. They chirruped loudly from a nearby bush, like a high rise full of tenants.
“Do you hear it?”, I ask again.
When you listen hard enough to anything, you realize that even silence is a sound. It’s like lying on your back, looking at the stars and letting your gaze go soft. “See that empty spot, next to the Big Dipper?” You stare, and see nothing. But when you look away? A trillion galaxies appear.
“This place is like a city,” I say, “just not ours.”
I’m descending the stairs, coming down off the Knickerbocker M stop in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s June and New England is having its first heat wave of the season. Exacerbated by a city that always runs hotter—this being a pun about the feverish pace of New York that turns out to be quite accurate—it’s still in the low 80s at eleven o’clock when I arrive back in the neighborhood where I’m staying.
Bushwick, historically known for its industry, lacks greenery as compared to its sibling neighborhoods, like Brooklyn Heights with its streets lined by London planetrees, or Park Slope which rides against the northwestern edge of the prodigiously large Prospect Park. Bushwick feels like, if not defines, for me, an urban landscape. Cement underfoot, brick buildings to either side, and steel infrastructure overhead. As I walk up Myrtle to turn right on Grove, the train rattles away overhead, the staccato clack clack echoing off the buildings below. Myrtle Ave is one of the main thoroughfares through Brooklyn, running east-west and frenetic with activity most hours of the day, and tonight is no exception. Mariachi blows on the wind, wafting out from the myriad Mexican food joints; distorted 90’s rock oozes from a dive bar as I pass; a motorcycle rips up the street, its engine deafening in the confined underpass.
Earlier in the day I’d lain in the grass at Washington Square Park. I had just purchased a new microphone for making field recordings, and was eager to try it. I left the park after recording for fifteen minutes, and listened to the result as I walked: up West 4th Street and down into the train station; as I waited for the M; as it approached and then departed with me on board. I was entranced. In the recording, absent the visual stimuli of actually being there, I heard layers I’d missed earlier. A conversation, to my right; the incessant barking of a dog on the other side of the park; the plucky bass notes of the jazz trio playing by the fountain when before I’d heard only the sax. Riding the train, listening to the recording on repeat, I was almost more there than when I was there.
In a 2016 essay for Resident Advisor magazine, Mark Smith marveled at “how effective our ears and minds are at filtering the sounds around us, whether it’s traffic noise, wind, or entire genres of music.” He continues: “Embarking on a task with the sole purpose of listening is more remarkable than it sounds. It doesn’t take long to begin hearing structure within the random sounds of everyday life, injecting utility into objects and occurrences usually considered banal, whether it’s the whir of a washing machine or the screech of a train. For some,” he says, “this change in perspective alters how they relate to the world around them.”
Back in Bushwick later that night, I’m approaching my turn onto Grove Street. Here, on the corner of Myrtle and Grove, is some elusive green space, a community garden nestled into the corner lot, a neat collection of shrubs and planters edged by chain link fence. Just before the intersection, the branches of a tree drape the sidewalk, and each time I walk straight through the leaves. After weeks in the city, the feel of them on my skin is a caress, the smell a sweet, refreshing fragrance.
I’m about to take the corner when I hear them. The street noise has momentarily subsided, and into the void rushes the electric hum of crickets, their forewings and their telltale sound. I stop. Close my eyes as long as my self awareness allows me to.
A millennium ago, I think, somebody could have stood here, or just nearby, and listened to crickets as I am now. The Brooklyn of then would be unrecognizable to us. Rolling meadows, and vast stretches of marshland. This person, pausing to rest on their evening walk, might have thanked the crickets, appreciated them for sharing the land. They might have thought, in a vocabulary suited to their time, “This place is like a city, just not ours.”
And as the urban soundtrack spins back to life around me, I say to the crickets, “This place is a city, and it was yours first.”