The Paths of Sounds
The house sits high up on a hillside, surrounded by etchings of valleys set down by streams. One of the valleys proved useful, once, a place where a wide road could go, so they cleaned out the bottom and sent four lanes of highway through it, winding up from the river. The sound from it isn't so intrusive: it is a background hum, louder in the summer when the windows are open. Sometimes sirens go by down there in the valley, and those are noticeable, but not unwelcome. The sirens are usually medical, and I take that as a signal of someone, somewhere, trying to help. The compression brakes on the trucks are a little bit loud, but there is enough of the lip of the hill to protect the house from most of that. I look forward to when the trucks are electric.
The main intrusions from the cars rise up from the traffic light at the bottom of our little valley, where the late afternoon angry commuters lean on their horns, mistaken in the impression that they have a button that will move things out of their way. It never works, but they don't stop trying.
On the far side of the nearby hills rolls a river, and in this part of the world the river's gift of flatness is often taken advantage of by rail. Trains roll through the valleys in snaking lines that run next to the water, sometimes upstream, sometimes down. When these trains come to crossings, they toot, powering many decibels through the air before them to warn those ahead they are coming.
There are nights they are distant, soft. There are nights when they are loud, close, and it seems as though they are here, in this valley, perhaps attempting to get through the traffic light. It is an illusion: it is when the clouds are just right to provide surface to send the sound up from the river valley back down into ours.
There is an airport near here, over there, off in that direction. Friends live closer to it on a common approach vector, and it's enough that sometimes conversations in their back yard need pause as a plane moves by overhead, uncannily slow, protestation loud. This house is under the same approach vector, but earlier, when the planes are higher, the engines tempered by distance.
There are nights, though, when the air is particular. The planes roll in, and just as the leading edge of the noise they make approaches, they unfold themselves, lowering landing gear and dropping the flaps. The transition makes a new noise, a deep shifting of tone and timbre, and on nights when the air is just right the roar becomes enormous, filling the sky.
Imagine yourself for a moment at the bottom of a stream valley, a place where a brook, a creek, a crick, a run, some small amount of water regularly wandered down the land to topple over into the river. All remnant of that is long gone, now: the spaces near rivers are too precious and flat in a place like this to be given over to troublesome water, and now here stands roads, parking lots, rails.
There is an old rail bed that used to be a useful path for moving trains, but has been abandoned for that, and now stands as a bike path and walking trail, a curiously unmechanized stripe of passage though an otherwise industrial space. It does not take too long to leave the valley of the stream entirely and find yourself in a new valley, the river valley: broader, wider, with a big blue sky. The river is a lazy sweep of water in the place between the banks, and the wind has found channel here, too. The breeze pushes into you gently as you walk the path,, making it harder going now but a comfort that the way back will be eased some. There is a low where the walkway meets the hillside that this path was originally carved from, a shallow cut like a large gutter at the bottom of the stone that crops out of the hill up above. In the low grow cattails, and you note them, but would likely not want to eat them.
In time, there is a bridge, old and overbuilt for its new purpose, staunchly carrying the bike path up and across the river to the other side. It is a strange mixture of pure brawn, iron and steel, with more modern touches of enameled railings and widened places for those strolling to stop and take in the view without being in the way. To stand on the bridge is to be over the river but yet within the valley, above so much activity down there on the flat water but still contained in space by the hills to either side. There are birds up there, large and circling, and in a moment you wonder what it would be to see what they see, without the attendant noise and clatter of propellers and metal. You resolve to look into hot air ballooning as you move across the bridge towards places you’ve heard of, places where dogs are welcome aside a hot drink, places where pretzels are sold in back alleyways, and where you might find a chess game as trains rumble by, below.
Imagine yourself for a moment at the bottom of a stream valley, a cleft in the earth made by water in time, the quick slopes to either side of you, covered in trees because it is too steep to build anything there. It is summer now, and the air is hot and close, but it is flowing down the valley gently toward you, past you, behind you toward the river. It is quietly refreshing, if you do not move too much. Slowly go, then, up into the valley, past the ball court and the old iron trestle.
The stream that carved this place is no longer here, zipped up underneath a soccer field, and hiding under scrubbed land left to nature, the unstable scrabble of weed and shrub, competing against the still too-small trees to make use of the soil and the sun. It’s all green, though, the meadow areas of rippling grasses that betray the breeze, the crowded canopies of the places where trees have won the battle with gravity. There is a softness to the air down here, as you walk along the path, the end of the valley invisible beyond the next turn, or turns, unknown.
The outside world of machines and metal creeps in a bit, but is still at distance. You can hear the hum of the world above, the grumble of engines and the warble of tires on worn asphalt, sometimes horns. It filters down over the tree tops, muted. You can see evidence, too, as an old and underpainted bridge leaps from lip to lip of the valley above you, an incongruous geometry amongst the patterned chaos of all those trees reaching haphazard for the light, leaves dancing in the winds. A plane may go by, high in the blue, the shimmering roar chasing after, offering you to look in the wrong place. It is difficult by any modern standard to ge where you stand, because you needed your feet, and only them, to arrive here in the quiet as you have.
Imagine yourself for a moment at the bottom of a stream valley, standing in front of a door to a building that you have never noticed before. It was painted dark blue once, lighter now from fading, and the door stands silent. There is a small notice about a turtle on the door post, but nothing else: what had once been a storefront is opaque painted panel now, plain, and it is empty above where a name may have been. There is a small square window in the door, but it is dark behind, and there is little to see. The knob is sturdy and firm, and the door opens with a solid click, opening up into a dim, cool space.
There are places here for shoes, and a sign too, requesting that you remove your shoes. Once that has been attended to, through the next door, plain and white with panels, to a new room with a warm wooden floor and a row of sinks, shelves of towels, soap. The sign asks that you wash your hands, and recommends a song to sing while washing so you wash them long. The towels are soft, and make short work of droplets. Another door, then, to another space.
This one is big, comfortable: the ceilings are high, so that conversation can be close, but not too loud. There is a big table to sit at, and some friends are already here, more behind you. There are enough chairs tonight, so everyone gets to set at the table. On the table is a large bowl of rice, a kettle of broth, a kettle of tea. You are given a bowl, and sit at the table, adding rice to the bowl or broth to the bowl and tea to your cup. Dishes appear from somewhere and are passed around: pickles, meats, vegetables, sauces, condiments. Each time something goes by, it gets added to the rice or broth or both in the bowl, each time something goes by, the flavors in the bowl deepen and change. Someone brings more rice, someone brings more tea.
It is easy to find the way out at the end of the evening, but most linger as they can. When it is finally time, step out into the little valley, squinting up at the sodium bulb of a streetlamp at the clear black sky, and remember to later look for stars.