Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Sara Maitland’ category

So far my favorite chapter in Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence is « Silent Places » in which she talks about her experience walking for days in a forest – about the secrets of a forest and its complex silences. I grew up exploring the old growth forests of western Oregon, and her descriptions of the Caledonian Forest in Scotland made me wonderfully homesick for the densely growing pines, the lakes and waterfalls, the ancient moss-covered lava flows of this unique area of the United States. All forests are unique—thankfully so—and Maitland has reminded me of the joys of discovering a particular forest’s visual and auditory texture, and thinking how those two spaces interact and oppose.

At the end of the chapter she reflects on the “varieties” of silence, and I love this bit especially:

Beyond the purely auditory experience there is an even greater range; there are emotionally different silences and intellectually different silences, too. I have come to believe that while sound may be predominantly a brain phenomenon, silence is a mind event. The experience of silence is more tightly bound up with culture, cultural expectation and, oddly enough, with language than the experience of sound is. Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration and profound joy; being silenced (a silence chosen by someone else and forced upon one) can drive people mad. It is possible to experience external silence without any sense of interior silence and in a few cases the reverse. Catherine of Siena, the Italian mystic, was famously able to maintain a conscious awareness of her own interior silence while pursuing an eloquent and complex ambassadorial role about the politics of the papacy. Silence is multifaceted, a densely woven fabric of many different strands and threads.


“And of course it grows silently. In our noise-obsessed culture it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent — gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos. The earth spins, it spins fast. It spins about its own axis at about 1,700 kilometres per hour (at the Equator); it orbits the sun at 107,218 kilometres per hour. And the whole solar system spins through the spinning galaxy at speeds I hardly dare to think about. The earth’s atmosphere spins with it, which is why we do not feel it spinning. It all happens silently.

Organic growth is silent too. Cells divide, sap flows, bacteria multiply, energy runs thrilling through the earth, but without a murmur. ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’ is a silent force. Soil, that very topmost skin coating, is called earth and the planet itself is called earth. It is all alive — pounding, heaving, thrusting. Microscopic fungi spores grow, lift pavements and fell houses. We hear the crack of the pavements and the crash of the buildings — such human artefacts are inevitably noisy — but the fungus itself grows silently. Perhaps we are wise to be terrified of silence — it is the terror that destroyeth in the noontide.”

From Sara Maitland’s stunning A Book of Silence