“Few things are as effective as the raw, direct experience of sound in helping you to become calm, centered, and alert.”
Raphael Cushnir, How Now: 100 Ways to Celebrate the Present Moment. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005, p. 100.
One prominent local noise is metaphorical–the way many citizens scrape by and always have. As for literal sounds, you remember the abundant instances of dialogue in Floydiana, including these exclamations: “Let’s race!” “Llama!” “Teaberry!” “Ab-solutely!” “Get ready!” and the truly grim “I’ve lost a hand!” You have heard the staccato of needles, New York accents, pigs chomping clover, the crack of a hog-killing rifle, the chirrup of a concert-going frog, the pipe-organ of a slightly open window, a high-pitched fa-la-la in Ga, the random gravitas of a gong, the slowing tick of a watch, the slam of a cat-catcher, the “I don’t know what the sound is” of a creek, a silent disco, and a banjo’s Swiss-picked “Soldier’s Joy.” Later chapters record a visiting whinny and the clink-plunk-or-bang of stones being tossed out for clover seeds.Did you know that the Stoplight makes a click? The timer does so shortly before any color changes. Down the street, fajitas sizzle where shirts once came together from pieces. In the forest one night–what’s that ceaseless shrillness? Probably the hysterical call of an owl named for its noise. Another night features the invisible acoustic parade of hunting dogs with their baying and desperate treble barking. And what’s that unearthly noise? Randall doing his best or worst in a hollering contest. On a melancholy note, inspired by an earlier chapter, he offers this poem:
Piled over betrayed-cat’s grave,
Vaulted, dry-clacking thorn-stalks:
One swipes a nail at my nose.
Have you ever heard a blackberry itself? While chewing, you might not notice the sound of pulp being compressed, but you will hear the seeds as they crack under molars and emit sound waves that bypass the outer ear to vibrate head bones right on to the cochlea and auditory nerve. Once I heard “OW!” and realized that I had just been pricked by blackberry thorns.
To a skilled woodworker, sound waves can identify a species. When Charlie Brouwer, who fabricated the leaf-toting Wood-Man, was in elementary school:
the best music lesson was when we were instructed to pick an “instrument” from the big box and march around the room. There were blocks of wood with sandpaper attached that could be rubbed together, triangles to ding, strings of bottle caps to shake, and hardwood dowel rods (the sizes of ladder rungs) to hit together with a ringing sound. That was my introduction to the sound of wood. I ended up spending a lifetime of time working with wood and learning how each variety produces its own sound when knocked together or struck with a hammer. Harder woods (maple, cherry, oak and locust) ring sharply, and softer ones (pine, poplar, hemlock) make more of a thunk. Sound–along with bark, color, grain pattern, and texture–comes into play in determining varieties of wood. So “knock on wood” has a practical as well as a mystical, future-insuring purpose.
The thick viscosity of acrylic or oil paint allows the sound to change as you stroke the brush across a canvas. An artist working in a fast or violent manner may slap a large brush full of color onto the surface with a loud plop or slurp. A stiff bristle-brush with little paint creates a rough, scratching sound as the artist’s hand attempts to pull the color where it needs to be. Even small brushes used lightly have a delicate feather-like sound to them. Obviously I look at my paintbrush, but eyes can lie. Sometimes a brush has color on it, but when the paint is applied to the canvas, it doesn’t move in the way I expect it to. In this case the sound of the bristles scraping is more of the indicator I need extra paint than the actual look of the brush.
And making pottery? “Screech…goes the door of my studio,” writes Jayn Avery, “as I yank on it to go in to work.”
The old building is sinking into the ground, built only on posts with no solid foundation. The door frame is slanting and the top of the door rubs against it with this irritating sound. When we moved to Floyd in 1980 [see “Celestial Gatherings of the ’80s”], living solely on the pottery as income, we closed in the back porch of the old house we had bought that didn’t have electricity or plumbing. Our water came from a nearby spring. I worked in this small back room with the babies playing around me on the floor. When we had the money and time to build a separate studio, my husband put his hands to the hammer. Now, over thirty years later, divorced and kids grown up, I still do my work in that space he built. To the sound of wind in the trees and birds outside the windows, the creaking floorboards and the occasional squirrel jumping onto the roof–in spite of the screeching door I feel blessed.
My day of making a series of mugs, pitchers, or whatever I feel like and need for my stock, begins with a 25 lb. bag of clay. Dropping it with a thud out of its bag, I slice off a chunk and slam it down on the muslin-covered table. Then I pound my hands into it. Slam, bang, slam, bang, peeling it up each time as it stretches out into a large slab that will fit between the rollers of my slab machine. Covering the slab with another piece of thick strong muslin, I feed it into the roller. Crank, grind, screech it goes as I remind myself once again to oil the gears but never do. I turn the large wheel that presses the clay into an even slab with arms that stay strong from the work. Nothing like the smooth whirring of a potter’s wheel; this slabbing process is a good way to get out any hidden feelings or frustration. Slam! Then pick it up and slam again. I love it.
Folding and shaping my pottery from slabs of clay is still a rather unusual technique among potters and for a good reason. It does not have the rhythm or hand-to-clay fluidity that shaping a pot on a wheel can offer. It is the challenge of folding a soft canvas into a firm, functional container, be it a mug, teapot, vase, or whatever. Wedging the clay does have a rhythm that all potters experience, though. Taking the scraps and leftover globs and working the clay into a ball that pushes the air bubbles out is a skill that is integral to the pottery process. Hearing the pop of the air bubble is always gratifying. Then there are the subtle sounds of cutting out the clay design with a needle tool or scratching the two edges that will be fused together with slip [a mixture of clay and water]. The rough scrape of wood as I slide a board filled with pots onto the wood drying rack is a part of my studio tai chi. I practice balance and focus so I do not knock anything over.
Perhaps the hardest sound that all potters share is the crash of a broken pot. It happens rarely for most but is never fun, whether setting it up at a craft fair or just moving it in the kiln. When a pot was messed up by the firing, when the glaze ran onto the kiln shelf, or when the piece broke apart, there is the hammering it off the shelf and then the throwing it into the shard pile. I find the smashing of a ruined pot into my shard pile a great release of stress where I can let out all the frustration and anger of the failure.
Though I will weave music and audio books into my workday, the functional sounds of the studio are a comforting texture that seems to blend in with the very feel of the clay I work with. The smell, the touch, and the rhythm of movement, reflected in sound, feed my senses and give me knowledge of place that is my true home.
Rub a thumb down the glazed, grooved handle of Jayn’s ceramic mug and create a staccato as slow or fast as you like; brush an index finger backwards over the intaglio design, made by applying lace, and hear a delicate clinking that resonates in the empty cup. Clunk-a-clunk! Knock it over from an unstable plant-stand and pick up three shards of chaos.
Have you ever heard brick bark? I turned toward this sound only to face the wall of the Jessie Peterman Library before I realized that I was hearing an echo. A moth in Lineberry Park whirred while levitating as if powered by a rubber band. How about the ultralight aircraft that buzzed around the room? When it landed, I made out the shield-shape of a stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys), both passenger and propeller. Simply greeting it, I let it be–a reminder of how Uncle Toby treated a fly in Tristram Shandy:
—Go—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzz’d about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which, after in∣finite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand,—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.
By Laurence Sterne. Part 2 (1759), Chap. XII, p. 80. quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco [Univ. of Michigan Library].
How are some sounds made? As I walked out of Harvest Moon Food Store around 11 a.m., the nearby gong struck two, then ceased. Then three. Then four and five in quick succession. I noticed that the mottled, metal fly-swatter flap was attached to a disk inside the shell, so the flap didn’t whack the shell but only caught the breeze. I veered off the sidewalk to stand underneath the rig and spied a thick disk, round like a tabletop coaster. Again it struck and favored me with overtones both a major and minor third above the main note. I reached up and felt the casing vibrate. By contrast a church bell in town not only strikes the hour but also plays Christian hymns, relocating Gospel Hour from Country Store to Main Street.
Can sound have a spiritual dimension? Nāda yoga, an Indian metaphysical system, is “based on the premise that the entire cosmos and all that exists in the cosmos, including human beings, consists of sound vibrations, called nāda.” The system contrasts two categories of music, the internal–anahata–and external–ahata. (“Nāda Yoga,” Wikipedia.) Those who participate in this branch can draw closer to God by chanting and by listening to music. One person in Floyd County who is equally devoted to, and talented in, such an art is Jagadisha (pronounced “Jagadeesh”). This name was given to Joseph Rotella, a classically-trained musician, by his prominent Indian teacher, Swami Nadabrahmananda, with whom Jagadisha studied in the United States and India. Now he leads classes using the tools of raga (melody form) and tala (rhythmic cycle). Typically the instruments include the harmonium, tabla drums, tambura, and hand cymbals. (For a fuller sketch of this spiritual musician, please see Colleen Redman, “Clearing the mind with song.” Floyd Press, 7 April 2011.)
Once during yoga held in the June Bug Center near Rt. 8, the exotic recorded music gained a momentary drone accompaniment, in true Indian style: as a truck passed, the low hum of its engine rose and then fell in pitch as it neared and then drew away. A hiker might notice a couple of earthly sonic pairs: the boom of a hiking stick as it pokes against the bridge-surface over Rock Castle Creek, and the crunch of boots on the gravel of Thunderstruck Road as the Little River whoosh-ripples past.
Marjory and I sometimes watch from the bridge over Penn Rd. as Dodd Creek slaps over rocks to splash and gurgle before disappearing toward Little River. Upstream a brown duck might flap noisily into the air and land with a splash, then repeat the move. In Check, a stream headed for another branch of the Little River purls in the background until after a cloudburst, when in the foreground the threat of its white-capped current makes us more alert than calm. In autumn the Appalachian trees match their startling color with a waving and shimmering rustle.One day I awoke to Marjory’s shout: “Get out of the garden, you little —-!” She reinforced this command by rapping loudly on the window, and finally a deer separated from day-lilies.
“We can hear the train whistle in Shawsville,” reported Fred First, “if the wind is right.” But some things can be heard only by the most sensitive–for example the whistle of the Roe & Willie. Some are imagined: a pounding on the door when they come for your guns; the “craaaaack” of that 50-foot pine headed toward your bed. Some sounds are remembered: “I recall the brown rustling stalks of corn at harvest time,” writes Jean Schaeffer (Raised on Songs and Stories, p. 4).
Other sounds may never be heard again: the shirt-whir of needles in the factory; the mechanical and social commotion of a water mill; the tramping of children on the second floor of a school; the sheriff’s men taking an axe to a still…. Before the front silo of the Jacksonville Center was boarded up (as Jagadisha recalled), a musician used to play a bamboo flute at the bottom: “It was ethereal, because he could play one line and then play another on top of the echo.”
Other sound-waves only the deaf can fail to hear. Sirens wail on Rt. 221 often enough to surprise us in a rural county, yet there’s another police car or ambulance making an arc from town toward Willis as dogs croon in sympathetic vibration. Fighter jets—one, two, three, then four—once shot sound waves onto a peaceful outside meal. At the opposite extreme, a crinkly-unwrapping heralds the appearance of a Goetzer licorice candy bought at the Country Store.
Every homestead has its characteristic sounds. How about the Whack! Whack! of a metal container against a wooden fence when someone is emptying frozen food-scraps for goats to chew sideways? And every business: the under-foot creak of the old floorboards of Farmers’ Supply, Black Water Loft, the Country Store…. As for the County Dump? Once I hauled a case of empty beers to a sort of open-freight-car of colored-bottles. When I tossed the first vessel, it made a clink as sharp as it was high-pitched–almost to the Ouch level–and as it was pure, without overtones, like a sonic version on an LED. Then to my further delight, each initial clink was followed by cascade of musical tinkles of slightly lower pitches and in such rapid succession that I was unable to count them. The twenty-fourth bottle clunked because it still contained some brew.
Suppose you were to watch the proverbial tree fall in the woods and strain to hear a noise but don’t? Some things are strangely soundless, like clouds over the county, however voluminous or dark or fast-moving, whatever direction they are taking. Or like the passenger jet, identified by its contrail, that we admired while hiking up the long hill of Penn Rd., and that slowly measured the full extent of the eastern sky, too close to outer space for us to detect with ears. Across the valley a miniature tractor makes a presumptive chug as it plies back and forth.
Sounds may be intended for others but overheard: “It heals broken bones,” declared an herb-vendor at the Community Market. They could be mythical, like the banjo with perfect pitch that, tossed into the dumpster, didn’t hit a side. They may be implied, too. Returning from a trip, I looked out onto the deck to see the long table, earlier wrapped against the winter, bare except for a few strands of twine. Marjory located the cover on the brambly hill below, motionless and silent after being ripped off by what must have been an ear-splitting plastic-racket.
Most sounds have a clear source, as when the hooves of a cow suck muck. Some known sources may be invisible. Cicadas or crickets or frogs or whatever they are fill the dark woods with chatter. When one resident opens her door toward Old Furnace Rd., Guinea hens a quarter-mile away emit a warning that cannot be expressed by the alphabet. Once as Marjory and I were walking from garage to house at 10:30 p.m., BANG! Taken aback, we figured that something electrical had exploded in the valley, but then we realized that a shotgun had fired. Another couple heard a sound and mistook its ultimate cause. “It was a bright sunny day,” remembers Laurel Pritchard, “and we were sitting at the counter having lunch when we heard a sort of thumping, a loud clanking. You could feel the vibration. We had two fireplaces with iron dampers that apparently were making the racket. Clank! Clank! I said, ‘I think the washing machine is unbalanced in the cellar.'” Turns out that even the Washington Monument had vibrated, and more so, from the earthquake that struck eighty-four miles southwest of D.C. on August 23, 2011.
At Slaughters’ Grocery, you are apt to hear Gospel, Rock, or Country music piped in, once with these lyrics: “I wanta be where I am/ On this little piece o’ land.” (An example of near-rhyme unimproved by “Meadows of Dan.”) Bring home a half-gallon of Homestead Creamery milk and you can hear the liquid because you need to shake the bottle.
Some human sounds are not just the official means but ends. As a bigger-than-pickup hauled a trailer from Laurel Branch Rd. onto Rt. 221, its exhaust system became a sort of musical instrument. Sounds can unintentionally reveal something about a speaker, as with folk grammar at the pulpit.
Some speech must remain theoretical: the languages of the Tutelo (Tutero), Monacan, and Cherokee tribes, who once lived or owned land in what is now Floyd County. (Shaeffer, Raised on Songs and Stories, pp. 141-42. See also Patricia Robin Woodruff, “Archaeological Dig at a Floyd Native American Village Site.” Floyd Virginia Fall/Winter 2014-15: Vol 7, Issue 2, pp. 42-43.) As for the whooping sound made by more than a few children during an epidemic–it revealed a distrust of the pertussis vaccine. Could this skepticism parallel the refusal of many old-timers to accept signs and stats of climate change? Other respiratory sounds–the inhale and exhale of a toke–displayed a counterculture ceremony and, later, a roguish contempt for the law.
Sounds as brief as they are unwelcome? The painful whump of a head striking a wooden beam outside Harvest Moon–at the drop-off area under the steps–as a bald person fails to stoop far enough while retrieving this week’s CSA bag.One day I opened a faucet to hear not water but sputter. All weekend we hauled the precious liquid from both grocery store and above-ground cistern. We lost sleep over the possibility that the water supply of Floyd County—notoriously hidden and zig-zag in a medium of karst–had failed us after eight years. We hoped for a broken pump. Failing that, a deepened well or another one elsewhere on the property. Would I even think of grasping the straw of a dowser’s twig? Without a water supply, our house was an RV without gasoline.
The rescue-chariot arrived first thing Monday morning as an uncompromisingly workaday truck. Bob, the pump-and-well expert, tested the electric current in the basement and at the pump—both sparked obediently. So was the well sand-sucking dry? He apologized for the next step as being rather primitive: holding a small rock over the pipe, he let it go, and after two or three seconds….Splash.As darkness fell unhurried near the end of July, Marge and I sat in rows with about twenty people on a deck behind an old farmhouse. A concert began at the home of Mac and Jenny Traynham (both musicians), located on a rise above Ferney Circle, an arc that touches Alum Ridge at both Ferney-tips. On a front parcel stood Mac’s workshop, headquarters for making cabinets and musical instruments. Overhead on the deck ran a sort of beam-trellis along which vines crept partway from the bushy edge, where an old oak diverged into a half dozen trunks and spread over us. Three young women, who made up the Barn Owls, a band from the Pacific Northwest, sang and played old-time and vintage country music on the banjo, violin, and guitar. One member was Hanna, the daughter of the Traynhams.
The first piece seemed hauntingly modal (i.e., its octave based on one of the fixed schemes of intervals not typically heard in pop or classical music ). After Brittany Newell sang about the L & N, I reported being perhaps the last passenger carried by that railroad, in a carriage by myself as I rode overnight from Knoxville to Cincinnati in January, 1964.
A nearby fence was homemade, not Home Depot, and it resembled the sides of the shelter in Lineberry Park that Jenny had fashioned from thick, woody rhododendrons. On the acreage across the fence were at least four outbuildings, one a garden-tool cottage with a red flower in the window box, one a shelter for a spring-fed water-heater. The land sloped up to yet another hill. Between the renditions of bluegrass and traditional pieces, the musicians would chat and laugh with the audience, who must have felt privileged. A hundred or so sunflowers in a nearby garden also turned toward them like yellow, white-fringed ears. Hanging from the trellis were swags of amber bulbs whose glow became more vivid as lightning bugs plied the air to their own rhythm.
At a break Jenny affectionately introduced each person or couple. One guest used a cane, another wore a chemo-do. The Traynhams’ neighbor, a longtime employee of Virginia Tech, told me that after pitching hay and (some other chore), no work is hard. For a couple of songs the trio was joined by Hanna’s daddy on the fiddle. The recital ended with a song about a father who couldn’t run fast enough to rescue his daughter from a fatally-biting snake. Nobody wept, however, because the lyrics were so melodramatic and the arrangement so danceable. If life gives you venoms…. Afterward Marjory and I were sent home with a jug of spring water to supply us until our well operated.
In July the grass yellowed, the trees stopped putting out new leaves, and the cistern was almost empty–judging from the echo when I pounded it–so I couldn’t keep the clover watered where I had planted it to cover bare spots under several former trees. Clouds, yes, but they couldn’t squeeze anything out, so a note in our CSA bag (by Polly Hieser) said that rainfall was now vital. A downpour stopped prematurely like a water-heater in a hotel that had run out of our shillings. One evening the clouds above Hotel Floyd’s amphitheater dropped only warning particles, so Aila Wildman, age eleven, could belt out “Wayfaring Stranger,” coaxing out an occasional blue note, turning “roam” and “home” to delightful expressions of pain.The pasture was a source of nourishment for a viewer as it sloped down to the other side of Dodd Creek far below our cabin. But one day hooves turned to wheels and silence to cylinders. The mechanical clamor ran up the hill from a natural amphitheater and echoed against houses. One four-wheeler was eventually joined by others. Around and around they circled, flying over some kind of jump. So Cushnir’s “raw, direct experience of sound” (epigraph) could not be shut out, unlike cold, heat, or wind.
Floyd County once had a noise ordinance but scrapped it as unenforceable. In contrast, Boulder County, Colorado, proclaims: “The peace, health, safety and welfare of its citizens require protection from excessive, unnecessary and unreasonable noise.” As our friend Tom once said, “Yes, it’s your own property, but keep everything on it”–i.e., including sound waves. Could I make an offer on the pasture and thus broaden the definition of “buying silence”?
Lawmen arrived, after being phoned near midnight, and soon a row of taillights slowly ascended the hill. Later I visited the Sheriff’s headquarters and learned that officers would help at any time, serving as an informal noise ordinance. But the invasion returned on unpredictable days and continued past dusk. Decibels penetrated everywhere in the house from basement to upstairs bedroom on the opposite side. Inspired by The White Ribbon (movie of 2009), I imagined stringing a wire across the path. Not being religious, I couldn’t pray for lightning.
Marjory and I regretted not picking our second choice for retirement, Brevard, North Carolina. Once as I walked down Annie Lane with our daughter (who had given me the book How Now as a retirement present), I reported loudly that we might try to sell the cabin, and tears rolled down her cheek. But anyone who wanted to move to civilization was forced to sell a home that had no quiet–a variation of no water. Our little piece o’ land was uninhabitable, and we were boxed in. Once our neighbors drove around the area and could hear the racket a mile away but counseled trying to wait things out. I began to have stomach trouble and think about moving to our condo in South Carolina. Meanwhile the fragile riparian land was now plowed by tires and the air polluted by exhaust.
As time went on, the charging-around seemed to become less frequent, and it eventually ceased. Racetrack faded somewhat into pasture, and silence fell like rain after drought. But the scenery would always be provisional. And we would remain alert indeed: once at the sound of a chain saw, we flinched.
“What’s that noise?” I wondered aloud to Marjory as we stood in the carport and she prepared to drive to town. We agreed that a neighbor must be mowing grass, but a few minutes later, after she had started out for town, she telephoned and interrupted my work on Floydiana. “Rand, it’s the tractor parade!” A delighted auditor and spectator, she watched through her windshield at the bottom of Annie Lane as this phenomenon rolled down Rt. 221 from the direction of Willis. More color commentary followed: “Pinks, yellows, greens. Oh, here’s an orange one with red on the tires.” She reported that women occasionally drove and children frequently waved. Some drivers had long poles to steer with; some tractors were like race cars—low and small.