The  Absence of Noise



Ask me what I like best about our homestead and my first answer will be the absence of noise. Of course it’s not always quiet but there are blessedly silent hours, like now as I sit on the deck on a  warm October evening, gazing at the changing leaves, sipping bourbon and not wishing to be anywhere else or doing anything else in all the world. A neighbor has just finished combining the cornfield next to us and the harvester’s mighty engine is silent. There are no grain trucks thundering down the road. No airplanes cross the skies above, no trains rumble on the tracks just east of us, no one is mowing lawn in the neighborhood, no chainsaws at work in the woods. Peace.

An absence of noise does not mean there are no sounds in the air. Quite the opposite. Without the cacophony of technology numbing my ears, I can hear a bit of wind rustle in the trees, catch the peevish peep of a nuthatch questioning ownership of an acorn with another nuthatch, discern the whisper of hummingbird wings fluttering above my head, note a chicken up at the barn bragging about a just-laid egg, spot the squirrel that is scolding me from the nearby oak, listen to a gang of crows on the other side of the woods giving a hawk or an owl a hard time, wonder what two tree frogs croaking back and forth to each other from the trees are saying about possible rain tomorrow.

But between these sounds, the silence seems palpable. I want to gather a bunch of it in my hand, like a bouquet of flowers, and carry it with me when I have to go to noisy places like cities. It is rare now even in the outer suburbs that silence permeates the air. There is almost always the steady hum of distant four lane highway traffic blocking  the soul from being completely at rest.

It is no wonder that humans have resorted to sound machines to help them go to sleep. These machines were first invented, I am told, to blot out unpleasant noise with soothing sound. So dependent have some people become on these machines that they can’t sleep without them. Even quietude prevents slumber.

We were enjoying visitors from the city recently when both of them stopped short in their conversation and looked sharply at us. “Is it raining?” one of the asked. I listened. At first I heard nothing but then realized what they were alarmed by. The crickets were tuning up for another night  of what to us is soothing din. I had never realized before that they do make quite a racket. Our visitors did not quite believe us when I said they were hearing crickets and had to go outside to be convinced. “That is a sound we never hear where we live,” one of them said.

As a boy, working ground with disk and harrow before planting, I quite often drove a tractor all day long that lacked a proper muffler. Dad had just improvised a length of roofing downspout to replace the burned-out muffler— directly in front of the steering wheel, about parallel to my ears and hardly four feet away. I blame that on the fact that I have a very low tolerance for loud noise today.  In my first days in the woods, I tried to saw up firewood with a one-man crosscut instead of a chainsaw, but soon realized there were limits to my love of silence. Harlan Hubbard, the celebrated artist and homestead author along the Ohio River, cut all his wood with such a saw.  He told me he couldn’t stand the noise of a chainsaw. He knew how to sharpen his crosscut so it would eat almost effortlessly through the wood. How many of us today are hard of hearing because we just don’t know to sharpen a saw blade. Harlan would also row his boat all the way across the Ohio River to the library  because “a motorboat just makes too much noise.”

But there can be advantages to noise, sort of. In those days of driving a noisy tractor all day, I found that my voice sounded extra melodious if I sang to while away the time. The motor noise drowned out the rough edges of my voice and to my ears I sounded as mellow as Roy Rogers as I bellowed forlornly away on “Oh Bury Me Out On the Lone Prairie.” Since everybody in our family liked to sing, the sounds emanating from the fields during tractor time made motor noise seem in contrast not so hard to bear after all. We also found that the sound of our voices emanating from a nearly empty silo reminded us of opera virtuosos. Grandfather could put on quite a silo concert, singing Latin hymns he learned at church, like O Salutaris Hostia. Sometimes the hogs and cows came running to the barn, thinking they were being called.


What about those days, mostly evenings, when you can actually hear conversations a quarter mile away because the air is so clear, and the pathway to your ear uncluttered? It is scientifically explained, I suppose, but I still think it is mysterious!
Last spring, my teen boys fired up the tractor to head to the woods to collect maple sap and it was one of those days. I could barely hear the tractor motor from the woods, but I could hear their voices shouting and singing over it all. We just moved from the city a few years ago, and I am always thrilled to see the kids really appreciate where we live.

My guests have used fans or those noise machines to drown out the sound of the tree frogs and of the toads in the pond. Then comes the coyotes yapping and the owls screeching and hooting. All gets quiet just in time for the roosters and guineas to wake up. I get used to it and feel lucky to be surrounded by such noisy life!

The quietest day I remember was the day of 9/11. When all the planes were grounded, I was amazed how quiet it was. Even though I was not aware of their noise, apparently the din is out there even when there doesn’t appear to be a plane flying overhead. The loudest was at the height of the 7-year locust season! What a deafening noise … could drive one to madness!

One of my greatest pleasures is walking out into the middle of our field, standing, and just listening to what sounds there are on the periphery of total silence. Whether it’s the ground percolating water after a rain, bugs doing whatever it is bugs do, or the coyotes to our east and west having a howling exchange, there’s always something new to discover. Once again, Gene reminds us all why we choose to live in the country.

Not much silence around my farm we have Chinese Geese that always have something to
‘comment’ on it seems,roosters,Guineas etc.Also the Charlottesville-Albemarle airport’s North runway is only about 3 to 4 miles from my house and in a direct line when landing and taking off jets coming out of there.Funny thing is I never really pay any attention to the jets unless a visitor comments on them.Up on the mountain in my deer stand there are periods of quiet,unless my neighbor and his buddies crank up their trail bikes.I worked in a concrete block plant for 20 years the noise and vibration from the block machine is unreal some people couldn’t stand to be in there for more than a few minutes.

I had the opportunity to attend a silo concert. The reverberation from the silo enhanced the sounds of the beautiful quartet. It was a special afternoon on a farm not far from your home.

Bourbon….. Great idea! I think I ll fix one myself! I find it is quieter during the daytime, when all of the neighbors are at away at work!

It would seem that noise is in the ear of the beholder and reflects the human ability to adapt to a wide range of conditions. The downside then becomes that adapting to particular conditions makes many less adaptable to different ones.When both sides claim the unrighteousness of someone else’s soothing sounds you’ve got a sound basis for a war ( or at least as sound as the reason for most wars ). And war sounds like hell to everybody except those that profit..
Or maybe I’m being too dramatic.

Thanks for mentioning the greatest cowboy that ever lived. I try to keep his memory alive in my math students when I teach them the difference between the double bar R (the symbol for all real numbers) and the double R bar (Roy’s ranch brand).

I, too, had a city visitor, an old high school and college friend who now lives in San Francisco. During the afternoon he said it was so quiet, it made him a bit uneasy. The next morning he said he had barely slept due to the noise of the crickets and peepers.

In the winter, it’s refreshing to go down to the lake on a frigid evening, especially if there’s moonlight, and just sit and listen to the silence. You literally can hear ice cracking, if lucky you can hear an owl calling, and with no trouble hear the train locomotive accelerating seven miles away. When I return to the warm house, sleep comes quickly.

I was lucky that when I went to college, I hung with kids from the East coast. One summer, two friends were hitching to California, and stopped at my parents’ farm for a couple days. I worked second shift at a stone quarry, and when I came home and walked to the house, I passed Johnny and Richie; they were laying in the yard, looking at the stars. I just said hi, and went inside. My mother was beside herself; she didn’t understand what they could be doing out there (it also upset her that their hair was long, too). She didn’t understand that where they were from, they didn’t see our stars, or hear our silence. Many times I listened to rocks going through the crusher at the quarry, four miles away, and smiled at my luck.

We have a farm with all the joys of sound and music made by Nature, but this rural area is surrounded by neighbors and a neighborhood where “man-made” noise prevails. They prefer boom boxes, over-amplified parties that go most of the day & night; barking dogs and so forth, and figure that since they are in the country, the louder the better. Sound carries out here so we rarely have the peace and quiet anymore that you mention.

Noise is an environmental pollution similar to air and water pollution, but it is not well regulated or taken seriously (at least not in this area). Sigh.

We love summer nights with our windows open, soothed by the magical sounds of not only the crickets, but the katydids, cicadas and frogs. Now that’s peace!

Your words today brought back some sweet memories for me.
When I was young we lived on the river bank, just above the swirling waves of an undertow. There were huge rocks in that river and it always surprised me that the water never moved them. It was that fast. It roared.
My mother used to tell us about a boy and girl that got pulled under by that white capped mass of water and we were always careful to stay away from that part of the river.
I never realized how the noise permeated our lives until I got married at the ripe old age of sixteen. When I left home to live in a house three miles from the river I couldn’t sleep. I thought it was just the change in routine for a while but one day we went back to help my mother and ended up staying the night in my old room. I slept like a baby. The next morning I realized it was the sound of the river that I missed.
I’ve had several more sweet nights at home by the river through the years but it’s been a long time now since I’ve stayed in that house.
I understand the need for those noise machines though I’ve never used one. I still miss the roar of the water.
Your memories of singing make me think about our chores when I was a child. After dinner every night it was the job of my sisters and I to clean up the table and wash the dishes. There were eight of us around that table so it took a while. We would spend the time singing some of those good old tunes and we weren’t afraid to bellow. Our house was huge and I doubt they could hear us from the kitchen to the living room, but every night the kitchen got put away to the sounds of our lovely young voices.
Now that I think of it, the garden was weeded the same way, and the livestock fed, the wood stacked. It was a good way to work.
I remember too, sitting in the cherry tree to get away from all my siblings and find some peace and quiet. They never knew where I was, though I could see them. One day the sun was warm and afternoon late and I fell asleep in the crook of the branches. I must have been tired because I woke up to my siblings calling for me hours later. I fell out of the tree and landed on my younger brother who had made the mistake of standing right beneath me when he hollered my name.
They’ve never let me live that one down.

My hearing was ruined by a John Deere 70, particularly my left ear as I kept my head turned to watch the implement. I miss so much of the small sounds out here on my farm, but the valley below has had a railroad through it since before the Civil War, so there is that background noise anyway. The one virtue of a loss of hearing (other than ignoring my wife) is that I think I am more conscious of the body language of my Morgan horses. Horses don’t say much vocally anyway, but when I want to “talk” to them, I can fit into the conversation more easily without the distraction of other noise. I also have sharpened my eye to detect birds not by their song but by a bare flicker of movement. Keeping quiet and just watching is almost always rewarding. On the other hand, to calm my 3 year old mare when I am riding her along a trail for training, I sing old Lutheran Hymns! Rock of Ages seems to be a favorite.

Silence certainly is golden. And sounds do strange things as Jonathan notes about his back yard. The trucks coming down the gap 2 1/2 miles west of us drive me to distraction if I am on the bedroom’s balcony. But ten feet below, on the deck you, would not hear anything other than the chickens.

There is silence that saddens me. I am missing a good part of the upper frequencies (loud industrial work, rock n roll, and age). Spring peepers and whippoorwills are no longer within my range. I can still hear the sauerkraut burp in the fermentation crock. That sounds tasty!

As someone who lives 100 feet from a 4 lane highway, I completely understand about loving the silence. At times its enough to drive you absolutely nuts. Thankfully, my basement drowns out the noise, as does my backyard, about 300 feet back so if I ever need a break, I know where to go.

I had to laugh thinking of the cows and pigs running to see what the racket was! I read your post to my hubby (who, by the way, subscribed after I also read him the “Stay Home” post)
and he said, “Sounds like our house.” Or, doesn’t “sound.” We appreciate the quiet, too, but we have a very noisy waterfall just across the road. In the spring and summer it is diminished by ranchers taking water way up above us for irrigation. Later in the summer it gets very much bigger and noisy when irrigation is done. Then, there is the river. When we first moved to this place we wondered why we suddenly could not hear each other very well from one room to another and wondered if we were both going a little deaf. Then, oh yeah, we realized it was the river and waterfall and had a good laugh.
At least we don’t have much other noise, just chickens, turkeys, pigs and dogs but that’s just fine.

When our power goes out we are struck with the quietude and can sense when the power goes back on due to the “roar’ of the appliances kicking in. My dad probably sang a bit as he plowed and harrowed but one of his favorite things to do was to memorize and recite poetry. We have the well worn small notebook he kept in the pocket of his bib overalls when his memory failed him. Oh, how he would love your essays, Gene!

Amen brother! Still combining around here in NW Iowa. BTW, its a murder of crows – much more dramatic 🙂

I too used to drive diesel tractors with straight pipes growing up and listening to the radio blasting away on the tractor . then driving trucks for the last 20 years. But i was born with tinnitus so anything that helps me avoid listening to it.I always loved to sing but can never remember the words to any songs. But it’s ok i cant sing anyway. lol. So i would sing along to the radio or get bored of all of it and sing to myself while driving.Of course i have always loved the sound of an engine from my grandfathers 1952 ford 8 n to my first tractor a wd allis to my bosses 80-155 hp john deeres,farmalls,minnie molines and white tractors. Anything to pass the long boring hours driving an interstate for hours a day or discing a field behind suburbanites houses where there wasnt any scenery.I loved the fields with woods along them or one place in particular where the farmer collected and used antigue machinery or there were small farms with machinery more to my taste and speed.But times when i could just sit on the hill on our farm where i grew up listening to nature and maybe far off farmers working or even there grain dryers was music to my soul. Anything but the din of suburbia. Now living temporarily in the city i am about 5 minutes from downtown indianapolis but can still hear the crickets singing at night trains passing to the north and south of me like when i was on the farm and off course occasional gunshots . lol You appreciate the silence in between idiots with booming car radios, loud mouthed neighbors who have never had to talk over running farm machinery, or barking dogs. Pockets of peace!

Oh I know what you mean Gene and you put it so eloquently. I will have to think of what you say, as I take the noisy bus to the city on Tuesday. I also laughed out loud at your limits to the love of silence, so loud I had to read the excerpt to my hubby who looked at me with a rather bemused face at my hilarity.

In my own way, I have worked to keep my home an oasis from noise, having not listened to radoi , except for non-commercial stations, for over 30 years. I do listen to plenty of music.

We have also forgone television for over 15 years, and it drives some people nuts having quiet in my own home. Some are astonished, and borderline angry with me. I work in construction, and need a refuge from all the power tools, neanderthals( am I one ?), and plain old racket. If not in my own home, then where?

Still, children playing and even a crying baby – you know, the sounds of life – are music to my ears.

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