There are rare mornings in the cove when my half-waking to a new day dawns in utter silence. For a blissful few moments, nothing stirs. No planes take off from across the bay at T.F. Green, their rumbling departures amplified by the acoustics of water and sky. No cars start in their driveways, idling in the cold, before coming and going along the narrow streets of the neighborhood. No garbage trucks clatter. No utility vehicles beep. No doors slam. The relentless screeching of the everyday manmade world hasn’t yet found its voice.
I thought of that this morning, when rain drummed against the windows, making its own pleasant waking music. For I have no quarrel with the wind or waves, thunder or rain, birdsong or even foghorn – one of the few human-created sounds that works in harmony with nature. There are noises that I welcome, so long as I am able to shut off the buzzing alarm before it begins its daily banshee call. But I’ve learned to appreciate any lingering silence wherever and whenever I find it.
In an interview with The Sun magazine, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton said that there may be only a dozen places in the country where a person can sit for 20 minutes without hearing a plane fly overhead or some other manmade noise. And Rhode Island isn’t one of them.
Examples are legion. Even my favorite places, such as the woods behind Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington, where the toll for moving through meditation and scenery is enduring a steady soundtrack of dull, distant traffic relentlessly motoring back-and-forth along the Wampanoag Trail, resounding across the water like a dying dentist’s drill. I went there on Saturday, before going to the library, where I found a seat in the “designated quiet area” next to two people who talked incessantly for two solid hours. Remember when whole libraries were “designated quiet areas?” How long before we have to start designating quiet areas in forests and churches?
My annual camping trip in the Maine woods used to end every night with the distant sound of the crashing waves against the rocks and the occasional disturbance of drunken harmonica or nearby bursts of laughter around the fireplace. Now, however, it is a constant parade of remote vehicle doors opening and locking. Where once there were ravens, now there are ring tones; owls in the pines have given way to car alarms.
As I type these words, another siren wails down High Street in Wakefield. The sirens are everywhere, even in once sleepy South County. I hear them constantly, whether jogging the bike path in Barrington, playing tennis at Hope High School in Providence, or spraying golf balls at Windmill Hill in Warren. These days, even recreation and reverie are merely fleeting pleasures between sirens; the cry of emergency is the default sound setting of civilization.
Hempton makes the point that all places once had a unique sonic identity, but everywhere people live now sounds like traffic. Artist Bill Fontana’s much-maligned sound installation of Rhode Island birdsong at the Kent County Courthouse makes this point rather eloquently. In the sprawl of Route 2, the birds that once sang these songs have been driven out – grasses and trees supplanted by concrete, wildlife replaced by chrome and engines. In this kind of world, the honking goose has become more invasive than the honking cab.
So is there a place in this state, outside of perhaps Block Island, where human sound rarely if ever intrudes? Where is your favorite quiet place in Rhode Island?