Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation...tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego. His anxiety subsides. His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.
― Jean Arp
[The modern age] knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence. In our quietest and loneliest hour the automatic ice-maker in the refrigerator will cluck and drop an ice cube, the automatic dishwasher will sigh through its changes, a plane will drone over, the nearest freeway will vibrate the air. Red and white lights will pass in the sky, lights will shine along highways and glance off windows. There is always a radio that can be turned to some all-night station, or a television set to turn artificial moonlight into the flickering images of the late show. We can put on a turntable whatever consolation we most respond to, Mozart or Copland or the Grateful Dead.
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
Yesterday, I stopped by the Golden Arches for a Big Mac. After settling into a not-so-cozy booth, I began to marvel at the amount of noise that we are expected to accept as normal. Layered atop the white noise hum of the ventilation system and lighting, an urgent assortment of beeps, buzzes and other incessant alarms wafted from the kitchen, while a jived-up butchery of an old Christmas carol rattled from above and Wolf Blitzer brayed his joyless bray from the flat screen TV. The other diners glumly devoured their meals while gazing listlessly at the devices burbling in their palms. Maybe it is time to start carrying earplugs. One could complain about the canned music being piped into a favorite fast-food joint, Chinese buffet, or most any other restaurant. That is, if one wants to be outed as a crank, and be told there's absolutely nothing that can be done to change the musical offerings.
And so it is in the place that used to be America.
I've come to terms with the fact that the town I called home for 30 years no longer exists, or exists only as a rapidly fading memory. Home it is no more. And so too for the good ol' USA, supplanted by the politically correct America 2.0, a foreign and dreadful place indeed. One of the most cogent descriptions of these times was uttered by the prophet Isaiah, 2700 years ago:
How terrible it will be for those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute what is bitter for what is sweet and what is sweet for what is bitter!
How terrible it is for all of us. Is it any wonder that Americans are gulping down all the oxycodones they can get their hands on, legally or not? I seek my own exile from this increasingly repugnant modernity via ever-deepening solitude or by binge-watching reruns of Death Valley Days and Adam 12, but I can understand why record numbers are using opioids to achieve permanent exile. Who could blame them?
Someday, when I'm king, every schoolchild will know the name of one particular American genius. Pending coronation, I'll have to make the most of this online soapbox to rescue him from unwarranted obscurity. Almost 25 years ago I came across a passage from one of his books, and though I misplaced the quote and forgot his name, the idea stayed with me and kept coming back when I would work in the garden. Finally, last week, I rediscovered the author and the book, which was published one hundred years ago. Here's that elusive quote:
It is possible to hoe potatoes and to hear the birds sing at the same time, although our teaching has not much developed this completeness in the minds of the people.
I can attest to the truth of this statement from Liberty Hyde Bailey contained in his 1915 book, The Holy Earth. And while I am happy to locate the quote once again, I am equally glad to get acquainted with the author and his work. Bailey (1858-1954) was for many years a botanist at Cornell University where he played a crucial role in bringing attention to Gregor Mendel's work on plant breeding and hybridization. Bailey was instrumental in starting agricultural extension services, the 4-H movement, parcel post and rural electrification. Despite earning the sobriquet "Father of American Horticulture," despite writing more than 65 books, despite his visionary perspective on rural life, I suspect that very few people know anything about him today. I didn't.
The Holy Earth is a delight to read, although contemporary readers might find his language and his ideas rather dated. The opening sentences of the book illustrate my point:
So bountiful hath been the earth and so securely have we drawn from it our substance, that we have taken it all for granted as if it were only a gift, and with little care or conscious thought of the consequences of our use of it; nor have we very much considered the essential relation that we bear to it as living parts in the vast creation.
It is good to think of ourselves—of this teeming, tense, and aspiring human race—as a helpful and contributing part in the plan of a cosmos, and as participators in some far-reaching destiny. The idea of responsibility is much asserted of late, but we relate it mostly to the attitude of persons in the realm of conventional conduct, which we have come to regard as very exclusively the realm of morals; and we have established certain formalities that satisfy the conscience. But there is some deeper relation than all this, which we must recognize and the consequences of which we must practise. There is a directer and more personal obligation than that which expends itself in loyalty to the manifold organizations and social requirements of the present day. There is a more fundamental co-operation in the scheme of things than that which deals with the proprieties or which centres about the selfishness too often expressed in the salvation of one's soul.
Nevertheless, quotable passages are found on almost every page of the book:
We shall produce a much better and safer man when we make him self-controlling by developing his sense of responsibility than when we regulate him by exterior enactments.
The direct lineage from Liberty Hyde Bailey to a modern writer who has explored similar themes, Wendell Berry, is unmistakable. I was not at all surprised to learn that Berry contributed the foreword to the centennial edition of The Holy Earth:
[Bailey] gives to our cant phrase ‘quality of life’ a gravity and a happiness that most of us have forgot even to try for, exceeding the capacity of our language of novelty and the news, but reachable if ever again we should decide to try.
As much as I would like to delve into an examination of Bailey's take on agrarianism, that will have to wait for another day. Staying with today's riff on sounds, here's another page from The Holy Earth, where Bailey suggests that a capacity for silence is an antidote to the stresses of modernity.
Man listens in the forest. He pauses in the forest. He finds himself. He loses himself in the town and even perhaps in the university. He may lose himself in business and in great affairs; but in the forest he is one with a tree, he stands by himself and yet has consolation, and he comes back to his own place in the scheme of things. We have almost forgotten to listen; so great and ceaseless is the racket that the little voices pass over our ears and we hear them not. I have asked person after person if he knew the song of the chipping-sparrow, and most of them are unaware that it has any song. We do not hear it in the blare of the city street, in railway travel, or when we are in a thunderous crowd. We hear it in the still places and when our ears are ready to catch the smaller sounds.
There is no music like the music of the forest, and the better part of it is faint and far away or high in the tops of trees. The forest may be an asylum. "The groves were God's first temples." We need all our altars and more, but we need also the sanctuary of the forest. It is a poor people that has no forests. I prize the farms because they have forests. It is a poor political philosophy that has no forests. It is a poor nation that has no forests and no workers in wood. In many places there are the forests. I think that we do not get the most out of them. Certainly they have two uses: one for the products, and one for the human relief and the inspiration. I should like to see a movement looking toward the better utilization of the forests humanly, as we use school buildings and church buildings and public halls.
I wish that we might take our friends to the forests as we also take them to see the works of the masters. For this purpose, we should not go in large companies. We need sympathetic guidance. Parties of two and four may go separately to the forests to walk and to sit and to be silent. I would not forget the forest in the night, in the silence and the simplicity of the darkness. Strangely few are the people who know a real forest at dark. Few are those who know the forest when the rain is falling or when the snow covers the earth. Yet the forest is as real in all these moments as when the sun is at full and the weather is fair.
I wish that we might know the forest intimately and sensitively as a part of our background. I think it would do much to keep us close to the verities and the essentials.
On the other hand, Bailey was no luddite. He shared with his contemporaries an optimistic faith in mechanical progress, expressed in a curious chapter of The Holy Earth entitled The Tones of Industry, which features a Whitmanesque catalog of noises:
One of the clearest notes of our time is the recognition of the holiness of industry and the attempt to formulate the morals of it. We accept this fact indirectly by the modern endeavor to give the laboring man his due. The handworker is more or less elemental, dealing directly with the materials. We begin to recognize these industries in literature, in sculpture, and in painting; but we do not yet very consciously or effectively translate them into music. It is to be recognized, of course, that melody is emotional and dynamic not imitative, that its power lies in suggestion rather than in direct representation, and that its language is general; with all this I have nothing to do.
Meunier has done much with his chisel to interpret the spirit of constructive labor and to develop its higher significance. His art is indeed concrete and static, and sculpture and music are not to be compared; yet it raises the question whether there may be other bold extensions of art. The primitive industries must have been mostly silent, when there were no iron tools, when fire felled the forest tree and hollowed the canoe, when the parts in construction were secured by thongs, and when the game was caught in silent traps or by the swift noiseless arrow and spear. Even at the Stone Age the rude implements and the materials must have been mostly devoid of resonance. But now industry has become universal and complex, and it has also become noisy,—so noisy that we organize to protect ourselves from becoming distraught.
And yet a workshop, particularly if it works in metal, is replete with tones that are essentially musical.
Workmen respond readily to unison. There are melodies that arise from certain kinds of labor. Much of our labor is rhythmic. In any factory driven by power, there is a fundamental rhythm and motion, tying all things together. I have often thought, standing at the threshold of a mill, that it might be possible somewhere by careful forethought to eliminate the clatter and so to organize the work as to develop a better expression in labor. Very much do we need to make industry vocal. It is worth considering, also, whether it is possible to take over into music any of these sounds of industry in a new way, that they may be given meanings they do not now possess.
At all events, the poetic element in industry is capable of great development and of progressive interpretation; and poetry is scarcely to be dissociated from sound. All good work well done is essentially poetic to the sensitive mind; and when the work is the rhythm of many men acting in unison, the poetry has voice.
The striking of the rivet
The purr of a drill
The crash of a steam-shovel
The plunge of a dredge
The buzz of a saw
The roll of belts and chains
The whirl of spindles
The hiss of steam
The tip-tap of valves
The undertone rumble of a mill
The silence intent of men at work
The talk of men going to their homes,
These are all the notes of great symphonies.
Nor should I stop with the industries of commerce and manufacture. There are many possibilities in the sounds and voices that are known of fisherfolk and campers and foresters and farmers. Somehow we should be able to individualize these voices and to give them an artistic expression in some kind of human composition. There are rich suggestions in the voices of the farmyard, the calls of wild creatures, the tones of farm implements and machinery, the sounds of the elements, and particularly in the relations of all these to the pauses, the silences, and the distances beyond. Whether it is possible to utilize any of these tones and voices artistically is not for a layman to say; but the layman may express the need that he feels.
Wow. Even though I will continue my efforts to simultaneously hoe potatoes and hear the birds sing, others, such as the subjects of the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, might find inspiration in Bailey's celebration of the musicality of noise. Whatever.
Perhaps it is possible to appreciate a silent night AND to make a joyful noise, although I'm not sure McDonalds is the best place for either.
For now, while I ruminate over that one, the last word goes to Bailey:
The earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and to do our best, living with each other and with all creatures.
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