The rest is silence

There’s something special about place, don’t you think? For some, it is a beautiful sight -a mountain, perhaps, or a field of flowers basking in the sun. I agree, of course -vision paints a scene- but for me, it does not capture it. Not completely. Photographs are only quiet markers of things that cannot truly live in silence.

I am seduced by sound, but as I age, my ears, too, have yellowed with the years. I worry that I may eventually slip my anchorage and have to rely too much on sight. Already, I am dependent more on memory than I might wish. Audio ergo video I used to think; but really, it was more like audio ergo sum, however. For me, place is not merely accompanied by sound, described by sound -it is sound! Make a joyful noise, says one of the Psalms I remember from my childhood. I suppose I must have taken it to heart…

Now I will do nothing but listen. That is from a part of the Song of Myself  by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman -only a part, because I have long treated myself to paring off the bits and pieces I wish to enjoy. I recognize the limits of judging something with carefully trimmed adjectives of course, but there you have it. At any rate, Whitman’s decision is a good one -profound in so many ways.

I’ve read Hempton and Grossmann’s book One Square Inch of Silence with interest and not a little dismay. They start their Prologue with a quote from the Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, ‘The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.’ And then go on to say that ‘Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies … offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land.’

I am getting old, though: I love sound, and if it’s mixed in with a little noise, I welcome the challenge. After all, noise is really just sound from which meaningful information is missing, or at least difficult to extract -and if it’s not too loud, I say give me the chance. I suppose that’s why I cannot abide earphones when I walk or run through the woods: they imprison me. What I want to hear is the sighing and creaking of the trees in a passing breeze, the mysterious crackling of branches deep in the forest, or the gurgling of a creek hidden somewhere nearby. The distant pounding of a woodpecker is a plus, but I’ll accept the call of a solitary raven searching for who knows what in trees too far away to see. All are Imagination’s guest: the mysteries that scrape quietly against its windows, the rustling shadows that appear like tiny whispering moths heard only in the corners of its ever listening ears.

A few years ago I remember being summoned into the deep green forest, not by formal writ, or a surfeit of leisure, you understand, but by the lusty song of what I used to call ‘the wind-up bird’ because its song seemed to go on and on like in a wind-up toy I was given as a child. In fact, its proper name is Troglodytes pacificus but it prefers just plain Pacific Wren unless it’s being formally introduced at a conference. They’re really quite small, so I’ve never actually seen one in the trees. But since there seemed to be a trail leading towards the sound, I thought it might be an adventure worth pursuing.

It was a mountainous part of the coastal forest I’d never been in before, and I carefully noted the fluorescent red ribbons used as markers for the trail. It’s embarrassing to get lost in the wilderness, and you can get eaten, so I try to be careful. Sometimes, of course, it’s difficult to allocate sufficient neurological resources to keep track of everything at the same time and I soon lost track of the ribbons -and also the bird; I suppose it heard me thrashing through the bushes as I fashioned my own clumsy trail.

You sort of know which way is out on a mountain, though. If you started near the bottom, you go down. If you started from the summit, you still pretty well do the same thing. So I wasn’t worried. And besides, there’s quite a lot going on if you really listen. I have my favourites, of course -wind ruffling its way through a forest of needles is one, although with cedars, are they needles, or leaves? That question always keeps me occupied for a while -I don’t think anybody is willing to commit, however.

And then there’s the legendary tree falling in the forest, and whether or not it still has to pretend to make a noise if there’s nobody around to hear it. Mind you, it’s hard to know just how often that happens, but since I figured I was all alone and not shouting or anything, if I did hear one in flagrante delicto, as it were, that should count, eh?

Unfortunately, apart from me tripping on stray roots, and being scratched by curious bushes, I heard no tree fall… or maybe, it didn’t know I was around, and it fell in silence. I believe there are a lot of unreported mysteries on a mountain.

But I also listen for grunts and howls in the woods, random crackles behind me, or heavy breathing close by. These have a different cachet, depending where I am. In a place where I am only noticed if I smell appetizing, a different algorithm is called for. It seems to me that sometimes the Whitman Principle only applies at the starting block: it determines the direction to run. And so when I heard something snuffling nearby, I understood that the time for simply listening was over.

As I started to crash through the undergrowth, I realized that for several carved moments, I was sound incarnate. I began wondering how my frantic uncoordinated scramble must seem to the animals in the forest who were used to hiding in silence for their lives -I was demonstrating there was also life in noise.

It was just a prophylactic journey, of course -a tentative foray into sound; I wasn’t sure where, or what I had heard, but it had suddenly changed from an interesting scrunch of the kind I was so fond of hearing underfoot on the carpet of leaves, to the more menacing sound that predators are decidedly not fond of wasting.

Eventually, I stopped and listened again, but this time it was not menace that greeted me from the foliage, but a burbling stream that danced onomatopoeically over rock and root, humming gaily as it purred over boulders and whispered under fallen logs: a chorister’s dream. And, even though I had always been too shy to sing with others, I joined it in a shy and halting duet of pastoral celebration. 

But nowadays, when I walk alone in the forest, I find that I am often consumed with a question -this one of a different existential significance: is a person warbling to a creek really making a joyful noise if there’s no one around to hear him?

FHR: Fetal Heart Rap

When I was a child, I was fascinated with noise. Well, perhaps sounds would better describe what interested me. What were theyI mean really? And what happened to them after I heard them? When I was finished listening and if there was nobody else around to use them, what occurred then? Sounds told us stuff –information- and I didn’t think Nature would just throw them away. So were they like the wind and simply moved on after touching my ears, or did the data get stored somewhere? Collected and saved –someplace chock-a-block with noise bouncing off every wall, or stacked neatly in little, labelled piles? Maybe there was a sound library somewhere. And when I discovered echoes, I thought I was getting close: recycled sound. It was like taking a book out of that library.

As I grew older –I was going to say matured, but that never really happens, does it?- the riddle of the information contained in sound only intensified for me. I mean, where is it? I even wrote a novel to explore my fascination with it (Sound Bites) that’s published somewhere Googleable online, but that didn’t quell the itch… I began to wonder if I was haunted by something –an idée fixe.

When we are enchanted by something, does that make it more likely we will find it? Or just more likely that we will look for it..? Seek, and ye shall find. But even more mysteriously, does it find us?

 

FHR. Every obstetrician –every nascent parent- knows what that stands for: Fetal Heart Rate. Along with uterine contractions, it’s what we measure on our monitors in delivery rooms around the world. More importantly, it’s the sound that connects us to that inner intrauterine environment. The hidden world. It’s the baby talking to us, giving us a weather report directly from that moist, warm space where we all once lived.

And it’s not a one-off either. Midwives, doctors -and increasingly, parents- are regularly tapping into it for news. Information. Meaning. It’s a sound fraught with emotion and expectation –the unopened present.

But I recently got to unwrap the present in an unexpected venue, in an unforeseen medium: music.

 

“Would it be okay if my uncle came to one of my appointments?” Cynthia was a tiny little woman from the Caribbean that was seeing me for her first pregnancy. She spoke with a delightful accent and every sentence was embedded in an almost musical rhythm. It was as if she was singing to me… She was certainly one of my favourite patients and I looked forward to her visits.

With the notable exception of her husband –another small person who usually sat quietly at her side with an embarrassed smile on his face- I hadn’t met any of her family. “Of course he can come with you, Cynthia,” I said. “Your aunt, too, if you want…”

She shook her head, and ringlets of rich, shiny hair escaped from her headband like children at recess. “No, my aunt is no longer with us…” She blinked and then a huge smile invaded her face and her eyes twinkled like crumpled foil in the overhead lights. “Uncle Ed raised me pretty well by himself…” She seemed to hesitate for a moment before continuing. “But now he says he’s curious.”

“Curious?” Now I was curious.

She nodded her head, and her hair came out to play again. “About the sound.”

“The sound? I don’t…”

“You know, doctor. The sound!”

My face must have galvanized her husband because he realized he finally had a role to play: the interpreter. “She means the sound you play from the baby each time we come, doctor.”

“The baby’s heart rate?” I tried not to make it sound like a question. More like an acknowledgment of a point made. They both nodded their heads in a sort of random unity, and smiled. The doctor had understood.

“Well, I’ll try to put on a good show for him, then.”

Cynthia glanced at her husband and a surprised expression flitted briefly over her face; she suppressed it as she turned back to look at me. “Do you know my uncle?” she said, this time unable to disguise her curiosity at my seeming prescience.

I shrugged politely and smiled. “I don’t think so… Should I?”

They exchanged looks again; secrets crept from eye to eye. “Well…” –her husband started to say something, but Cythia reached out and squeezed his hand.

“It’ll be a surpise… Okay?” she said, the last word asking for my permission.

“Okay. I’ll look forward to meeting him.” I really was looking forward to it.

She was fairly far along in her pregnancy so I saw her again in a couple of weeks. It was, however, just long enough for me to forget the surprise. An office is busy, even chaotic at times. There are many surprises…

Cynthia was already in the examination room when I walked in and I noticed the uncle immediately. A tall, thin man with a patchy white beard, sat comfortably beside her –lounged might describe it more accurately. He looked entirely at ease in his rumpled brown fedora and clean but wrinkled blue suit, and his face lit up and immediately cracked into a thousand crevices when he noticed me and smiled. He stood up and extended his hand. “Thanks for letting me come,” he said, his voice sonorous with a hint of gravel. “Cynthia’s been bragging about you for some time now,” he added, and his eyes locked on me like talons from under the brim of his hat.

He glanced at an expensive looking recording device he’d placed on the table by the sink and his smile widened. “Thought I’d record the baby –if that’s okay with you…” He was asking permission, but his eyes knew my answer and relaxed their grip, caressing my face briefly as they returned to the recorder.

“Of course, of course,” I found myself repeating, strangely nervous that my performance might not be up to the machine –or the uncle’s- standards. Cynthia got onto the table and I proceeded to take her blood pressure and assess the size of the baby in her abdomen with my measuring tape. It was an old tape, the numbers worn thin by the years of use, and for some reason I felt embarrassed with it. Like I should have used the new one I had in another room…

And then came the time to listen to the heart. I positioned the doptone over the region of her abdomen I hoped would give the best sound and turned it on. Nervously again. With stage fright, almost. I got the area right and the sounds pounded out in their usual steady cadence –fast at first (I had disturbed the baby by measuring the abdomen) and then settled down into a steady, industrial rhythm. A horse galloping. One hundred and forty hooves per minute -I almost said that, I was so anxious.

Uncle Ed, for his part was entranced, and his eyes were focussed elsewhere –inside his head, if I had to guess. Then he closed them -closed the private door- and his whole body began to sway in sync with the beating heart. Even his feet began to tap. I almost thought he was going to get up and dance…

Finally he raised his head and opened his eyes, sated. Exhilarated. Then, like an orchestral conductor he nodded for me to stop the sounds as he reached for the machine to turn it off in tandem. The performance was over; I almost expected applause, but except for the delight, bordering on exaltation I could feel around me, that was it.

He shook my hand warmly, gathered up his instrument, and sidled out of the room as relaxed and in control as ever. He left Cynthia beaming and her husband wide-eyed. But she winked at me as she left –a show of silent appreciation of the concert.

The whole episode left me puzzled however. Why had I felt so nervous? It was like I’d been onstage the whole visit. I walked down the short corridor that led to the reception desk and discovered both my secretaries huddled together and whispering loudly. They both looked up in unison when I turned the corner, their eyes sparkling, their expressions, well, rapt I suppose. Another puzzle.

“Interesting chap that uncle, eh?” I said, to break the spell.

“Interesting?” one of them managed to gasp as they saw my entirely benign expression.

I felt naïve, for some reason. “Yeah, he was really into the fetal heart stuff. He even recorded it,” I said, trying not to expose how strangely anxious his taping of it had made me, but I must have said it too loudly.

A patient I didn’t recognize was sitting nearby in the waiting room and she rolled her eyes when she heard me. “Well, I guess so, eh?” she said, and exchanged glances with one of my secretaries. They both laughed.

“Do you even know who that was?” the patient said.

I shook my head slowly. But just then, my colleague, the other doctor in the office, called for the patient, and she disappeared through a door after winking at my secretaries with an enigmatic smile on her face.

“Well,” I said to the now empty waiting room, trying to pretend I wasn’t as curious as I must have looked. “Who was the uncle..?”

Another set of eye-rolls –this time from behind the counter. “Come on,” one of them said when she finally found the strength to close her mouth. “Don’t you ever listen to rap?” She pronounced it like an accusation, but I know she didn’t mean it like that.

I am appreciated in the office –admired, maybe- but not for my musical insight. I am loved for other things… I hope.