A Few Thoughts… On Pythagoras’ ‘music of the spheres’

By Sandy Compton
Reader Columnist

Once upon a time, long, long ago — at least a decade, maybe more — I was enlisted by a couple of teachers from a local school to help lead a group of seventh-graders into the wilderness. Their idea was to bring them back as well, not just leave them there, tempting as it might be. 

These were good kids, most on the cusp of puberty, some having passed that tipping point and some still maneuvering toward it. For the most part, they were divided into two basic groups: a giggle of girls and a boggle of boys. These classifications may not be completely scientific, but the designations are appropriate. 

At the time, neither group had discovered the other’s mutually mysterious attractions, so chaperoning was not so much about keeping them apart as keeping them together; which, with the help of the other grown-ups, we managed. There were no losses.

Some were fast hikers and others were half-fast hikers, and it didn’t take many steps to figure out who was who. It’s eternally interesting to sort out who is comfortable in a situation in which effort is required, and who really isn’t. I understand. 

Regardless of numerous glorious moments I’ve spent in the backcountry, I admit there are some inglorious ones, when I would rather be sitting in my favorite seat in my favorite pub having a favorite beverage with some favorite friends than walking around with 40 pounds on my back. In the rain. Still, rewards offered by that latter effort are enough to keep me putting one foot in front of the other. So, I do. 

Some of the children in attendance — and I suspect at least one teacher — were not yet well-acquainted with such rewards, and were somewhat balky, whiny and obstinate. With no whip to crack, I could only promise them some magical moment ahead that would make all the work worth it. Those who took me at my word had enough energy to suck the rest along in their wake, and up the trail we went. 

After an inordinately long time — at least an hour — we came to the place where we were to camp. The crew gratefully dropped their packs and suffered the indignity of making the place relatively bear safe. (Some were somewhat surprised — and dismayed — that bears were even a remote possibility.) Having hung the food, we began pack-free toward the ultimate destination, a rock-bottomed, crystalline lake tucked into a high cirque so remote that only a few thousand people had been there. OK. It isn’t all that secret, but it is still beautiful and foreign enough to the children that they found it, at least, “pretty.” And for the time being, no one else was there. Bonus. 

As someone who often hikes alone (or “saunters,” as John Muir puts it), I found the chatter of the children — they never shut up — at first amusing; then mildly annoying; and, finally, like, “Just shut the #@@& up!,” which I did not say aloud, for fear of freaking out my fellow chaperones. What I did say aloud — Ok, growl — was, “Alright, you guys! Enough talk! Find a spot and be still for the next few minutes. Just sit and listen.” 

“Listen to what? ” someone asked. 

“You’ll see,” I said. Maybe, I thought. Growling at children doesn’t always work. 

But we saw. 

I figured the kids might go five minutes without breaking out in babble, but I underestimated the power of the music of the spheres — that perfect harmony ancient old Pythagoras imagined to play eternally in the universal background; inaudible but pervasive; produced by the movements of stars and planets. 

We sat mute, and the music grew and grew and grew, filling the rocky amphitheater with such a symphony of silence that children and adults sat enchanted for five, then 10, then 15 minutes. None dared speak, for it was in each of us not to be the first to break the spell. We found our magic moment. Or it found us.

Finally, as if by mutual acquiescence, we began to leave our seats on rocks and logs and move about, speaking in quiet voices. Shortly after, I was blessed to hear the greatest affirmation a 13-year-old can give: “That was really cool.” It was. 

We live in a noisy world. It’s getting harder to find places and moments where and when we can listen for Pythagoras’ “music of the spheres.” It might be that this symphony is mythical; nonexistent. It might be, but Pythagoras was smart enough to work out how to figure the length of a hypotenuse, so maybe he was on to something. How do we know that the universe isn’t singing madly, and the way to hear the music is to just sit, be still and listen?

Sandy Compton is blessed to be able to listen for the music of the spheres often. His latest book, Her Name Is Lillian, will be out in time for National Book Month.

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