Into the Wild

Chasing Silence and Sound in Filucy Bay Preserve

The view from the shore of Filucy Bay Preserve.
The view from the shore of Filucy Bay Preserve. Chris Rurik, KP News

As I work my way down a forested draw in Filucy Bay Preserve, tree frogs call. Ferns and logs guide me through a series of pinch points where deer have squeezed before me.

This preserve near Longbranch is best approached by kayak, but I’m a crazy coot of a naturalist. I want the experience of emerging through a thicket onto untouched shoreline. I am entering from above.

I detour to the base of a maple that has four trunks spreading into a cirque of light it has carved for itself. The air smells of autumn at last. I’m here just two days after the rainstorm that ended one of the driest summers on record. I plunge my fingers into deep moss that clothes the maple. It’s not dripping but it is fully rehydrated and back to its usual self. I wiggle a finger into the soil: not saturated but damp as deep as I can dig.

There is a soft tapping high above, slightly syncopated. Based on sound alone, I’m certain it’s a sapsucker, our most gentle woodpecker. I tramp around the tree to get an angle on it and instead scare up a small beast that pauses on rotting wood: a red-legged frog, a species in decline across the Pacific Northwest. These frogs require long-established habitat like this.

The silhouetted woodpecker above, when I finally spy it, surprises me. It’s not a sapsucker at all. Large and dark, it leans back to inspect its progress. Light illuminates its crest. Pileated woodpecker. Maybe the return of moisture has softened more than just the moss. Maybe I’m no longer accustomed to the way the deep woods, properly wet, mute sounds. This is usually our most resounding woodpecker.

Farther down the draw, between inspections of wild ginger patches and one of the best collections of vine maples I have yet seen on the Key Peninsula, I’m thinking about how interesting it would be to rig up a few moisture probes to remotely record how quickly soil loses and regains moisture at different depths. Then you could put out sound recorders and correlate them to see if a forest’s moisture level impacts its soundscape.

Maybe in the next life I’ll have time to test all my hypotheses. Maybe as a frog.

To approach a shoreline from forest is to sense space before you can really see it. I cross a flat, its far edge lined with the biggest cedars and firs yet, and suddenly feel I am in a tree fort looking out. Around me, trees lean over mud. Below, their lowest branches are pickled with salt, twisted into a barricade. Filucy Bay Preserve protects both sides of this, the bay’s narrow north cove. The far bank is just as draped with forest as mine. Where else in Puget Sound can you look across water without seeing a single bulkhead or clearing?

And where else is a place so quiet? I’m hearing a soft grunt. Two mergansers have slipped into the water and are checking up on ripples that look like fish. I’ve been around thousands of mergansers. I did not know they grunt. Coming south on the Key Peninsula always feels like entering a quieter, slower realm, but this has to be one of the most tranquil places here. I am far from the main road and cut off from boat noise in Carr Inlet’s main channel. At the moment, no airplanes are flying over. The incessantness of engine noise, ever increasing on the peninsula, is hard to recognize until it is gone. What effect does it have?

Just west, Olympic National Park has become famous for holding “One Square Inch of Silence,” a spot in the Hoh Rainforest designated as possibly the quietest place in America by acoustic ecologist and chaser of rare nature sounds Gordon Hempton. And Olympic and Mount Rainier are two of the first four national parks to be tasked with crafting plans for how many sightseeing flights are appropriate, measuring the impacts of flight noise on wildlife and hikers. And in Puget Sound — an unintentionally accurate name — much research has recently been done on the interference created by boat engine noise and naval sonar for marine mammals like orcas and harbor seals, which communicate through underwater sound.

A landscape is, in large part, a soundscape. When friends from the city come to stay a night at our place, they emerge late in the morning to describe how they fell into such a sleep that they exited time for a while.

It’s not just vocalizations but wavelets and the rush of wings. I hear the eagle fly in before I see it. Saying nothing, it banks and takes up a post in a waterfront tree.

Then, higher, comes an osprey on thin canted wings. It wheels out of sight. Soon I hear its agitated call, a piercing key-key-key-key. The osprey reappears in a shallow dive, still calling, aimed straight for the eagle’s head.

At the last moment the eagle bails from its perch and rustles out of sight. The osprey comes back around. It gains altitude and puts its attention on the water. Smart bird, I think. No point in fishing if a bully’s around.

For a while I crouch with my eyes unfocused, listening to the lapping around me. Later I find a way onto the muddy shoreline. It turns to rock as I go. Archaeological sites have been found here. Cracked and blackened rocks and buried clamshells speak of smoked shellfish. I think of what it must have been like. A quiet place is not a place that lacks human noise. But the human noises that would have been here — talk, laughter, the crackle of fire, the soft pop of a clam opening — would have fit right in with the sounds of nature. They would have had the same syncopation and unpredictability, the same ability to interact. Unlike engines, which in their heedless droning are dumping a form of waste on others, these cove-side human noises would have been capable of stopping to listen. They would have been capable of conversation.

Sound still has power. Despite our best efforts, we’re not immune to it yet. As I push my way back through ferns and huckleberry, deep into the forested preserve, I’m scared out of my boots by a dinosaur bellow just behind me. I spin around. Ah. Only a great blue heron clattering onto a perch in the trees.