Reading Life Aloud

Late in the evening the wail of a siren.

We had not heard any gun shots, though they are frequent enough these days to elicit shrugs. Neighborhood dogs start to howling, echoing the alarm, filling in their own parts in harmony. The air is stickered with it, like a collage with scraps of noise, pasty smears of sound. But it’s nighttime and the sounds make their way sightlessly until they find an ear, any ear. The noise of day with its throngs of listeners is retired now, and the evening runs things its own way.

Lacking earlids we live with sound’s endless impressions. We are always hearing, always soaking in sound’s pressing embrace. I like to tap on glass to hear what it is, to hear its clarity. In the seashell we hear the sea. In the wind rustled leaves, music. Halted in traffic, the signature of a culture comes booming from a nearby truck. Idle chatter or clarion calls, these pings and flourishes are themselves the markers of silence.

Out in the desert, away from roads and towns, the markers come from another quarter. It’s the yips of coyote or the serrated hum of insects that mark the silence. A pause in the mute dark recalls the ghosts of the sounds that had once passed this way.

Sirens or crickets, a gap, a faint distant ring. Like prospectors, we pan the grit and soil of our hearing, looking for specks and nuggets of silence. But a simple lack of sound is an artifact of subtraction. The quiet we found was there all along. We are to silence as fish are to water.

And the city, weary of its own bleats and braying, finally settles down. The dogs too, now that they’ve had their say.

—o—

There is wildness in the mechanical lurching of interleaved parts. Eagerness in the hum of transformers. You can feel it in the finger gliding sheen across chrome steel and in the abrasions of puckered tree bark. It all plies soundly in the aggregate. I see as beached waves, their edges traced in foam, the mark and sign of the human. The beasts we call tame reflect the wilderness of an unchecked procession. I do not condemn it. I take delight in these civil surfaces with their attendant racket and classify the most garish of artifice as natural.

I have looked for the dividing line between nature and us. It is ambiguous and replaceable. It is indistinct. There is always the wild, partisan little weed erupting from a crack in our concrete cornucopia. There is no edge to the wilderness, any more than you can assign a shape to infinite space. There are no sounds outside of silence. There are no unwild things.

—o—

World views define the qualities of nature, and a world view always selects one thing over another. But nature itself has its finger in every pie. Nature is its own nature, and we the curious, eager to understand, confront the absurdity of cataloging it all. It is troublesome that understanding lacks closure, that it’s always cutting another notch. But how we love the language, with all its baggage, hailing a taxi, catching a plane, late as usual for another explanation.

The manuscripts, tucked away in a folder, are themselves mute. The stamps and sprinkles of ink rest upon the paper, waiting for us. Waiting for our eyes and mouths. Then, to complete the purpose of language, we are born, we come to letters. But first, we come to know by reading life aloud.

—x—

About the image: I had placed some red wine in a small blue ceramic cup on the offering shelf and days later found it had dried to form a tiny crystalline planetarium.

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