The Sound of Silence
The myth of rural tranquility
“If you can’t write on a farm, you can’t write anywhere.” These words haunt me still.
envy you living on a farm,” people tell me wistfully. “All that peace and quiet.”
I just smile and nod. I long ago decided not to dash their fantasies, but the truth is this place is anything but quiet to me. How could I explain to them about the constant soundtrack of our days on these 225 acres?
Before my eyes open each morning, I hear the marching band tuning up. The world’s white noise flows freely through this porous farmhouse with the hollow heart-pine walls and thin, wavy glass. Lying in the darkness, I sense more than hear the wee, still hours receding into the whoosh of early-morning highway commuters. The shrill beep-beep-beeping of heavy equipment at the neighbor’s gravel pit carries across the open field and pierces the sanctuary of our sleep. The renter’s tires crunch on the gravel and clatter across the iron cattle grate as she slips away to a paycheck in thecity. I play a little game with myself called “Guess What Time It Is Without Looking at the Clock.”
Sunrise brings the familiar refrain of little feet hitting the floor. Tap water cascading into a glass coffee carafe. Dryer door banging shut. Chairs scraping on the kitchen floor. The phone ringing. “Yeah, it’s good, fertilized hay,” I hear my husband tell a caller –– in the perpetually amped-up volume of somebody raised with six siblings. (Harvey has many talents, but, as I must often remind him, whispering is not one of them.) He turns the TV way up during the seven-day forecast. There’s a tentative tapping on the back door –– a hay customer or maybe a hired hand.
Many years ago, someone at a big-city cocktail party casually philosophized on the subject of peace and quiet in the countryside: “If you can’t write on a farm, you can’t write anywhere.” Those words haunt me still. After 18 years on a farm, I am not sure writing is one bit easier than it was in midtown Atlanta. Sometimes, ironically, I believe it is harder.
In the big city, there was rarely a knock at my door, and the comings and goings of the humanity beyond it did not involve me. Here on the farm, my office is situated not 6 feet from the driveway. Farm traffic passes within spitting distance of my window. Some days it’s a trickle, but most days it’s a stampede.
Hay customers in rumbling diesel pickups with rattling gooseneck trailers jar my concentration. I try but cannot completely ignore the postal carrier whizzing past in her funny little left-handed truck or jabbering on her phone while she stuffs mail into the box on the other side of my office wall. Old ladies looking for you-pick greens pull in and toot their horns for service. Meter readers and diesel delivery trucks and fertilizer spreaders invade the solitude of my thoughts. Every so often, the county’s road-grading machine appears out of the blue and makes several earth-shaking passes up and down the driveway.
Above it all, I hear Harvey. To paraphrase an old song by Maria McKee, I know the sound of his wheels. The growl of his tractor throttling up and down the road. The familiar hum of his F150 as it lightly speeds past. The metallic thunk of his truck door slamming. His noises distract me the most, not because they are the loudest but because I cannot prevent my mind from trying to interpret them: Why is he going so fast? Is something wrong? Does he need my help? Has there been a breakdown? Where is he going? Why is he stopping here? Is it time for lunch?
Not even sunset brings total relief from the din. On summer nights, we catch plaintive blasts of music from the open windows of passing cars. We feel and hear the menacing boom-boom-boom of an approaching rap fan from 200 yards up the highway. Swarms of insects flap and flutter against the windowpanes. The deafening chorus of croaking bullfrogs from the pond near the house seeps in through closed windows. When our oldest son was very small, I discovered he was lying in his bed at night worrying because he thought the frogs were hollering: “Help me! Help me!”
When the humidity is low, snippets of voices broadcast far and wide across the darkened landscape. Dogs bark all night at faraway sounds only they can detect. Once, we saw a vehicle’s taillights stopped up the road and then heard heated voices and a woman screaming. Harvey went to investigate, but they were gone by the time he got there. Back when we were living in the farm’s little cabin set back 1,000 feet from the road, we were jolted awake at 1:30 one cold morning by the explosion of a high-powered rifle. Illegal spotlighters fired three times at a deer grazing between the cabin and the highway. They, too, split before the sheriff’s department arrived.
The weather will not be ignored, either. On winter nights the wind barrels unchecked across a wide open pasture and funnels itself full-fury through the carport. It whistles around the corners of our drafty farmhouse and shakes the glass doors on the fireplace. It rustles the live oaks with the furious hiss of a million maracas. The rusty roof turbines whine like a squadron of B-52s. The tinny plink of raindrops on sheet metal echoes down the exhaust pipe of the stove hood.
It did not take me long after arriving here to figure out that tales of peace and quiet on the farm were greatly exaggerated. Desperate to write undisturbed, I rented an office in town, a former storefront insurance agency on the main drag. Apart from 18-wheelers vibrating the big plate glass window as they thundered by, I spent my days largely in silence. I worked in a windowless tomb down a long, dark hallway where I saw or heard almost nothing.
Unless I walked down the street to buy a Coke at the drugstore, I might go all day without talking to another human being. Sometimes Harvey would unexpectedly pop in and take me to lunch, and I would feel as grateful as a shut-in.
After a couple of years, I found myself going to the office in town less and less. I finally decided to give it up and take over my father-in-law’s rarely used office at the farm. Really, it made no sense to be paying rent and utilities when there was an ideal little spot going to waste right there at the farm.
Besides, to be completely honest, all that peace and quiet in town was just about to drive me crazy.