Where Words Fail

photographs and text by Brian Willson

We write to communicate. As we have for thousands of years, we draw symbols to name things, to imitate speech, to tell of events. To tell stories. We write to describe, to suggest the sounds of the words that describe, poetically. We keep journals. We theorize. We profess love of lovers and our natural surroundings. We strive above all to find meaning, to explain.

But sometimes—oftentimes—our words fail.

In late afternoon, while hiking Beech Hill with my dog, I got to thinking of this failing. Of the clumsy limitation of words. The air was moist as we ascended, the recent snowfall had receded and gone slushy, and a fog had settled over everything, turning the world dim and gray. We emerged from the trees into a landscape of white and black and browns—coppery browns, russet browns, dark wet browns, browns that were nearly black. And I heard, suddenly, the loud declarations of a barred owl. The owl was near, its voice throaty and pure. I didn’t bother to look for it, was content to listen as we climbed swiftly into the mist and fog. It wasn’t until we’d circled the hut at the summit and begun our descent that I found myself contemplating the inefficacy of words.

That’s because of what I was seeing and feeling and hearing together: a miracle of human senses. My bare fingers stung with the near-freezing cold. Faint cool drizzle caressed my cheeks. Dog and I were in motion, our pulses high, and off in the dimness I saw low moving clouds. Mist-clouds, fog-clouds, I’m not sure how to name them. A parade of them, like a march of ghostly elephants, white and slowly blowing along a valley just a rise or two away. The effect of the fog on the distance at that moment, the peculiar steady motion of the elephant clouds, the unknowable landscape beyond it all—I felt as if I’d slipped through a doorway into a perfectly new world full of sensations I’d never experienced before.

How to describe the moment? The preceding paragraph is a feeble attempt. The thing that seemed most riveting, that caught my attention like a falcon-strike, was the look of the near-to-far layers of the lines of the trees—coppery brown and vivid nearest, darker brown in the middle distance, then the line of moving earth-bound clouds, and the faint vanishing planet beyond.

All this in my eyes, the sweet numbness in my fingers, the mist on my face, the slushy footfalls of one dog and one man, the strident voice of an owl somewhere.

Just another place where words fail.