Spring draws us outside. To our gardens and our lawns. To our other lives, the kind not lived shuttling from one heated indoor space to another, the world we just coldly pass through. As the season progresses, late spring draws us outside at night. Under the stars we exist again out of doors like children set loose on the playground after a too-long day of tests, assemblies, and teachings. We set up our backyards, our decks, and our porches to maximize evening utility, for dinner and conversation, for long stares off into darkness on balmy nights.
Inspired by a recent article in this very magazine about creating outdoor rooms (“Take It Outside” by Laurie Capps, 5/07), Lee Anne and I recently purchased a pair of Adirondack chairs and a yellow bush daisy, a flowering five-foot tall shrub we planted in half a whiskey barrel and named Susan. We positioned the ensemble in a corner of our back deck in early May, admired the arrangement for a few minutes as being just so, and retreated inside, as the afternoon was chilly verging on cold.
In late May I finally had the opportunity to enjoy our backyard setting in the full flower of night, spending a couple hours just sitting and listening to the night.
Two years ago in July, I wrote what I termed “a transcription of the aural landscape of my backyard” in this space, describing the variety of noises I heard one early June morning. This month, I have endeavored to capture the evening sounds of that same space. Some similarities occurred. For instance: As my house is just three blocks from Rt. 9W as it rips through the southeast section of Kingston, four lanes wide, what I mostly heard were the sounds of machines equipped with internal combustion engines. Morning, noon, and night, these noisy beasts create the background traffic surf that all other noises foreground against or die without overpowering. Other human sounds dominate the aural life of cities as well—voices, domesticated animals communicating to their owners or each other, the sounds of technology: radio, television, You Tube.
Comparing my evening list to my morning list revealed more contrasts than sonic synergies. Morning is generally louder, the night—not surprisingly—subdued. There was an absence of birdsong, so forthrightly cacophonous from dawn on in every neighborhood tree. I also noted the pleasant absence of the pealing bells from the three churches hard by my block, which as I wrote before, strike the hour slightly out of sync, “like a lunatic carillonneur.” And not only that, the bells toll on beyond reason: one o’clock, four o’clock, nine o’clock, 20 o’clock. Twenty o’clock? Does St. Dymphna’s operate on military time? Mass at 08000 hours? How we managed to triangulate ourselves between them when we bought the house is no doubt a sacred conundrum.
The night has its own noise to make, however, and I offer the following faithful transcription.
The crackle of the street light as it buzzes on.
The wet throb of an air conditioner. Can it really be on so early in the year and on so temperate an evening?
Multiple pops like gunfire from car doors closing in rapid succession.
The jolly, bantering profanities of the new, young neighbors as they grill dinner.
An operatic beer-drinker’s belch, a backyard sonic boom.
The whir of low gears on a poorly maintained bicycle as it struggles up the hill in front of my house.
The hollow whinny of wide-gauge chimes in a light breeze, like metallic horses in a snorting cluster.
A police siren’s staccato chirp and sudden silence.
The dental drill whine of a crotch rocket, heard in the bones behind the ears.
The deep throated roar of an accelerating Harley.
A car with a hole in its muffler.
A car with no exhaust system at all, shouting up the street.
The propulsive strains of Van Morrion’s Veedon Fleece reverberating from Lee Anne’s workshop. Shining our light into days of bloomin’ wonder…
The steady scrape of a 32-gallon trash can as its dragged along the asphalt, pebbles caught underneath as it rolls along.
Glass bottles bouncing in a recycling bin like a broken xylophone.
Lily, the neighbors’ Jack Russell, barking at the television in their living room. The dog’s high-pitched throating more of a tentative question than a definitive answer.
A bleating train horn and the train’s immutable rumble edging insistently closer, flattening the darkness. Then the horn again, receding in short bursts like goodbye, good-bye, good--bye.
My stomach, not so much rumbling as gurgling.
The rustle of leaves. A soft sound. How do you describe a sound so soft you could use it as a pillow?
A cat fight cut mercifully short. Two elongated hisses that overlap, one murderous screech, and silence.
The popping mmwahh as I pull on my cigar. The whooshing exhale of gray smoke.
The prop buzz of a low-flying plane, preceded across the sky by a streaking white light and a blinking red light.
The scratch of an ever dulling No. 2 pencil across the paper as I write, a comfortingly familiar second-grade sound.
A mysterious garbled beep from out on the street like the sound of the blip striking the paddle in Pong. At one-minute intervals, imagining the beep to be from a game of Pong played on a TV screen 50 yards long.
Half-melted ice in an empty glass tumbling with a wedge of lime, tinkling and thudding as I swirl the glass until the ice is gone. I’m left with a soggy lime splashing playfully like a toddler in a kiddy pool.
All these sounds caught like fireflies in a jar, dead and gone come morning.