Making My Way through Silence
I like quiet, but not THAT much quiet.
Seated near the window, a cold draft slips into my lap while I read, uninterrupted, until a songbird sounds. Cheer, cheer, cheer. The flocks of obnoxious starlings, plucking at my ear drums, are long gone. In their winter space, a different bird has arrived.
Living in the city, I should be thankful for birdsong at all. Our European columnar hornbeam trees, in their contained majesties, have scaled heights unimaginable in our curt courtyard. Their branches also act as cover for the bird spotted near the sweet potato-colored peeling brick wall where ghost rooflines from a former carriage house cozy up to the building next door.
I see red. Not in rage at the pounding of the starlings’ call. But a literal red—a cardinal.
The day before, on a walk through tamped down brush where I’m not supposed to go off road, three red cardinals careened around the sharp bark of cottonwoods trees near Eden Park, their dance oddly choreographed in tune to the lithe bodies seen dancing at the barre through the ample windows of the nearby Cincinnati Ballet building.
In the past, red cardinals have been a sign of loss and grief. Today, they mark the abundance of silence in the city ambushed once more by a quiet, but rambunctious, wave of a new strain of virus.
Upon first moving to this urban setting, commotions outside my windows relentlessly prickled beneath this light sleeper’s skin. Thick, blackout drapes were hung. HEPA filters (acquired before COVID) aided in calming me through their regurgitation of white noise. Eventually, the streetcar’s whoosh became a comfort, as was the Metro bus operator’s mechanical voice, announcing “Government Square,” together with a muffled “good morning” to my husband at 6 a.m.
Nowadays, I rise early for this reason. To hear the city to stir. Engines grind on, and outdoor HVAC units buzz with the intensity of a single bee when no other noise takes up the cause. The whoop, whoop of a key fob unlocking a car door is the unlocking of a school commute, hospital demands, or running a bakery. The unlocking of life. In my steps out the door, I tiptoe in my reliable Nikes along the edges of sidewalks and curbs of back alleys like the mother who can’t wait for the baby to wake, but also the one who takes heart in listening for that last sigh of precious baby sleep.
The pandemic changed all that.
Restaurants are only open Wednesdays through Sundays, maybe. Events are shuttered or the cold has kept everyone inside. On Saturday night following the Bengals playoff win, when the city should have been awash in beer and orange (but not orange beer, though someone did propose coloring the river orange), the city had calmed to simmering quient.
As much as Mark joked how I might happier if the city were to be completely vacated (so I could have always it to myself), I never meant it. Why is it we welcome the clamor only when we want it?
Gordon Hempton, a famed acoustic ecologist, says, “Silence is not the absence of sound, it’s the absence of noise.” In this case, he means man-made noise. Yet, he also waxes poetically about a train’s whistle zig-zagging its way through the distance air. We’re all made of contradictions. I have mine too.
Late Sunday, I walked through the city’s mere inches of January snow, contributing to woman-made noise as my snow pant legs whisked against each other and allowed me to believe I was on a mountaintop, prepping for a ski run. Frosted flakes fell from the sky into a milky white bowl of new fallen snow, its surface pricked by human toes. Am I making noise or sound, I can’t decide.
But the red cardinal? Undoubtedly sound.
The ecologist Hempton keeps a “list of the last great quiet places”, where a place has a noise-free interval of only 15 minutes or longer during daylight hours. He’s collected this list for over thirty years. There are only 12 of those places in the United States, none of them inches from my doorstep.
In an hour’s time after my morning walks have begun, the electric grid and matrix of car lights on the highways flicker, enlivened also by snow or leaf blowers, the idling of the bread and buns delivery truck, and an errant car alarm that supersedes any wake up call.
My immersive mornings are how I experience place. And while Gordon might make his way to the Olympic National Park, and I am insanely jealous of him for doing so, sound is how we all experience place, even if it’s a tad noisy at times. Especially when it’s not.
The next day, I pass by my courtyard and hear the cardinal’s call again. A call to note the silence.
But honestly, I’d give anything to hear the Metro bus driver’s melodious voice, the booming throngs of Reds or Bengals fans, a drumbeat of crowds or djs or microphone announcements. I crave the noises of the city, like I do the thundering of waves, intent as I am to devour all that energy for my own purposes. Not meaning to, I chase the red cardinal away. He knows how to find me.
Just gorgeous! Those first two paragraphs made such a beautiful song. What a poetic and thoughtful piece.
I really enjoyed reading your piece. I was walking with you. Beautiful.