I SPENT my earliest years on a farm at the edge of the Florida Everglades. It was at the base of the central ridge, at the edge of the prairie country that segues into the Everglades as the elevation slopes imperceptibly toward sea level. Until I was about seven we had no electricity. Our lighting was by 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 house open to the humid breeze, playing canasta or just telling stories. For a small boy, with no other kids to play with, evenings meant sitting in the darkness on the screened porch – comic books exhausted, not yet sleepy – listening.
When you live away from lights, with only dim lights around you, the night takes on a life of its own, unknown to the residents of towns and cities. Visibility was so good in those days, in the flat prairie country of south-central Florida, that it was common to sit and watch the thunderstorms raging over the Gulf Stream 75 miles to the east. I sat and watched the show, and the sounds closed around me.
At first, prairie nights seem deathly silent. Then you begin to realize that it seems so only because the sounds are 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 night on the prairie, but for those who really listen, and bother to learn what they’re hearing, the aural tapestry becomes orchestral.
A background ringing of small frogs and insects is ever-present. Hundreds of fiddling crickets and their relatives go unnoticed until the one or two nearest — frightened into silence by the listener’s approach — decide to again take up their bows. Then it is as though an unseen guest had crept up alongside, and you start ever so slightly before relaxing and enjoying the tune.
The basses of the evening orchestra are the bullfrogs and pig frogs, the former with their deep “jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum,” and the latter with, well, a noise like a pig grunting. Pig frogs are often mistaken for a ’gator’s grunt by newcomers until they actually hear a ’gator, but never thereafter. The woodwinds and strings are the smaller tree frogs and toads, and — of course — the crickets.
For much of the year the chuck-will’s-widows, close cousins to the whippoorwills of more northern regions, perform as well. Their other cousins, the bull-bats (nighthawks), add their oddly electronic-sounding peents in the late evening, but their performances end when it is fully dark and they can no longer see the flying insects that they snatch from the air on the wing. When the moon is full, though, they hang around until closing time.
A mockingbird might be up late, or awakened from birdy dreams and declaring its possession of the surrounding territory. An occasional “peep” or quiet mutter from nearby shrubbery attests to the presence of other grounded aviators, too sleepy to venture away from their perches or nests, or too leery of the barred owl hooting off in the distant woods.
Rarely, we would hear the scream of a Florida panther, a voice now all but silenced. The smaller bobcats were common in the area, and often added their quieter yowls to the concert. Raccoons chattered, fighting over a fat crawdad down by the ditch, or a particularly choice morsel of garbage from the compost heap. A ’possum might be heard rummaging for some marsupial treasure in the darkness at the side of the house. The civet cats who lived under the back porch would rattle the cat’s dish as they came out to share his food, with the fifteen-pound yellow tiger eating alongside.
Mosquitoes whined. There were unidentified scrapings, scrabblings, and slithers in the grass. The weatherworn boards of the porch and the house itself would creak with temperature changes, or as it settled slightly on the pilings that extended through the muck to the bedrock below. You might hear 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.
In my memory, though, the most evocative and lonely sounds of all were the sounds of men. Today we curse the noise of cars, trucks and such on the highway. Sound barriers are put along Interstates to reduce the impact of the thousands of tons of displaced air on our streets 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 much moved by the sounds of moving men.
But back then the skies were not crowded. For the small boy on the screened porch, the sound of an airplane was an exciting rarity. The occasional drone of an “airliner” overhead was sure to make every head raise and try to spot the location of those closest – too soon receding – human beings; people unknown but envied for 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 too could be heard for minutes at a time. A car approaching from far away – a single car more often than not – always got 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?” And then a vague disappointment as the windy sound dopplered into recession, fading quickly 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 truck until he fell asleep, while the orchestra played on.