[The title, a quote from George Carlin, has little to do with this essay, but I’ve always wanted to use it for something.]
I spent my earliest years on a farm at the edge of the Florida Everglades. It was at the base of the central ridge, where the prairie country segues into the ’Glades as the elevation slopes imperceptibly toward sea level. Until I was about seven we had no electricity. Our lighting was kerosene lamps. We had a wonderful, cacophonous silence: no radios, no television, and only a few human voices.
For the grownups, evening recreation was getting together in the “canasta house” — a little screened-in building open to the humid breeze — and playing cards or just telling stories. For a small boy with no other kids to play with, it was sitting in the darkness on the screened porch, comic books exhausted, and listening to that silence.
When you live away from lights, with only dim lights around you, the night takes on a palpability unknown to residents of towns and cities. In the flat prairie country of south-central Florida, in those days, visibility was so good that it was common to sit and watch thunderstorms playing out over the Gulf Stream, 75 miles to the east. I sat and watched the show, and the sounds closed around me.
At first, the nights seemed deathly silent. Then you began to realize that it seemed so only because the sound was omnipresent. Just as a person with rheumatism takes for granted the ringing in the ears caused by aspirin, one doesn’t at first notice the rich texture of the night sounds on the prairie. When you just sit and listen, though, the aural tapestry develops hundreds of colors, accented with bursts of more distinct hue that enter the consciousness almost like a flash of light in the visual world.
The background ringing of small frogs and insects was ever-present. The chirping of thousands of crickets and their relatives tended to be unnoticed until the one or two nearest — frightened into silence by your approach — decided again to take up their bows. Then it was as though an unseen guest had crept up on you, and you would start slightly before relaxing and enjoying the familiar tune.
The basses of the evening orchestra were the bullfrogs and pig frogs, the former with their deep “jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum,” and the latter a noise like a pig grunting — often mistaken for a gator’s grunt by newcomers until they actually heard a gator (and never again thereafter).
In the Winter the Chuck-Will’s-Widow, close cousin to the Whippoorwill of more northern regions, was essential to the performance. A Mockingbird might have been up late, or awakened from birdy dreams, and be declaring its possession of the surrounding territory. An occasional “peep” or quiet mutter from nearby shrubbery would attest to the presence of other avians too sleepy — or leery of the farm cat — to venture away from their perches or nests.
Too rarely, we would hear the scream of a Florida panther — a voice now all but silenced permanently. Raccoons chattered. A possum might be heard rummaging for some marsupial treasure in the darkness at the side of the house. The Spotted skunks who lived under the back porch would rattle the cat’s dish as they came out to share his food, a process that seemed to bother him not at all. Mosquitoes whined. There were unidentified scrapings, scrabblings, and slithers in the grass. An armadillo’s shell might bump against the floor of the house. The weatherworn boards of the porch — and the house itself — creaked and settled with changes of temperature. There might be the buzz of an insect, caught inside the screen but drawn to the light of the full moon. Those were the night silences of the wet prairies.
The most evocative and lonely sounds of all were the sounds of men. Today we curse the cacophony of cars, trucks and other vehicles on the highway. Sound barriers are put along interstate roadways to reduce the impact of hundreds of tons of displaced air on our dwellings and neighborhoods. People who live near airports mount petitions to eliminate the same noisy contraptions that brought them to the Land of Retirement. Men are not moved pleasantly by the sounds of moving men.
But for the small boy on the screened porch, the sound of an airplane was an exciting rarity. Back then, the skies were not yet crowded. The occasional drone of an “airliner” overhead was sure to make every head raise and try to spot the location of those next-closest — and soon receding — human beings, unknown but envied on their trip to somewhere. On a calm night the slower, lower aircraft of those days might be heard for ten minutes or more, until finally the lonely drone receded into the distance and its perception back into the sound of the orchestra.
The sound of automobiles on the nearby “hard road” also amplified the solitude. Depending on wind direction, these could be heard for minutes,as well. The sound of a car approaching from far away — a single car more often than not — would always get your attention. The change in pitch, if it began to slow for some reason, was always a hopeful moment: “Maybe they’re going to turn in; who could it be?” Then a vague disappointment as the windy sound changed pitch and faded away.
The whine of the occasional big truck didn’t raise the same hopes, but was unusual enough to get your attention. The massive manual transmissions and gigantic differentials created a distinct noise that carried even more than the sounds of automobiles. A small boy, lying in bed beneath the sound of wind in the Australian pines, could listen to a passing truck until he fell asleep, while the orchestra outside played on.