ONE summer day, while I was walking along the country road on the farm where I was born, a section of the stone wall opposite me, and not more than three or four yards distant, suddenly fell down. Amid the general stillness and immobility about me, the effect was quite startling. The question at once arose in my mind as to just what happened to that bit of stone wall at that particular moment to cause it to fall. Maybe the slight vibration imparted to the ground by my tread caused the minute shifting of forces that brought it down. But the time was ripe; a long, slow, silent process of decay and disintegration, or a shifting of the points of bearing amid the fragments of stone by the action of the weather, culminated at that instant, and the wall fell. It was the sudden summing-up of half a century or more of atomic changes in the material of the wall. A grain or two of sand yielded to the pressure of long years, and gravity did the rest. It was as when the keystone of an arch crumbles or weakens to the last particle, and the arch suddenly collapses.
The same thing happened in the case of the large spruce tree that fell as our steamer passed near the shore in Alaskan waters, or when the campers in the forest heard a tree fall in the stillness of the night. In both cases the tree’s hour had come; the balance of forces was suddenly broken by the yielding of some small particle in the woody tissues of the tree, and down it came. In all such cases there must be a moment of time when the upholding and downpulling forces are just balanced; then the yielding of one grain more gives the victory to gravity. The slow minute changes in the tree, and in the stone wall, that precede their downfall, we do not see or hear; the sudden culmination and collapse alone arrest our attention. An earthquake is doubtless the result of the sudden release of forces that have been in stress and strain for years or ages; some point at last gives way, and the earth trembles or the mountains fall.
It is the slow insensible changes in the equipoise of the elements about us which, in the course of long periods of time, put a new face upon the aspect of the earth. Rapid and noisy changes over large areas, which may have occurred during the geologic ages, we do not now see except in the case of an earthquake. It is the ceaseless activity, both chemical and physical, in the bodies about us, of which we take no note, that transforms the world. Atom by atom the face of the immobile rocks changes. The terrible demonstrative forces, such as electric discharges during a storm, which seem competent to level mountains or blot out landscapes, usually make but slight impression on the fields and hills.
In the ordinary course of nature the great beneficent changes come slowly and silently. The noisy changes, for the most part, mean violence and disruption. The roar of storms and tornadoes, the explosions of volcanoes, the crash of the thunder, are the result of a sudden break in the equipoise of the elements; from a condition of comparative repose and silence they become fearfully swift and audible. The still small voice is the voice of life and growth and perpetuity. In the stillness of a bright summer day what work is being accomplished — what processes are being consummated! When the tornado comes, how quickly much of it may be brought to naught! In the history of a nation it is the same. The terrible war that is now devastating Europe is the tornado that comes in the peace and fruitful repose of a summer’s day. As living nature in time recovers from the destructive effects of the mad warring of the inorganic elements, so the nations will eventually recover from the blight and waste of this war. But the gains and the benefits can never offset the losses and the agony. The discipline and agony of war only fit a people for more war. If war is to be the business of mankind, then the more of it we have the better — if there is no true growth or expansion for a people, save through blood and fire, then let the blood and fire come to all of us, the more the better. The German gospel of war, so assiduously preached and so heroically practiced in our day, is based upon the conviction that there is no true growth for a nation except by the sword, that the still small voice of love and good-will must give place to the brazen trumpet that sounds the onset of hostile and destroying legions.
Is the gospel of love and altruism of the New Testament outworn, and must we go back to the vindictive and bloodthirsty spirit of the Old Testament? Are the arts of peace seductive, and do they hasten the mortal ripening of a people’s character? Must the ploughshares now be forged into swords and the swords used to spill our neighbors’ blood? The current gospel of war is the gospel of hate and reprisal, of broken treaties and burned cities, of murdered women and children, and devastated homes.
What a noise polities makes in the world, our politics especially; but some silent thinker in his study, or some inventor in his laboratory, is starting currents that will make or unmake politics for generations to come. How noiseless is the light, yet what power dwells in the sunbeams — mechanical power at one end of the spectrum, in the red and infra-red rays, and chemical power at the other or violet and ultra-violet end! It is the mechanical forces — the winds, the rains, the movements of ponderable bodies — that fill the world with noise; the chemical changes that disintegrate the rocks and set the currents of life going are silent. The great loom in which are woven all the living textures that clothe the world with verdure and people it with animated forms makes no sound. Think of the still small voice of radioactivity — so still and small that only molecular science is aware of it, yet physicists believe it to be the mainspring of the universe.
The vast ice-engine that we call a glacier is almost as silent as the slumbering rocks, and, to all but the eye of science, nearly as immobile, save where it discharges into the sea. It is noisy in its dying, but in the height of its power it is as still as the falling snow of which it is made. Yet give it time enough, and it scoops out the valleys and grinds down the mountains and turns the courses of rivers, or makes new ones.
We split the rocks and level the hills with our powder and dynamite, and fill the world with noise; but behold the vast cleavage of the rocks which the slow, noiseless forces of sun and frost bring about! In the Shawamgunk mountains one may see enormous masses of conglomerate that have been split down from the main range, showing as clean a cleavage over vast surfaces as the quarryman can produce on small blocks with his drills and wedges. One has to pause and speculate on the character of the forces that achieved such results and left no mark of sudden violence behind. The forces that cleft them asunder were the noiseless sunbeams. The unequal stress and strain imparted by varying temperatures clove the mountains from top to bottom as with the stroke of the earthquake’s hammer. In and around Yosemite Valley one sees granite blocks the size of houses and churches split in two where they lie in their beds, as if it had been done in their sleep and without awaking them. This silent quarrying and reducing of the rocks never ceases to surprise one. Amid the petrified forests of Arizona one marvels to see the stone trunks of the huge trees lying about in yard-lengths, as squarely and cleanly severed as if done with a saw. Assault them with sledge and bar and you may reduce them to irregular fragments, but `you cannot divide the blocks neatly and regularly as time has done it.
The unknown, the inaudible forces that make for good in every state and community, — the gentle word, the kind act, the forgiving look, the quiet demeanor, the silent thinkers and workers, the cheerful and unwearied toilers, the scholar in his study, the scientist in his laboratory, — how much more we owe to these forces than to the clamorous and discordant voices of the world of politics and the newspaper! Art, literature, philosophy, all speak with the still small voice. How much more potent the voice that speaks out of a great solitude and reverence than the noisy, acrimonious, and disputatious voice! Strong conviction and firm resolution are usually chary of words. Depth of feeling and parsimony of expression go well together.
The mills of the gods upon the earth’s surface grind exceeding slow, and exceeding still. They arc grinding up the rocks everywhere — pulverizing the granite, the limestone, the sandstone, the basalt, between the upper and nether millstones of air and water, to make the soil, but we hear no sound and mark no change; only in geologic time are the results recorded. In still waters we get the rich deposits that add to the fat of the land, and in peaceful, untroubled times is humanity enriched, and the foundations laid upon which the permanent institutions of a nation are built.
We all know what can be said in favor of turmoil, agitation, war; we all know, as Goethe said, that a man comes to know himself, not in thought, but in action; and the same is true of a nation. Equally do we know the value of repose, and the slow, silent activities both in the soul of man and in the processes of nature. The most potent and beneficent forces are stillest. The strength of a sentence lies not in its adjectives, but in its verbs and nouns, and the strength of men and of nations lies in their calm, sane, meditative moments. In a time of noise and hurry and materialism like ours, the gospel of the still small voice is always seasonable.