Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down – Seamus Heaney
Now, I’ve come to enjoy sounds. Not noise. But sounds—that cacophony of noise that blends and blurs, that mingles and meshes and creates harmony. The world is an instrument, and we are its bows. The world is a symphony, and opera, and we are its choir. The world is a very loud music hall, if one will only listen. The world, with its concordia discors of noise: now, a ticking clock, the whirr of heated air through vent, an orange tabby licking his paw, the hum of a fridge, the drip of a water-fountain; then, the heater, like an organ so dominating, ceases; the chirping birds, flutes, take over the moment; all other instruments are given their space, and even the silent breathing from a human is heard, along with the scratching of pen on paper—like that noise a boy makes when he digs dirt with stick; that rustling, too, of hand with cardboard, as the digger holds and fondles the journal-cover with his hand. It’s that rustling that reminds him of squirrels on trees, their claws scratching wood, as if the digger, with his stick moving earth, must hold back nature lest it interrupt his work.
They say pages are leaves, and the noise they make when turned sounds like the rustling of a leaf or two under the walker’s foot. Perhaps, the writer is no more than a walker and digger. Perhaps, each page is his dirt, each pen his stick, each turned page a new field to furrow. I remember as a boy often digging in the yard, or, on the creek bank. I remember those sounds, the subtle scrape against dirt and stone. It’s so subtle it’s loud. Anyone who grew up a digger, like me, would know. That boy doesn’t just feel the different in texture, that difference between damp clay, dry dirt, soaked mud, and rocks; he hears the difference; and he knows the difference. Because hearing is knowing. He grew up before, and during, the age of noise; he experienced that transition in he world, when sounds were replaced with noise—so much noise the sounds were nearly drowned out. He can’t help but hear that familiar humming of the vehicle always as a backdrop to his memory. The city creek was an odd mixture of natural noise and created noise; like the blending of Beethoven’s Sixth with the ominous buzzing of Hans Zimmer.
The most beautiful instrument is the human. Now, the silent morning welcomes a distant 757; the nearby vehicles roar, now a smaller plane, perhaps a Cessna, murmurs. The human is an animal of noise. Silence is golden, but it is not always natural. Perhaps, it is our struggle. Perhaps, we forget, perhaps we have forgotten, in the past one hundred odd years, the unending joy of good noise—noise that elevates to sound and symphony. Perhaps our civilization has grown too old to appreciate the noise of the digger—that we have grown so old we are afraid of hearing, listening, afraid of what, or who, we might hear. The most beautiful instrument is the human. The most beautiful sound is the voice. A songbird chimes this morning again against the backdrop of a 757, that other bird. A dog barks, just once, and then sliding windows snap and introduce small Latino voices. Nothing is louder than that voice. On a pale evening, when the digger is tired of digging, tired of reading the voices of the dead, he hears, often, the most endearing sounds flow through the walls. That familiar sound of his next door neighbor. That familiar voice yelling his familiar words in his familiar way. That “Rocky!” ringing through the air. Sound more lovely than anything else on earth. A man may hear it through the den of a hundred other noises. And he may do so because he knows it well. It is familiar territory, familiar dirt of another sort he has come to find has unending depth.
Every home has particular sounds. I once lived in a house in northeastern Iowa that creaked and croaked like an old man. It was built in 1918, and the wood stairs echoed throughout the house. We became experts at listening to those steps, at knowing whether a human or a cat descended them. If it sounded like a giant tearing through the place, we knew it was my father; if it sounded like a small child, trying its darndest not to make a noise, we knew it was only our cat. Other floorboards lay in their specific way, and one learned which to avoid at night. My current home is not so old; built in the 1970s, it is a young boy compared to that house. Yet it has its own creaks. In my bedroom, just to the right of the door, the floor squeaks, as if out of place. Sometimes, when I am at my desk or sitting in my rocker, I will hear that familiar squeak. Then I will know that the orange tabby approaches.
I am a quiet man by trade. Apart from my digging, I try to listen rather than resound. Recently, though, I have begun enjoying the noise and sounds of cooking: clanging glasses and pots and pans tinging and ringing; ground turkey sizzling; water hissing and bubbling and boiling or slurping and swishing; noodles plopping; rice fluffing; that clunking of knife to cutting board that echoes about the kitchen; the slice of onion layers and crunch of green pepper; the slop-slop of raw chicken and crack-crack of raw eggs; the bubbling of sauces and dusting of salt; that pop of the toaster and then the crispy butter-spread with knife; the slurp of wooden spoon, digging through ingredients in a pot and sounding their depths. All these noises together, all these noises against that daily backdrop of Latino chatter, deep bass, sirens, and 757s, create their own song, their own moment. A good recipe should have a rhythm and depth to its sound as much as its taste. A meal, like worship, should encourage and please all senses. It is little different from the song of the digging boy; for it takes time, effort, and patience; the sound, as all good sound, should never be rushed.
My favorite story of digging is of the little boy and St. Augustine. Digging has a rhythm to it, like music, yet its rhythm is of a different nature; it is endless and therefore timeless. One may dig with their pen and come closer to understanding the Divine; the same man may realize that he still has an inexhaustible number of leaves to traverse before he begins understanding the Divine. He may learn, like Dante, that the best way up is first to look down; that if we will ever dig wide enough to fill our holes with the whole ocean, we need time and we need humility. That is, we will need proper humus, the stuff of the earth, from which we come, with its heavenly song.
The Jolly Mariner—Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Painting: “A Man Digging Potatoes”
By Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
Oil on canvas, 1890