Monday, October 11, 2010

SOUND ACROSS WATER – Listening to the Past

I have this romantic notion in my head about the way sound carries over an expanse of water. The image that keeps coming to mind is that of a central Minnesota lake around the end of the 19th century. It could be any lake—perhaps one that's buoyant in your memory.


In my reverie I see families who've come by horse and wagon to spend the long summer afternoon swimming, boating and reveling in the crystal clear waters. Laughter shimmers across the water in small, agreeable waves, eventually washing up on every shore.

As evening draws in around the lake, lovers row aimlessly, never beyond sight of the dock—but lost anyway. By nightfall, most have gone home, but a few campfires wink from surrounding woods. You can practically hear a whisper across the lake.

You’ve been here before, haven't you? In your childhood, or maybe just in your imagination? What is it about a scene like this that so captures our imagination?

Is it the purity, the utter care-free simplicity of a more innocent time (or at least a time I have the luxury of being able to render with poetic license)? I guess that goes without saying for us slow-it-down, soak-it-in romantics. But there's more to it than that, something about how the mood gets carried in those sounds.

I know there are scientific reasons for how sound waves carry across water—something about the water surface and the cooler air just above it combining to contain and channel them. But that doesn't interest me as much as the symbolic meaning.

            These sounds—if we let them—draw us in. 
            Whether we like what we hear or not, they 
            connect us, define us, define our community.

For me, sound is spatial. I think of the way the great, spreading American elm tree defines the space under and around its huge, fountain-shaped canopy. Like the shade of such a tree, sound involves everything it can reach. If you're a city dweller, it might be the muddled shouts and laughter stirring the thick summer evening air from the baseball diamond a block or two away.

If your neighborhood's a little rougher, it might be less pleasant things. Whatever the source, these sounds—if we let them—draw us in. Whether we like what we hear or not, they connect us, define us, define our community.

Imagining once more that idyllic summer evening at the lake, that sense of community is somehow intensified. With no competing noise, the clarity and reach of that laughter, those campfire conversations and lovers' whispers, seems funneled to our ears. They wrap around us. And the symbolism of their having to reach across such a chilling, empty space makes the connection feel all the more intimate.

Maybe that's part of it for me—a longing for community. Don't you feel, sometimes, that we're losing that sense of sharing a beloved place or space, of belonging to one another? That everyone's just in it for themselves?

Perhaps, but—to borrow a visual metaphor—why curse the darkness when we could light a candle? Listening for the vital signs of community doesn't mean we have to live other people's lives nor fix all the world's problems. All we have to do is pay attention, listen with our hopes and our hearts, and care what we hear.


Charlie Mac said...

Beautiful images. Brings me back to my youth.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Charlie Mac. It may be a little harder these days to find those sweet, simple times. But they are still to be had with a little creativity and our willingness to surrender to the moment. As a fellow romantic, you know what I mean.

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