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Learning to Listen
When I was a child, I would lie in bed or look up at the sky and listen to the stars twinkling. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that that twinkling sound was actually crickets making their nightly calls. Even now, at night when I’m in that place between waking and sleeping and I hear crickets singing, a part of me still thinks that maybe it’s the stars.
When I first moved to the Northern Neck in the 1980s, I quickly learned that sounds in the country are quite different from the city, and that they are sometimes disconcerting. One night, I woke to a strange and unsettling clatter coming from the backyard near the garden. It was windy and a storm was brewing, and looking out the window, I saw nothing but the dark silhouettes of trees bending with the wind. The clatter continued, and it was very near. After a few nervous minutes, I woke my wife to let her know we might have a burglar outside. Having grown up in the house, perhaps she might recognize the sound, or at least know where her father kept the shotgun. In fact, she did recognize the noise. Her dad had wrapped a tin pie plate around the birdhouse post to keep the snakes from going up the post after the hatchlings, and the wind was blowing the plate. She laughed and chalked it up to my city ignorance. I mean, what does a city boy know about country ingenuity to prevent snakes from climbing up posts after birds.
After we moved to our own place outside Lively, Virginia, I quickly learned a lot about the sounds of the country night. Living with the hum of urban life for so many years, I discovered how loud quiet can be when your neighbors are wheat and cornfields instead of row houses—when all you can hear is the creak of the stair treads or an occasional car passing on Route 600. After a while, after I settled into the quieter life and learned to listen, I could hear the rich symphony of sounds that play every day in the country. I heard the paper sound that wind makes when it blows through the corn in the late summer when it’s ready for harvest. I became accustomed to the repeated thumps of black walnuts falling from the trees at night, the very quick slice of sound bats make when chasing mosquitoes in the dark, and the distinct voice of the big owl that lived in the back woods. I knew the occasional labored mooing of a cow giving birth in the far field, and the difference between a combine and a tractor when the engine starts.
I continued having the occasional stirring of fear in the dark over the almost twenty years I lived on our small farm in Alfonso, but it was most often the unexpected human sounds that triggered that feeling. It wasn’t long before I became a bit of a connoisseur of country sounds. I began to feel at home in what had been a foreign land and came to know the rich audible beauty of nature. pl.
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