Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Hippocampus, Compose, Smoky Blue, Appalachia, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.
The Natural Moment
This has been an unusually busy winter for me. What used to be a given—a daily walk in the outer Cape Cod woods—has become a luxury. There is meager compensation from being too busy to fret about it.
But prolonged absences can make us more receptive to what is known as the natural moment. This is a sudden, unexpected event, such as an encounter with an animal or a sound out of the blue. It is a moment that has the form if not the content of revelation. The mind is instantly ushered from its internal rumination to a state of external awareness. It is a wake-up call.
One recent night I took our dog outside for his last chance before bed. It was a calm night, warm for early spring, and not a cloud in the sky. While the dog frantically searched for that perfect place, I sat down on the bench we had rescued from a junk heap at a Hyannis pond. It was while sitting on the bench that I was hit broadside by the natural moment.
As so often happens, the moment was generated by a sound. It was neither a loud nor a sudden sound, and had been there all along, unnoticed. It crept up behind and leaped into my awareness, and for a few moments I experienced a state of higher consciousness, a mind disconnected from its preoccupations and reconnected with the world around it. It was one of those moments during which a sense of time and place is simultaneously pinpointed and obliterated.
The source of the sound was the ocean; specifically, the sound of heavy surf on the outer beach two miles away. The previous day we had been visited by a Nor’easter, and though the wind was gone, the storm’s stored energy continued to thrash the shore. The sound of the surf, though distant and of few decibels, was nonetheless huge and primal. It was a sound I had heard many times before, but this time there was something in it that seemed out of ancient memory, a sound originally heard from the other side of the surf, from within the sea.
The natural moment was further elaborated by the arrival of a second sound, that of a foghorn. There was no need for a foghorn on such a clear and windless night, and I fancied that this sound, like the waves, was a product of yesterday’s storm, disconnected and tossed about, a false hope for a lost mariner.
Not all sudden or unexpected sounds result in the natural moment. Some produce the unnatural moment, and these most often are of human origin, usually mechanical. Nowhere is one entirely free of them. Even in remote wilderness airplanes can be heard or their vapor trails seen.
But origin is relative, and whether a stimulus is mind-expanding or annoying isn’t always determined by whether it was produced by nature or by man. The nearest I have come to prolonged experiences of only natural sounds has been during lengthy stays in a dune shack. Yet one of my favorite sounds in that solitude happens at night, under the quilt, listening to the distant putter of fishing boats. They sound like giant faraway butterflies with piston-driven wings.
A wondrous mockingbird provided my favorite dune moment. The bird was on the other side of a cranberry bog, in a beach plum thicket. I was only partly listening to it when it mimicked the call of a Fowler’s toad. That caught my full attention, so I sat down on the lower slope of the dune on my side of the bog. This bird did each call twice, then went on to the next. He focused on the dune aviary, but allowed the occasional shorebird, and mimicked another dune toad, the American. But his tour de force was not a natural sound at all. He perfectly captured the muted sound of a semi-truck passing on Route 6 a mile away, immediately followed by the passing of a second truck. Then he continued with his accounting of the dune aviary. After that, a mile-away truck became one of my favorite sounds in the dunes. It had become the call of a mockingbird.
But back to the foghorn we left adrift a few moments ago. It and two cohorts were responsible for another of my favorite natural moments on Cape Cod. It was an August day in 1974, after I had just returned from a two-year absence. I was standing on the low bluff that sits between Village Pond and Cape Cod Bay in North Truro, refreshing my memory. I was wondering why the foghorns at Race Point, Wood End, and Long Point were sounding on such a clear day when all of a sudden the three of them bellowed at once.
For those of you familiar with such things, it was in more ways than one a major chord. I later asked our resident composer about this phenomenon. He too had become familiar with the foghorn tones, though had never heard them in unison. He described the three tones as a second inversion A-flat major triad.
The most distant horn was eight miles away, meaning that a very large area was momentarily bathed in a rich, harmonious music. It had all the earmarks of the best natural moments: unexpected, coincidental, and mind-expanding.
The Coast Guard employs a foghorn tuner. It is his job to make sure each horn has a distinctive tone for identification. I just had to call him, and he said the major triad (second inversion) was unintended. He has since rescored the music to a dissonant chord, also without intent. That’s as it should be. Part of me would have loved to hear that huge music again and again. But the memory of the moment would have been lost in the repetition.
[image credit: Race Point Light, James Evangelista]