With everyday sounds the subconscious catalogs and stores and appreciates them. Repetition in the background is needed to make the sound memory indelible. How often do we really listen to the sounds we hear every day? I have been hearing some new sounds lately and that led me to review some earlier sound memories.
Minnesota's winter nights will for me always have a sound of soft, insistent, rampant tinkling. The cold, high pitch of the metallic notes comes from tiny ice crystals, like glass powder, blowing across the surface of the hard-crusted snow banks. The crystals bang into one another and abrade every object that sticks above the snow, including your face and clothes. It is endless little xylophonic notes; it is cold; it is Minnesota winter.
The hills of Extremadura in daylight will always have for me a bright, bell sound. The bells are tied to necks of unseen sheep browsing through the dense brush and short trees of the hillside chaparral. We come upon our destination, a riveting sight: three hundred big messy stick nests on a cliff face at Penafalcon, each occupied by a Griffon Vulture with a six foot wing-span. The sun is glaring, the birds glide in and out of the canyon landing on the nests, the air seems to only move with the effort of the birds' wings. And around it all is the sound of the distant tinkling bells, as if the oaks and cistus scrub had voice. The unseen sheep remain to this day an article of faith. Their bells are concrete.
Here in London I constantly hear the sound of steel grating against steel. This is the sound of train wheels over rails, of heavy metal rail cars reluctantly turning corners, of heavy doors opening and closing. There is the frequent tuneless three note horn of the electric trains: "twee-oooo-weee." The constant background sound of London is from the many rail lines. This is what life was like in Chicago or Pittsburgh in 1910 before America turned her back on trains.
Paris certainly has her wonderful little chamber music venues at St. Julien le Pauvre or Saint Germain. Paris can provide an accordionist for your Metro trains, the jazz bar on rue Jacob, and the non-stop bands on Summer Solstice night. One magic solstice around midnight we stood near a small café on rue Campagne Premiere while the waiters, cook and all the diners stood in the street, tunefully rendered a series of French folk songs, and toasted themselves after each verse well turned. The present and inevitable sound of Paris is now the police siren. "Les Flics" travel the streets of Paris in wolf packs, driven about in large, formidable vans full of well-armed, no-nonsense troops with clubs at ready. It is the "weeee-oooh" siren of these police vans that is the sound of Paris in all seasons, at all hours.
On hot summer nights, there's another sound that most Parisians seemingly never notice. It's unforgettable and reassuring, once you do notice it. It's the constant overhead frantic chatter of the Common Swifts. From a fifth floor walk-up apartment I once watched them for hours as they swept down the street about twenty feet below my window, each one emitting clicks and clacks non-stop. Paris looks so clean you can't imagine there are enough flies and other bugs to keep thousands of Swifts in the air. Be assured, their ancestors swooped past Charlemagne some weeks ago.
In Manhattan, as we all know, the defining sound is the honking horns of the omnipresent yellow cabs. In Venice, it is the lack noise from auto and truck traffic that you notice. It is the sound of a city moving on foot and on the water.
In many places I've heard cicadas vibrating their wings for that incessant buzzing of hot days. We had such noisome locusts in the Ozarks where I grew up. They're common in much of the eastern U.S. But on the islands of Greece in August they can be the only thing moving in the summer sun. The world seems to be you, the cicadas and their noise. Even the trees seem to be motionless as they listen to the transparent wings at thousands of vibrations per minute. The cicada is less than two inches long in Greece but it has a presence as great as the history of the towns, as daunting as the steep rocky hills, as predictable as the soft Aegean wavelets in the cove.
Bird sounds have often defined a location for me. In Trujillo, Spain, we saw the remnants of one of old Spain's once wealthiest cities. This was Pizarro's home town. His plunder made it rich awhile. Then hilltop Trujillo went back to sleep for centuries. Out the window in the old nunnery, now a hotel, we looked across the cobbled town square. Gangs of Little Kestrel, Common Swift and House Martins circled and dipped through the air, catching insect meals. The aerial traffic got especially heavy in the late evening before sunset. But the bird sound that will forever be Trujillo: the beak clacking of the White Storks who had at least fifteen nests on building tops and church steeples in old Trujillo. And that same sound came to mean Volubilis, the old Roman city, their capital of Morocco. There the White Stork couple nesting above the entry gate greeted our early morning arrival each day with the voluble clacking of Volubilis.
The wet side of Hawaii Island will always conjure up the treetop whispering of the small red Apapane, one of the few native island birds that has done well since men arrived with cats, rats and mongoose. The hayfields of my Ozark childhood have the sound of the Western Meadowlark's flute notes, sweet with a hint of windblown melancholy. The springtime grassland of Fairlop Waters near London has the sound of the wisely named Skylark, the male singing his high-pitched extensive repertoire from a height of hundreds of feet, seemingly without need to catch his breath. Those thousands of Sandhill Cranes in the Platte River Valley were trumpeting as they circled. That ancient throaty call, heard over the eons by hundreds of species now extinct, that sound is Nebraska in late winter.
The new sound I hear seems to be coming from the earth, it is the unnerving murmur of wronged generations yet unborn... it follows me everywhere... it is the protest of my grand-daughter who cannot even read... it's the swan song of species about to flicker out of existence... it is the sound of the environmental demolition derby being run by Bush and Cheney and their ilk... it is the victory chanting from the greedy, global corporate oligarchy that our naïve political systems have unchained. It is the sound of a planet that will survive no matter how many and how much must die first. It is a sound I cannot get out of my mind. It sounds like sheep bells and Sandhill Cranes, like steel grating on steel and White Storks clacking, and the heavy shriek of police sirens. It is urgent. It says, "Stop them before they pillage again."
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