Saturday, May 14, 2011
Driving down sixth street this morning on my way into town, a jet airplane passes overhead, on approach to Eugene airport. The sound is one of those sounds that locates me in my world. As it recedes, I realize I know this sound in many nuances; I could tell you if the airplane is taking off or landing, whether it’s commercial or military, whether it’s driven by a propeller or a jet engine.
Other sounds and smells are like this too, a backdrop of the world I’ve lived my life in. There’s the sound of a Volkswagen engine, for example, which is instantly recognizable to me. There’s the sound of a bicycle chain humming through its gear teeth, the sound of a computer disc drive, the sound of pen on paper, the sound of pages turning in a book, and the sound of an espresso machine.
Some of these sounds would be unknown to a citizen of another century. Some of the sounds and smells I grew up with are not well known now, like the hiss of a wick burning in an oil lamp, or the sound of reins on a horse’s back, or the creak of a wagon wheel. These are sounds I barely knew, at the beginning of my life, and then they were gone.
I imagine that other sounds are timeless. These sounds could connect me to a person from any age, if I had the great good luck to be able to travel to another time. Or if someone from many centuries ago came here, I could assure him that this was still a human world, in spite of all the strange machines. I could reassure him by frying food in a skillet, treating him to the sounds and smells of a meal being prepared. I could take him to a pub, where he would hear people talking and laughing and making music.
We could walk down a deserted path in a park on a quiet afternoon, and the sound of his footsteps on the pavement would be the same, even if he was from Sumeria, six thousand years ago. I could sit on the ground at the edge of a high meadow, next to a hunter-gatherer from 17,000 years ago, share an apple with him. And for that moment when we were sharing food, the gulf of time and culture between us would mean nothing.
At the parking garage, I wave the keycard at the little red light. It beeps electronically, another sound that’s come to define my world. The tires squeak on the concrete. I reach forward, touch a button to silence the radio announcer. When I step out of the car, I can hear wind blowing through leaves, and the voices of people talking as they walk to the market. It’s a hodgepodge of sounds, some just here/now, others that have been with us as long as there have been people.
Every sensory experience comes to us with depth, a collection of applied and acquired meanings. We can travel on them, to far times and places. And we can also come back, on them, to the unqualified moment of now. We can let go of the layers of meaning one by one, just allow them to fall away, until only the sensory event itself is left.
And then, we are just here.