Two days before Christmas I was deep in the limestone bowels of Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher) in Belize, Central America. Five of us were standing before an exquisite curtain formation of mineral deposits with our guide, Martin. At Martin’s request we extinguished our headlamps and gave ourselves over to the utter darkness. After a moment of silence a wild, strange music began to play. This exotic composition was being played on an instrument that sounded like a hybrid cross between a flute and a drum. The sound was otherworldly. Unearthly.
After we had been listening for a couple minutes Martin turned on his headlamp so we could see what he was doing. He was using the back of his knuckle to lightly rap the various size mineral curtain formations to produce those extraordinary notes.
Someone should make a recording of this, I thought.
Whenever I hear this kind of “wild” music I think of my late friend Fred and his idea about wild musical compositions. It happened a long time ago in a different season, a colder place.
I was a bartender at the time, one of many occupations that have put the bread on my table. Fred was an artist. It was his calling. It was what he was meant to be. It was his place in life to be a sculptor. He was world-renowned. I was locally infamous.
The thing about artists is that they are always artists no matter what else they might be doing at the time. Once, at the conclusion of a dinner attended by both artists and regular people, Fred pointed out the difference. Regular people might leave food on their plate, but artists couldn’t leave the food on their plates alone. They sculpted it and doodled with it while they talked and enjoyed the company.
I always left it to Fred to find the art in the moment and one time he did it when we were ice fishing and what he said changed the way I listen to sounds in the wild.
This particular morning was cold to start. The northwest wind was bitter and it was in our faces. But we figured if it stopped blowing or we set up in the lee of the island or the opposite shore the day would be comfortable. March is a nice time to fish. The days are getting longer and the sun is stronger and the chances of a sunburned face are pretty good.
In March the snowpack on the ice melts and refreezes, melts and refreezes in a daytime/nighttime rhythm that forms white ice on top of the clear hard ice beneath. The white ice we were walking on had been smoothed slick by this daily process of melt and freeze and it was polished to a fine finish that made it extremely slippery. It was so tractionless that the wind was actually pushing us backwards at times.
When you look at ice from a distance it looks perfectly flat. Up close, however, you see it has topography. There are rises and low spots, shallow riverbeds and slopes. What had happened to this pond overnight was that the previous day’s meltwater had settled in the low spots to freeze. That new ice had lifted slightly as it froze overnight and it had formed thin sheets, flat panes braced with random ribs like the very first ice that forms in late fall. These thin sheets of fresh ice were raised slightly above the main body of ice.
We didn’t have creepers that day, no strap-on steel teeth to bite the ice and provide traction. So in order to make decent progress against that pushy northwest wind, we took to walking in the low spots where this sheet ice had formed. The sheets would shatter beneath our weight with a hollow crunch and the broken shards then actually provided some texture, thus some traction, on the slick surface of the main ice.
We were halfway to where we wanted to be when Fred stopped.
“Listen,” he said. “Do you hear that?”
I didn’t hear it at first. So he made me stop and listen while he walked on. Then I heard the faint sound of crystal chimes. The pushy northwest wind was carrying the shards of broken sheet ice away and skipping them across the surface of the main ice pack. As the shards struck they resonated like little tuning forks, striking individual notes of rare quality.
Later that morning, as we encountered a dead spot in the fishing, Fred elaborated. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful musical composition if someone were to capture the sounds of all those wild natural instruments and create arranged musical compositions.
From that point on I’ve always regarded each new sound of nature as part of an ongoing musical composition that needs but to be arranged. In my mind I am forever combining and aligning sounds like the moaning of mourning doves, echoes of turkey gobbles, reverberations of loon laughter, raven croaking, bullfrog blues, coyote solos, and choruses of crickets and peepers to create musical passages.
Now I have some new notes – the sound of those wild curtains of rock some 600 feet deep in the underworld place where a millennium ago the Mayans brought the people they sacrificed to Chac, the God of Rain, one of the gods of the underworld.
The composition continues, note by note, like the drips that left the minerals that made those rock curtains.
Eric Poor is a retired journalist, reporting most recently for the award-winning newspaper The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. He won numerous writing and photography awards from The New Hampshire Press Association (NHPA). He was twice named Columnist of the Year by the NHPA. An avid sportsman, he has been an outdoor columnist for 20 years for Hawkeye, New Hampshire’s outdoor sports newspaper.
Michael Cherry is an artist working in graphite, watercolor and oil. He has an MFA from the University of Houston, Texas. He taught college-level studio art and art history for close to twenty years. Michael is a life-long musician and plays the blues guitar. A former sailor, he’s made many sailing trips in the Gulf of Mexico. He now resides in Peterborough, New Hampshire.