Quiet’s hard to come by

The Western Star - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 35 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetele­gram.com — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

I was some­where so quiet; so still, that, when two birds flew over, even 20 feet above me, I heard their feathers mov­ing through the air. It is a sound that al­most de­fies de­scrip­tion: both a swoosh and a rus­tle, and a hint of the sweep of a soft brush.

If you had told me that was pos­si­ble be­fore I ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced it, I would not have be­lieved you.

I think they were crows, head­ing south across the Ne­vada desert. I was so riv­eted by the sound that I didn’t look at them as care­fully as I should have; all I re­ally re­mem­ber look­ing at was the tip of one wing, con­nect­ing the un­usual, unique sound to the fin­gered feathers spread out against the air.

I have never heard that sound be­fore. I don’t know that I will ever hear it again.

But it makes me think about just how much sound there is all around us, and how that com­pli­ca­tion of noises gets ever-larger.

Stand­ing in the kitchen, there’s the whirr of the ex­haust fan, the hiss of gas on the cook­top, the rat­tle of a pot lid. A com­puter fan. The click-and­whirr of a hard drive. Wa­ter in the pipes from sink-ac­tion some­where else in the house. There’s the house shift­ing in the cold with cracks and oc­ca­sional thuds, the backup alarm of snow­plows snuf­fling up and down the side streets. The end­less id­iot wind and its crescendo: the garbage can top­pling over next to the back door and tak­ing the trio of snow shov­els with it.

Am­bu­lances roll along the main drag, head­ing east from the hospi­tal, some­times with the siren on all the time, some­times with that ad­di­tional growler they use to get the at­ten­tion of driv­ers who aren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion. Other times, you hear the am­bu­lances in short yelps and fits, as if the paramedics have grown tired of the in­ces­sant wail, and only turn the siren on for those few mo­ments be­fore and into an in­ter­sec­tion, and then off again.

Then I won­der about the mind­set of paramedics, about what they’re think­ing about where they’re head­ing, about how they’re or­der­ing up their thoughts to deal with what­ever small amount of de­tail they al­ready have.

There are tele­vi­sions chat­ting and pod­casts bur­bling and cars with fat blat­ting muf­flers and dogs, al­ways dogs. We are sur­rounded by sound now, our heads full of try­ing to fig­ure out what they mean and where they’re com­ing from, if they’re im­por­tant or if they’re just stray and scat­tered im­ages, the au­dio equiv­a­lent of a floater in your eye or the stars and flecks you see mo­ments af­ter rub­bing your eyes.

Some­times, my head sim­ply sur­ren­ders. Put me in a loud room with a lot of peo­ple, and even­tu­ally, all I hear is star­lings. Lots of star­lings. I watch peo­ple’s lips and try to fig­ure out what they’re say­ing, and if I can’t, I sim­ply try to smile in all the right places. (Tip for those who hear ev­ery word? I’m far from alone in the noisy star­ling set.)

Noise washes over us, con­fuses us, bus­ies our thoughts and pulls them in strange di­rec­tions.

Par­don me for telling you this, but in the wash­room at work, some­one in the stall was send­ing and re­ceiv­ing text mes­sages, his phone chirp­ing and ding­ing, and for the life of me, the only thing that oc­curred to my pe­cu­liar mind was that even R2D2 from Star Wars goes to the bath­room.

Soon, I hope to get to hear one of my favourite sounds again: the whis­per of dry snow on a very cold day, blow­ing through dry dead yel­low stand­ing straw, work­ing its way across the stiff leaves like a bow across strings. You might have to lie right down in the snow on your stom­ach to hear it well.

It has a sin­gu­lar hiss, a dif­fer­ent hiss than snow alone work­ing against it­self, and dif­fer­ent too from the hard rasp of snow work­ing against a pane of sharp, up­turned pud­dle ice.

Un­til then, I might just keep try­ing to re­assem­ble the sound of the feath­ered beat of those four wings against the still air, head­ing away, not one other sound to over­write or in­ter­rupt or dis­tract from it.

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