John here, filling in for another member who is on the road today. If you’ve ever played an old fashioned pinball machine, the random path the ball takes during a game is akin to the way circumstances lead us to fascinating and valuable experiences. Sometimes they lead to new people who become rich resources or treasured friends, sometimes to a new spot in the world that changes our lives and sometimes (and perhaps the best of the lot), to a new author.
Many of the books I have loved the most were discovered this way; I read a great review in Booklist, a blog entry raved about it, or the author/publisher posted the first chapter online. A while back we were discussing opening lines in books that stuck with us. I commented on what I remembered as the opening line in Eliot Pattison’s first book in the Shan mysteries The Skull Mantra. It turns out I was thinking of the beginning of the sequel Water Touching Stone. I share it here because it’s a perfect lead-in for today’s column. “Everything in Tibet starts with the wind. It is the wind that offers up prayer flags to the heavens, the wind that brings cold and warmth and life-giving water to the land, the wind that gives movement to the mountains themselves as it sends the clouds careening down the ranges.”
Sounds play a big part in my creative life. Whenever I fire up the memory machine while I’m writing, one or more will scroll through the mental movie theater that have a distinct sound as a major component. When Wolf Moon Journal was publishing, I was a regular contributor. One essay I particularly liked was called “A Sensual Maine Year” Broken into twelve parts, it talked about visual, tactile and auditory impressions from one Maine year. I went back this morning to re-read it and thought some of the observations about sound were worth repeating here. Take March for example: “Snow retreats, leaving bare fields and even barer branches. Foxes, looking lean and tattered, roam the fields in search of unwary mice. March is the month of dragons if you live near the coast or down east. When I was a kid, we spread mulch hay over the depleted blueberry vines in preparation for an early spring burn. Today the task is accomplished by huge kerosene-fueled burners hauled behind tractors. On a still March day, I can hear the roar and crackle five miles away and smell the acrid aroma of burning fuel.”
Then there’s May: “May has its own symphony of sounds. Lawn mowers greet each other on weekends and late afternoons, humming cheerfully in fair weather, grunting with frustration after extended periods of rain. My neighbor shakes his head as he wipes a sweaty brow and gestures at the push mower nestled in foot high grass; “That’s the second one I’ve killed this month.” This year, the African jungle is in full swing by late May. As darkness approaches, myriad species of frogs begin croaking, chirruping and trilling from every direction.”
And June: “The open windows change sleeping patterns as well. Strains of music and dogs barking at things humans cannot see interrupt the warm breezy darkness. Dawn in June fills with dozens of birds eager to find food and gossip with their fellows. The sound is musical, but not always convenient when one wants to sleep late on Sunday. Birds have no concept of weekends or weekdays and that may not be such a bad thing.”
Come August, I took readers on a trip to Carrying Place with a stop at Houston Brook Falls: “August 5th is the most perfect day all summer; crisp, dry, breezy. We drive northwest, crossing the Kennebec in Solon and following it until it reaches Wyman Dam. A mile beyond lies the trail to Houston Brook Falls, barely 200 yards from the road. While only 32 feet high, the cascade provides a great view and an ever-changing play of light on water and mist. Even the roar of cascading water cannot drown out the magical buzz as two float planes pass behind the tall evergreens, intent upon reaching some remote trout pond before sunset.”
September always reminds Mainers that grimmer things are coming, but tempers that admonition with beautiful flowers and unique sounds: “On the first Saturday, we go to Solon and I begin clearing a strip of bushes that bisect my father-in-law’s north lawn. An hour later, half of then are gone, replaced by ground now ready for mowing and a stinging blister on my hand. As I creep down the path toward the sugar house, I can hear more hallmarks of fall; the intermittent thud of ripe apples hitting the ground and the startled snort as a small buck lopes down to the safety of the swamp at the bottom of the hill. “
Those unique reminders continue into October, my favorite month: “I hunt deer in October with a compound bow, something I started 25 years ago. There is a greater challenge to bow hunting, but I also have the woods to myself. The soft silence is interrupted by birds and squirrels. Blue jays try to earn their keep by scolding nearly everything else that moves through the overgrown apple orchard where I sit. As I hear crows in the distance, I mull over the realization that their cries seem much starker in the cool of October. I wonder if this is real, or fueled by my awareness of impending winter.”
Then comes November: “Sere is the word that always comes to mind when I walk by a beech tree in November. The faint rattle of their leaves, reluctant to leave branches and return to earth, rises to a tambourine-like crescendo as the chill wind escalates.”
I could have included a lot more about sounds in that article, but as it was, the piece was longer than most they published. Certain sounds are part of my memory bank, the place where I go when I’m writing and I want to paint a picture for readers. Here are a few that stick out. Wind, as Pattison so elegantly puts it, plays a big part in the lives of anyone living outside cities. I never cease to be amazed at the infinite variety of sounds this natural phenomenon produces. There were two nights this past weekend where the intensity of 40-50 mph gusts rocked the house and you could imagine an angry giant stalking about, looking for something to expend his vengeance on. I remember that same wind as a teen, raking blueberries, sighing through pine boughs. If I listened carefully enough, I could hear magical creatures telling stories stolen beings in the deeper woods surrounding the swamp at the bottom of the hill.
Rain and snow have numerous and unique voices. If you have ever been at the bottom of a valley when heavy rain approaches, the sound as it rolls across a deciduous forest is a beautiful thing to behold, like the percussion section in an invisible orchestra. Sometimes, the experience is so mesmerizing I forget that I’m about to get drenched and stick around to hear the aftersound of intense pattering. As droplets strike, they soften everything in their path, turning the staccato into a plink/plop that reminds me I’m in the process of getting soaked.. Snow also has unique sounds, depending on wind and water content. In addition to completely changing woodlands I’ve known intimately for 50 years, snow can hypnotize as it creates a soft background hiss when tiny dry flakes fall, then grow bigger and fatter, slowly camouflaging familiar copses. I have become lost in tiny parcels I’ve passed through hundreds of times when snow falls. It leaves a feeling, not of anxiety, but of bemusement at how easily the eye is fooled by nature.
Beth and I are ocean lovers. That’s one reason we prefer Washington County as a vacation spot. The sea offers up an amazing array of sounds. Who hasn’t listened as waves roll in, then recede endlessly repeating the process. Have you stopped to listen to some of the accompanying sounds? One of my favorites is the rolling crunch as receding waves pull rounded pebbles closer to the water’s edge. A close second is the gunshot sound as a big wave, possibly generated by an immense storm hundreds of miles to the east, attacks a granite cliff, causing the earth underfoot to shudder, but not admit defeat.
Any working waterfront contributes more interesting sounds, from the reluctant whine of a cold marine engine being coaxed into action, to the gruff, but cheerful back and forth of men toughened by long exposure to the sea and then the constant squee-squawk of ever hungry seagulls circling overhead, intent upon beating their fellows to whatever scraps get tossed overboard.
Inland waterways have their own category of sounds. I’m primarily a brook fisherman, preferring the leisurely wading in solitude that turns a warm June morning into an adventure. Every riffle in a brook or river tells a different story, depending on water flow. Moving from one to another with bird calls in the distance and variant breezes through evergreens along the banks, often helps me half write an essay, short story or scene in a book while I’m trying to outwit a 12 inch brookie.
Our back yard provides an excellent array of sounds to savor and then tuck away for later use. We have an acre, most of which stretches back to an old snow fence with an abandoned railroad bed behind it. In winter, we’re serenaded by snowmobiles when sufficient snow has fallen. Their sound changes several times after they streak by, depending upon which trail they choose. If they cross the small bridge heading toward St. Albans, the sound is considerably different than it is when they take the twisting route crossing the swamp below a big beaver pond before ascending Huff Hill and heading to Skowhegan. Different snow machines create unique sounds, from a thin bee whine emitted by a small racing sled through the deep growl of an older, heavier monster.
Spring and summer treat us to a whole ‘nother array of sounds. I know spring is here not so much because I hear birds, but because I hear eager kids yelling, screaming and laughing in the distance, blessedly free of the confines imposed by colder weather. No matter how much the world changes, the sound of happy kids playing outside never does, something I find incredibly reassuring. One of the challenges our backyard poses on a regular basis is where certain sounds originate. Try as I might, locating where a bird in the woods adjacent to our lawn is hiding, is invariably doomed to failure. Ditto when I try sneaking up on an amorous tree frog.
Night time in Hartland brings an entirely different sound symphony. Among my favorites is one that doesn’t come from nature. Anyone who has ever listened to a Red Sox game on the radio, knows what I’m talking about. Even though different people come to each game, the background sounds are refreshingly familiar. I often try to isolate some of them and imagine the conversation hidden underneath them. It’s a great way to come up with dialogue for work in progress. We’re fortunate to have a branch of the Sebasticook River behind the cemetery across the street. Loons and geese often greet the setting sun. Later on, we might hear an occasional owl, a pack of coyotes calling to the moon from the big swamp south of town or on ever rarer nights, the beautifully mournful sound of a whippoorwill, looking for company in the wetland behind our neighbor’s house. I can’t hear one without feeling saddened by the realization that their winter grounds have been almost eliminated in Central America.
I’ve concentrated on natural sounds for the most part, but one of my favorite man made ones came about as the result of winning a street legal version of Kasey Kahne’s Dodge Charger a few years back. I had never been to a NASCAR race, but a trip to the Citizen’s Bank 40 in Michigan to meet Kasey and pick up the car keys was included. Beth and I flew out and got a chance to tour the pit area and meet Kasey before watching the race. If you have never heard the start of a race in person, you’re missing one impressive roar of raw power. I’ve gone to the fall race at Louden a couple times since and the start is my favorite part of the experience, but remember to take earplugs for the remainder of the race.
My personal catalog of sounds has hundreds more, many of which will be used as I continue writing. I’m curious to know what some of your favorites are.