NOTES ON SILENCE

The racket of birdsong wakes me at 4am, before first light.

 

“Music in the Morning” on WGBH regularly opened with five minutes of recorded birdsong, beginning with one or two birds, then growing to a chorus of warbles, cries, and chirps that merged gradually into an instrumental symphony, by Mozart, I think.

 

Lightning flash!  Count seconds, 4, 5, thunder clap!  The distant batter hits the ball; he’s already running, when I hear the ping.  Sound travels at 1087 feet per second at sea level.  If we travel faster than 600mph, via jet or rocket, we break the sound barrier.  Groundlings hear a sonic boom.

 

Under water, sound slows.  Think sonar pings or whale songs.

 

We had a game in camp: I whispered through cupped hands into one side of a curved, empty swimming pool and my friend heard on the other, a variation of echo.

 

I listen through motel plasterboard, ear to the base of a drinking glass.  Or if the noise of TV, sex, hilarity, or fight is too loud, I push in rubber ear plugs.  Pillow over my head.

 

Expensive ear-muffs, like headsets, are required for shooters, for jack-hammerers, for grounds-crew people and baggage handlers around jet-liners.

 

Remember from biology?  The ear drum.  Tympani.  Middle ear.  Inner ear.  The little bones and fluid.  The hammer, anvil, stirrup, the cochlea, the auditory nerve.

 

Clean out your ears!

 

I wince in high school shop each time my hammer hits the copper bowl I shape on an anvil.  I can’t help myself.

 

There is no absence of sound, except to the deaf, who feel vibrations through the floor or other surfaces by touch.

 

Buddhist teasers:  The sound of one hand clapping.  A tree falls in an empty forest.  Sunyata.

 

Listen carefully, and even in scientifically designed anechoic chambers, in the absence of most sound, you’ll hear the roar and pulse of your own blood.  (This, of course, is amplified in ultra-sound exams of the heart, which, when I heard mine from a speaker, sounded like kicking in a bath, glug, wash, glug.)

 

Our industrial and technological revolutions have increased ambient noise, especially in cities.  Steam locomotives and steam engines.  Factories and mills.   Later:  cars, trucks, busses; prop planes overhead and the rumbling of jets.  Subways rattling and squealing.  Pile drivers.  Sirens, whistles, horns.  The churn and wheeze of sanitation trucks.  Fire-engines.  Radios, sound systems and TVs.  “The din of man,” George Michelsen Foy calls it.

 

We amplify our sounds: on our own, from whisper to shout, or with cupped hands or megaphone, or with the help of electronics.  Through our floor, the downstairs child booms on his father’s mic: “I got a BIG voice!”  My car radio, tuned reasonably, plays jazz, while the dude’s or Jane’s car nearby, booms out full-volume rap.  We fight to sleep, while neighbors laugh, shout, shriek and dance, at least until the cops arrive.

 

Legislation limits airplane noise over neighborhoods near airports.   New York City passes noise ordinances.   No honking.  Your muffler, fix it.  Amtrak provides special Quiet Cars, no cell phones (that is, no one-sided, private conversations, aloud) allowed.

 

A femme fatale once told me that when she’d cried as a child, her father had shut her in the basement; so she’d been trying to wake up men ever since.

 

Hearing aids turn up sound for the hard of hearing, while for the hearing, over-amplification can lead to hearing loss.  An ad for high end speakers shows a listener gripping his chair-arms, with his hair and tie blown back.

 

My neighbor’s chained Shepherd kept haranguing me, until finally I recorded his bark on my digital recorder.  Next time he started, I played it back at him, full-volume, thinking of RCA’s trademark, “his master’s voice.”  He promptly stopped and looked puzzled.   Whatever he’d been calling me, now he’d been called back in kind.

 

From the Arecibo dish-telescope in Puerto Rico (1000 feet in diameter), we transmit signals into deep space, announcing ourselves; and listen, so far in vain, for incoming signals.

 

Speak now, we say, or forever hold your peace.

 

Enfolding silence, thick silence, heavy; moments filled with silence.

 

Dead silence.

 

We mute the TV during the familiar, annoying commercial.

 

Philomela, the rape victim, tongue-less, hand-less.

 

Brer Rabbit and Tarbaby.

 

Hold your tongue.

 

Tongue-tied?

 

Dip your tongue in the honey of your mind before speaking.

 

Make him talk.  Water-board her.

 

Priests and shrinks can’t reveal our secrets.  Vows of silence.  Gag orders.

 

The silent treatment.

 

Deep throat.

 

Join the march to have our voices heard.

 

Walt Whitman, barbaric yawper, heard America singing.

 

“I had nothing to say and I am saying it,” said John Cage.

 

 

DeWitt Henry was the founding editor of Ploughshares.  Other “Notes On…” abstract topics have appeared in Massachusetts Review (“Weather”), Brevity (“Conscience), Constellations (“Falling”) and Woven Tale Press (“Voice”).  His novel, THE MARRIAGE OF ANNA MAYE POTTS, won the Peter Taylor Prize.  He also has published two memoirs, SWEET DREAMS and SAFE SUICIDE; a collection, FALLING: SIX STORIES; and several anthologies.  He is a Professor Emeritus at Emerson College. For more see www.dewitthenry.com<http://www.dewitthenry.com> .

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