At the beginning of every summer I try to resist the deep freeze of air conditioning. I open windows to encourage cross ventilation, wear clothing that “breathes,” exercise daily, drive with the car windows down, and drink several glasses of water.
By the end of the summer–especially on a day like this one, with near 100 degree temperatures, soggy humidity a listless breeze that fails to prevent the bugs from finding me–I’m very happy to have the windows shut.
And it isn’t just the heat, humidity or the possibility that a the tiniest bug can crawl through the screens. I live in a nice, safe suburban sprawl community where everybody, and everything, makes noise.
Remember how quiet things are in the winter, after a thick snowfall? For a few hours the snow replaces the fences, curbs, sidewalks, chrome car parts and other sharp distinctions of suburban life with a smooth and gently drift of white that, in addition to being beautiful even to those who must dig themselves out and drive to work, absorbs sound. Even when the sidewalks are cleared of ice, and the snow piled near the roads turns dingy gray, you don’t quite hear the clang of Sunday church bells, the squonking wooble from the kid practicing his saxophone in the house down the street, the groan of the garbage truck, the diesel gurgle of tractor trailers bring canned goods to our supermarkets, and the ludicrously proud, hydrocarbonic blasts from unmuffled motorcycles. Even the persistent beep of vehicular plows backing up to gather more snow so they can better seal off the driveway you’ve just shoveled, and the roar of jet airplanes overhead, seems lower, muted, almost respectful of the season’s silent chill.
In the spring you get a few days when the weather is so nice you throw open the windows, with the intention of sleeping with that evening breeze tickling your nose. It’s almost the same in the fall, when you try to remember that mathematical formula that calculates temperature based on the rhythm of the crickets’ chirps.
Again, the windows don’t stay open for long. You notice how much noise all those cars make (some zooming by with their windows down, music as loud as a siren), or the neighbor’s barking dog, or the buzz of a heat pump. During summer, you hear conversations about kids, sports, cars and vacations from the neighbor’s deck party, and, when school is out, the obnoxiously cheery jingle of the ice cream truck. You wonder: how desperate can a person be to work in an environment with such sound in it?
What gets to me is the dentist’s-drill whine of power tools that begins promptly at 8 a.m. . That includes lawn mowers, edgers, leaf blowers, chain saws, hedge trimmers, carpenter’s skill saws, water compressors and that intestinal groan from the carpet cleaner vans. These sounds form a shrill, furiously focused chorus that proclaims that, every day, in every way, all this harnessed energy is making our lives better and better.
Yes, but…would it be nice if we could have a quiet time in our community, when we can open windows, or go for a walk, and hear birds singing, the wind caressing the trees, cicadas buzzing for attention, and, after that, the silence that is beneath, between and around all of those living things?
Silence isn’t the absence of sound. Like the dark matter that is supposed to be “out there” so the math works but beyond our ability to detect, silence is how we make sense of what we hear. It’s what holds all other sounds together.
As the summer comes to an end, I think about adventures in and out of cars, righteous periods of perspirational exercise, outdoor concerts, sweet peaches from the farm market, retail treasure hunts, good news from doctors, recipes followed that actually turned out okay, mornings in which sleeping late was a privilege and a right, rranquil dog walks and those rare moments when I heard–