Everyone thinks of the country as such a quiet, peaceful place especially when compared to the sounds of a city with traffic, construction, sirens, and other man made noises. But the quiet in the country is not really the absence of noise at all. The noises are different but they are there, and they are often surrounded by softness, and quiet space that makes them stand out with a clarity that burns them into one’s memory. I want to tell you about some of my favorite noises and the quiet that makes them special.
I start with spring because all things kind of start there. There has been only one year when I actually witnessed a very brief moment – it happens every year but so quickly that one can never predict and catch it. I happened to be on the bank looking out on the ice covering Round Lake. There had been warm days already and the ice was rotten, weak and shot through with melting holes. There was open water around the edges of the lake. A breeze came up and the most marvelous sound began as the ice moved and began to disintegrate. It was a musical, tinkling sound like many small pieces of glass hitting each other and swirling in the water. Shards of ice piled up on the shore and the rest sank into the lake until nothing but open water remained. I watched and listened for about five minutes and it was over. I was in awe.
The earliest bird sound in northern Wisconsin is made by the Red-winged Blackbird as it returns to its nesting area in the marshes. We had several small marshy ponds near our driveway where we would wait each morning for the school bus. The blackbirds would sit on the power lines, and the cattails and sing. They have a rather long and complicated call that is unmistakeable and ends in a high trill. It was always the hallmark of spring for me. About the same time the marshes also became alive with small frogs, spring peepers we called them. There were times when the combination of thousands of high pitched voices would drown out most other noises. This is April and I have just returned from visiting my hometown. We drove around in the country and every time we passed a wet hollow we heard the swell of sound from the peepers.
A couple of years we tapped maple trees in the nearby woods and there were times the sap ran so fast you could hear it dripping into the pails. And of course, there was always the snow melt in the fields. Streams would appear where none were other times of the year and water would rush down the hillsides into the pond. The driveway would become a maze of mud and rivulets to be avoided.
Summer brings sounds of bees buzzing, lazy flies, and breezes through the poplar trees. There is the sound of the waves slapping the rocks on the shores of the spring fed lakes and rivers, and a few man made noises as boats and jet skis skim the waters. On a windy day the woods are full of sounds of leaves turning and branches rubbing. There is a biblical reference to the trees of the field clapping hands and I always thought that was exactly what seemed to be happening.
Autumn sounds are so distinct – lonely sounds. The dry leaves are falling and crunching underfoot. The wind sounds different when it blows through the bare branches. Sometimes corn in the field that didn’t get cut is also brown and dry, rustling in the wind. Geese in large V’s honk their way south, and the crows call to each other.
And finally winter comes. The first heavy snowfall seems to suck up every noise in the woods, and the whole white world becomes insulated. There is a quietness that is tangible, it can be felt. Stepping out on the frozen lake can sometimes create loud booming sounds as the ice cracks. It doesn’t break but the long lines in the ice are dangerous when skates get stuck in them. Many times I remember the sound of the wind during the drama of blizzards – a time when it is a blessing to have shelter and warmth from which to view the storm.
These are the sounds that I remember from life in the country – the peaceful, quiet country.