Last night after work I met my wife out in the country for dinner. We met at our cabin in the mountains of Floyd County and ate at the picnic table outside since it was a cool evening. As we sat there, the idea of quiet came up in my mental checklist of reasons I like the mountains so much. Quiet, peaceful, uncomplicated- these are words I always consider during moments like that. In my daydreaming times when I am not in the mountains, I often picture myself sitting outside in the evenings watching the light fade and soaking in the quiet. That is a frequent “go-to” place for me, imagining that time when I look up at the sky and the dark silhouettes of trees seem to stand out as a vivid border between land and sky. There are no individual features in the trees, they are just vivid black shapes against whatever is left of the day. I like that time. And the quiet…. it is a nice place to be in a daydream and I go there often.
But…..like a lot of daydreams, reality doesn’t quite match up. Last night as we sat there quietly listening, the thing that just amazed me, as it always does, is the balance between light and sound. As the day fades, the sounds increase in a really incredible and almost eerie way. Frogs, cicadas, crickets, birds, and many more things I won’t even pretend to know the names of start their songs/chatter/calls, whatever words you want to assign them- and the sound grows and grows and grows to an amazing cacophony. The mountains in late summer and early fall are anything but quiet.
As I sat there listening, I tried to pick out individual sounds. The stream passing over rocks in its bed; breeze blowing through the trees; tree frogs calling to each other; crickets looking for each other; birds. All these sounds are there, all a part of a massive and complex soundtrack. I would occasionally walk from place to place to listen in a different spot and even the sound of walking gets added to the collective.
Sometimes the wall of sound seems a constant, sometimes it pulses with what I imagine is a call and response situation but on a huge scale. I assume what I think is a wall of sound is really hundreds of tiny voices all calling out to each other individually, but because of their number, the sound all gets blended together and becomes one thing. (If that is not true, please…nobody tell me otherwise, I like that idea!) Add to that the sounds that are always there, the breeze blowing through the trees, the occasional dog barking in the distance, the stream making its way over its rocky bed. It all adds up to a wonderfully complicated symphony. It also represents thousands of living things going about their business completely unconcerned with me or anything I am worrying about or thinking. Thousands of living things in a massive relationship with each other, with the trees, the mountain, the stream. All of them part of a community I will never really understand but am thankfully allowed a glimpse of through these night noises whenever I take the time to listen.
John Cage taught us that chance occurrences are art. Andy Warhol taught us that everyday objects are art. Andrew Goldsworthy taught us that shapes in nature are art. They are all correct, and I thought about them last night and what they taught us while standing there in the dark listening to these night noises. I am sure that each of them would sometimes just stand somewhere special just listening.
Since this blog is about Appalachian music and culture and I frequently make listening suggestions in it, today I suggest you spend a little time going outside in the evening and just listening. There is culture there. There is music there. Back to the three words that I always consider during special mountain moments- quiet, peaceful and uncomplicated? Quiet and uncomplicated are surely wrong, but the other- peaceful…… Yes indeed.