Ssssh: Snow is falling. Contrary to poet James Russell Lowell, who called it "the noiseless work of the sky," you can hear snow.
It's not like rain. Rain drips, pours, or beats a steady rhythm on your tin roof. You don't have to go outside to hear it.
Snow calls you to grab your coat and step right out into it, to tip your bare head to the sky, close your eyes and open your ears to a sound like the flutter of distant birds' wings, or the landing of wet, heavy crystals. Or, if it's the diamond dust that fell Thursday night, to the sound of a shush. Not the harsh shushing of a cranky schoolmarm but the kindly shush of a grandmother who has caught you talking in church. An intimate, long whisper that fills the entire sanctuary, reminding you to be still, as the Psalmist said, and know God.
Physicists say humans cannot hear falling snow; the pitch is too high. Other creatures can, like wolves and bats, which may be why right before a snowfall in the country, they seem to disappear into shelter. Fish may hate snow because snowflakes are full of air that when hitting water, makes a noise that to marine life "sounds like a freight train," says Lawrence Crum, a physicist at the University of Washington.
But human beings? When you think you're hearing snow falling, you're probably hearing the wind, scientists say. Or if there isn't any wind, perhaps you're hearing the sound of your own heartbeat or breath.
Naaah. It's snow.
The Japanese understand this. They have a word for the sound of snow falling. It's shinshin (pronounced sheensheen). The word "shin" means silence or, to be more precise, the absence of sound where there was sound before, according to a spokesman for the Japan Information Culture Center.
So "shinshin" is more silent than silence, perhaps more a feeling than anything else.
As snow blankets the ground, other sounds disappear or fade: the car horn, the police siren, the barking of a neighbor's dog. The racket of suburban life softens to a rumble as sound waves travel first to the ground, then bounce off, the snow absorbing them like a soft rug.
"You might get the same effect by covering the ground with feathers," says Kenneth Libbrecht, physics professor at Caltech.
It feels funny, the first time you listen for snow or in snow, the way standing in a graveyard for the first time feels funny. We are so accustomed to the background noise of Muzak and MTV, computer keyclicks and cell phones, leaf blowers and toys that talk, sing and beep, that we have come to equate "sound with life," says Katrina Kenison, author of the book "Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry."
"We literally can't hear ourselves think."
Last month, after one of several snows at her home in Massachusetts, Kenison and her husband took their two sons and their border collie to the woods.
"We were in our own snow globe," she says, "shaken up and set down in a magical landscape. Our voices dropped to a whisper, and then ceased altogether."
Sunshine makes you want to laugh, and rain, to cry. Snow makes you want to shut up for once. It's as if the world has gone to sleep and you're the only one still awake. And the quieter you are, the more you can hear.
What you hear, you will remember years later: snow falling off a branch and slapping the snow below, and later, snow melted and dripping from the gutter. You will remember the crunch of boots on crusty snow, the squeak if the snow is hard-packed, the stomp as you come into the house through the back door.
You'll remember the ringing scrape of shovels on sidewalks and snowplows on blacktop. You'll recall, as if it were yesterday, zipping up your snowsuit and squealing as you flew down the hill on a Flexible Flyer, its runners whizzing. You'll never forget the thud of the snowball you threw at a passing car, nor the chewing out you received from Dad, who saw it.
Listen to the snow next time it falls. And remember.