In autumn, before the snow falls, winter’s quiet seeps into the upper Hood River Valley. Frosty winds strip the trees of their rustle and choirs of crickets cease to sing.
Intruders trespass upon the calm. Migrating grosbeaks strip the elderberry bushes of ripened fruit. The cacophony of their chatter shatters the silence. Abruptly, they depart, leaving behind what cannot be harvested for their journey: a muted forest and hushed meadows.
And, in the Lost Lake Canyon, west of our home, the brittle air crackles with the sound of rifle shots. Though I am not a hunter, I accept the sound as an ordinary noise of the season. Hunting is a sacred ritual of country life.
One afternoon, late in November, I climbed atop the roof of my house. I had my own seasonal ritual in which to participate: the rain gutters needed cleaning. From that height, I could see the entire length of my curving driveway, a driveway that seems to have grown through the years. Several times, when I was younger, I recall clearing it of snow by hand. It is a preposterous memory, given age and the state of my health.
On the roof, I flushed shingle gravel from the gutters with a hose. I freed the downspouts of clogs caused by leaf litter. Gazing out over the pasture I realized that silence is literally golden this time of year. Tawny field grasses shine in the oblique sunlight. My white bark birch, the final tree to lose foliage, shimmered with precious gold leaf.
That day, though, my tranquility broke with the sound of semi-automatic gunfire, far away in the National Forest. The initial staccato burst surprised me. The continuing rapid fire, magazine after magazine, made me uncomfortable. Surely, it was not a hunter. More likely, someone chose the crisp day to perfect the handling of his or her extraordinary weapon.
I finished my chore, nervous but alert. How ironic, I thought, to be killed by a stray bullet after surviving so long against an incurable cancer, multiple myeloma. I descended the ladder to lower ground and the shelter of the house. Atop the roof, I’d felt vulnerable and exposed, relying, as it was, on the decision making of someone with unbridled power.
Three weeks later, on December 14th, that same sound of semi-automatic gunfire broke the heart of our nation. On that day, a young man, armed with an assault rifle, murdered 20 grade school children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Imagining the incongruity between the sounds of children mixed with the sound made by such gunfire leaves us aghast with horror. Many Americans believe banning assault weapons will make the world safer. Others think armed guards in school are the answer. We have a choice: to continue doing what is not working or to open ourselves up to a better way.
This New Year’s Eve, I wrote late into the night, trying to understand what I felt about this reprehensible act. Normally, I’d be sleeping. But New Year’s coincided with the day I take steroids for my cancer. A 20 mg dose causes insomnia for a day or two. Firecrackers (I hope) rattled the stillness of the winter evening. This too is a ritual, one that commemorates a new beginning, an opportunity for change.
I worked well past the midnight hour. My cat, Spanky, lay peacefully curled in my lap. Perhaps 2013 will bring us a safer world. A world that appreciates silence for its repose rather than the silence of our collective shame should we fail to act.