The Friday Fillip: Sans Everything

One winter day, not too long ago, I found myself at the edge of a small bay on Lake Ontario. The night had been still and so the bay had frozen as smooth as if Zambonied. There was no snow on the ice. Prompted by some childhood impulse, I picked up a smooth stone from the shore and fired it to slide out along the frozen surface. To my amazement the ice sang under the caress of the stone. Disbelieving, I tried it again. And again. Each time an uncanny sound returned to me, something like the whine of a Theremin, perhaps. It was a moment of wonder and joy; I wanted it to last; I wanted to share it with everyone, to be able to record it and keep it. I’ve not heard that singing noise since and have been unable to find even a reference to it on the omnium gatherum of the internet. But it remains for me the most singular sensory experience from winter . . .

Click image to enlarge.

Which is otherwise a protracted exercise in sensory deprivation. Oh yes, in the towns and cities there is still the clack, rattle, roar, and honk of traffic. But so much else is missing, indeed suppressed by winter. I feel like poor old melancholic Jaques in As You Like It, who ends his sad description of the last of our seven stages thus: “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” But that’s pretty much how it is in the last of our twelve months. Smell is gone: frozen nature retains her spices, her sweets, her rot and her moulds — which may be a blessing for the allergic but is a significant loss that most of us scarcely note. Mittens, mufflers, and mukluks dampen or prevent our touch. And the whiteness, the whiteness. All the greens and browns are gone, the reds and yellows of autumn are gone, and sky is hard to tell from land so white is it all. And the wise birds have flown south and those that remain cower quietly, save, perhaps, for the damnable poor pigeons that coo under your eaves to drive you batty.

Some people find a purity in this deprivation, an opportunity to purge the dross and confusion accumulated during the kaleidoscopic spring, summer, and fall seasons. Others tackle the matter energetically, adopting the physical equivalent of the rhetorical manoeuvre known as confession and avoidance: sure it’s bleak out there but let’s hit the slopes or throw a few snowballs to get our blood pumping, as sensory experience is made to come from the inside out, proprioception instead of perception. Still others make neighbourly noises, principally grumbling and complaining, to substitute for the sounds we’re simply given most of the year.

I can’t challenge you to a snow fight here and I can’t waft the smell of a lilac over you. But what I can do in this fillip is bring you a few sounds from other seasons. Small compensation, I know. But if you play some of these files, close your eyes, lean back in a soft chair you might imagine yourself at the cottage or merely sitting on the porch of your house as birds sing, rain falls, brooks babble by. There’s nothing wrong with a good hypothetical, after all. So here are some sound files courtesy of the vast bank of files on the Internet Archive. You can play them as embedded here, but if you’d like to download them you can do that from the site itself.

[BREAKING IRONY: As I finish this fillip for publication tomorrow, Friday, I learn that a big storm in SanFrancisco has knocked the power out for the Internet Archive. Winter may be bleak but it is evidently also hypersensitive to criticism — and powerful. Never fear, however. The IA will struggle back online and I’ll embed the file list as soon as that happens. The URL for the site remains good and allows you see for yourself whether things are back to normal or not.]

[UPDATE: The great team at the Archive have brought the site up again.]


  1. Beautiful. How did I not know about this – the Friday Fillip.

  2. I had the same experience – a frozen pond on Galiano Island during a bleak winter visit in 2001. My extended family had gathered for Christmas and one member was at the hard work of dying during those days, letting go of laughter, drink, food, all of us. I tossed a stone onto the hard black ice while out walking. There must have been air trapped under the surface; the stone made the reverberations of the ice ring like the low notes of an organ. I stood and threw pebbles for an hour, making the tones chime over and over against the dry reeds and white sky. One of life’s satisfying, meaningness, memorable hours.