Listening to Nature…for a Change

tracks in snow
Alderfer/Three Sisters trail after a snowstorm

In winter, we spend a lot more time indoors. The prospect of going out into the bitter cold and slipping around on icy or slushy sidewalks isn’t appealing at all. We’d much rather be snuggled with our honey, reading a book and drinking tea. I know I would.

As much as I don’t want to sometimes, I force myself to go out for a morning walk in my neighborhood or a long hike on a trail. It’s never as bad as I imagine. I have good waterproof boots and plenty of layers to pile on when temperatures dip below the teens. There are advantages to hiking in winter. For one thing, it’s quieter on the trails. There aren’t as many people. Parking lots don’t fill up. You can go for a sunrise or sunset hike easily, without getting up at the crack of dawn or staying up past when your energy starts to decline. The best part of winter hiking, though, is how gorgeous a mediocre trail can look the day after a blizzard.

Case in point: I went on a hike the day after a winter storm blew over the Front Range on December 30th. These are photos taken from the Alderfer/Three Sisters Park the next morning. Luckily, since this was the first time we had hiked here, someone else who knew the park hiked before us and left us a set of bootprints to follow. Otherwise, we would have had to bushwack our way around and then follow our own prints back to the parking lot. For this reason, it’s probably best not to hit the trail TOO early in the morning.

In winter, since we don’t spend as much time outdoors, we really cut ourselves off from the sights and (particularly) the sounds of nature. All we listen to most of the time are sounds that come from machines or other humans: the hum of the computer, the blare of television, the rumble of a car motor, the chatter of a co-worker. Our windows are closed, so we don’t hear the birds chirping the way we do in summer. We don’t enjoy the sound of the wind as much as we do when it’s 90 degrees outside and we’re drinking a glass of iced tea while sitting on the porch, appreciating the cooling breeze. In winter, wind is often biting, or here on the Front Range, downright obnoxious. At the head or tail of changing weather fronts, winds can get so crazy they blow down fences and trees. I don’t want to be outside when that’s happening.

It’s good to reconnect with what’s going on in nature this time of year, nonetheless. Black-capped chickadees still hang out in the woods along the foothills and mountains. You can hear their distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Red-winged blackbirds remain in town, as do robins and flickers (a kind of woodpecker). They’re not as vocal as they are in spring, but they still sing. I sometimes hear the hoo-hoo-hoo of an owl in the late evening hours or in the middle of the night from where he or she is perched near my house. My favorite bird is the raven, who is the curious observer on the trail in mountainous areas. The raven seems to speak, not just sing. He complains and criticizes, then jeers and clucks his tongue. I look up and say hello, jeering back.

Winter is a time of protracted silence. It is the sound of nature taking a break. It is the sound of the thread of the cosmos; it’s the underlying, silent dark matter that surrounds everything in the Universe. When it’s dry and sunny in winter, the sounds of nature seem shrill but clear. Wind howls, birds question, a fly buzzes through its short life while temperatures hover above freezing. When you’re hiking in deep snow and it’s still snowing around you, the only sound you hear is again the sound of your own making—your breath, your heartbeat and the muffled footfalls of your boots sinking into the white.