Dr Julie Carter



“For the ear, the most vital thing that can be listened to here is silence. To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there”

from Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain.

What can you hear right now? Close your eyes for moment if possible. Listen not just to identify the sounds which are vibrating the air, reaching your ear drums and being transmitted through your auditory nerve to your brain, where the sound is pattern-matched to something recognisable. Listen also to how the sounds make you feel. Just this moment I heard a goose calling while in flight. To me this is instant comfort and happiness. The geese that fly around Derwentwater have this effect on me—they are reassuring. And when I hear them, I relax. I can also hear the occasional passing car which evokes many mixed emotions, and there is a constant hum of the fan from café which is our near neighbour. The fan didn’t use to be here and I would not have chosen to live with this sound. There is something profoundly unhealthy feeling about it; the constancy of it and the knowing that there is no prospect of the tone or volume altering until after tea time. No prospect of the tiniest moment of silence.


In “The Living Mountain” Nan Shepherd describes the profound effects of the silences which she experienced in the Cairngorms. And if there is a person among you has not read this little book—then rest assured—you are in for the most extraordinary experience if you do so. It’s not really a book at all, but more of a transportation to another realm. Shepherd tells us how when in the mountains—

“Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of the element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon.”

To appreciate silence not as the absence of something but as the presence of something feels true to me. Noises which provoke my emotions to respond are keeping from another experience. I don’t like living with traffic noise and the constant hum of a fan but I think my complaint is trivial because, relatively speaking, I live in a fairly quiet place. And I can hardly complain because I drive past other people’s houses myself. But I recognise an ache inside me for that bigger experience which is silence. Silence is experience without interpretation. It is life outside of any narrative spin. As Nan describes—

“Such moments come in mist, or snow, or a summer’s night (when it is too cool for the clouds of insects to be abroad), or a September dawn. In September dawns I can hardly breathe—I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it.”

To me such moments are as necessary as food and water.


And to finish—a poem:

Words Have Ears

Cycling out of town up Chestnut Hill, thoughts whirring round with the wheels.

I don’t want all this eternal internal chatter. All I want to do is listen.

The trees are singing in the wind, only just holding onto dancing autumn leaves.

Twittering, tweeting, I don’t know exactly which bird sings which note.

But there’s a Buzzard from over St John’s Vale, calling, calling out, for something.

I know the common cry of constant living need.

Bike wheels whizzing, different tones with each change of gear.

With each upstroke of my legs, shorts make a rubbing noise on thighs.

Grass verges soften all the sounds, the trees now left behind.

A few leaves have broken free and chase me, and each other, down the ribbon road.

Bubbling, burbling—a stream is in a hurry. Blencathra summit kisses the cloudless sky

as the five-bar-gate to the fell neatly clicks behind me—I think the world is glorious

and Glor-ri-ous is a word—which sounds like itself.

Glorious Days; Glorious Gods; Glorious Wars—every utterable word is a story, a potential deception.

How can I ever say what’s true—the way the buzzard calls?