Walking around nearby residential neighborhoods yesterday, I was stunned by how noisy Parkersburg is. Maybe because winter has been so long and so cold that being outside for any length of time has been difficult, I hadn’t processed what life in an urban (well, okay, maybe semi-urban) environment is like. Our immediate neighborhood (where I spend most of my alone-outside time) isn’t on the direct route to anywhere except two schools, and the traffic there is confined to particular hours of the day. We get periodic traffic noise, but the noise is so periodic that it’s noticeable, not the norm. Working in the back yard, I can actually hear the last of the oak leaves rattling on the tree whenever the wind blows.
Visually, the neighborhoods where I walked yesterday are mid-American paradise: blocks of mostly smallish mid-century houses, set back from the street with a reasonable number of trees and shrubs giving living interest to the scene. This time of year, squirrels are everywhere, and the birds are getting active. But what struck me was the noise: the constant hum of cars, trucks making deliveries to Kroger, several blocks away, the incessant muffled roar from the interstate, over a mile distant. For a while it was hard to block out the traffic sounds to concentrate on anything else, a shame on a day as beautiful as yesterday was. My mood began spiraling into serious annoyance at the constant overwhelming presence of so many unseen motor vehicles. There seemed no escape from the omnipresent noise pollution.
Then, there it was: birdsong to “rinse and wring the ear,” as Hopkins said, sound so piercingly beautiful that it made all other noises temporarily meaningless. The song came from a tree in front of a small nondescript house on the busiest street on yesterday’s route: a wren, perched high and hurling repeated, joyous-sounding notes out over the neighborhood. I had to stop, and when I did, my ear focused on other sounds despite the cars going past only a few feet away: crows nearby, calling to each other, the buzz of chickadees not too far away, assorted unidentifiable (to me) chirps, twitters, and burbles. The realization of so many other lives being carried on, seemingly unbothered by all our busyness, brought joy.
My task for the upcoming spring break is to listen for the sounds of the world, the ones that exist apart from and underneath the machine noises that make up so much of the human world.