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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sounds of Silence

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Bonnie Auslander on the pros and cons of snowblowers.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. There’s nothing like the quiet in the city in a big snowstorm. The passing of an occasional car is muffled by all the white padding, and when the flakes stop falling, all seems to be calm. And that’s when commentator Bonnie Auslander likes to head outside with her shovel.

AUSLANDER: It felt good to have the winter sun warm my neck and to hear the sound of my shovel scraping along the concrete, but after 15 straight minutes of lifting heavy, snow, I had to take a break. Besides, I had errands to run, and I figured I'd do the rest when I came back.

When I got home, though, the entire sidewalk was bare, surrounded by angled walls. It looked like someone had helped himself to a long strip of white sheet cake. It didn't take long to figure out who: my neighbor Jim had been by with his snow blower. "I can do the whole sidewalk in just 10 minutes with one of these babies," he boasted when he appeared a few minutes later, patting the top of the contraption like it was a snow pile-eating puppy.

I thanked him, of course, but inside I felt disappointed. And amused. Here was my neighbor, fondling a machine that filled our yards with a nerve-grating roar and the stench of gasoline. Yet this is the same sweet elderly man who always makes his dog – the real one, I mean – sit still so my toddler can pat him, and who in the summer brings over cherry tomatoes from his garden.

I was caught in a paradox. I knew I should be happy that Jim wouldn't be dropping dead from a heart attack after shoveling, and I recognized it was easy for me to romanticize snow removal because I didn't have to do it very often. And yet I mourned the older, quieter days, apparently more than he did. All of which led me to ponder the flavors of silence.

On an unmechanized Amish farm, it's the first thing that captures your attention, much like the saying that silence is the sound after the baby stops crying. Or is silence really just as simple as no noise? Once, I heard a film editor explain that in the movies a subtle sound conveys the feeling of silence so much better than the total absence of noise.

For example, want to get across surreal stillness after an explosion? You need to pump up the sound of tiny pebbles as they hit the ground.
So maybe we need a small noise campaign so that we can all appreciate the quiet better, especially that muffled silence after a snowfall. I'll start. I'll wait till Jim goes inside, then sneak to my back-yard walkway, still untouched by his machine. And I'm going to listen very, very carefully to the sound of silence. To the sound of wind moving across the snow. To the sound of one woman, shoveling. She sounds happy.



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