I was ready to get away from the hustle and bustle of Boston and relax in the deep south of New England, eastern Long Island. No one calls it the deep south, but they cannot show the rain about to hit Providence without an image of Long Island’s twin forks. Also, Connecticut laid claim to some towns on the east end in the 1600’s. Being the deep south, people moved as if they were on vacation and pass the time of day being cordial. Outside the shops on the south fork, there’s even water dishes for the canine squads. People exchange pleasantries about their brood.
And like the south, there are generational families here that trace back to the early days of Southampton, or the whaling era of Sag Harbor. That’s where my ancestors fit it. So to visit in the summer is a home coming of sorts. I find out what’s running (weakfish), visit a few farm stands for the local greens and potatoes, and plot out our dinner. The place we stay has fantastic bay views and a healthy lawn. As we finally stretched out on the chase lounges for a much needed break, soothed by the lapping of the waves and occasional seagull yelp, I could just make out a low whirring in the distance. The noise gets closer, and then it’s upon us: a flurry of lawn mowers, weed whackers, and blowers grooming the lawn with the attention of a masseuse for Kolbe beef. It’s Thursday, and out east they should call it grass day. In one of the deep south’s most beloved rituals, Thursday and Friday are typically the days for primping the grounds for the weekend. The peace that was just settling into our beings is freshly sliced to reveal a jittering of nerves and inability to concentrate on anything, our quiet countenance bagged up and compacted in the grass catcher. We go inside and wait for the vortex of activity to swirl on to the next property. We had to admit we were powerless over the engulfing sound of the grass ritual.
But by the weekend we were lucky. A good friend invites us for a sail on Little Peconic Bay. Not a yacht, just a perfect thirty foot sloop. Comfortable enough to make the ride pleasant, but with sufficient design to sail like a racer. Our target was to make Greenport for a late lunch. The four of us, two couples, had shared many sailing adventures in the past and had not seen each other for a while, so we looked forward to catching up. The most magical time on a sailboat is the moment you cut the engine and move onward with only the wind filling the sails. You no longer have to raise your voice, you can hear the strumming of the wind against the rigging, the various groans as metal wires strain against the breeze, and waves slapping the hull as it slices through the brine. Looking back, I relate to our group a google search I did on Holmes Hill. The first hit was a You-tube video of a pack of trail motorbikes using the hill as their Mount Everest. They gunned their engines and competed to see who could make it to the top of this steep monumental sand dune. The voices – if there were any – were completely obscured by the roar of the engines. The sounds that I remember when climbing to the top – my own labored breathing, rustling of the beach plum bushes in the east wind, a kind of squeaking sound as your bare feet gain purchase in the sand – all of that is obscured by the blaring resonating blast of their engines. However, here out in a delightful Peconic it is so satisfyingly pleasant with the heat of the sun and slow rise and fall of our craft, that we adjust the sails and turn our attention to that which is effecting us now: the advancing age of our parents and how to cope with the dueling needs of their independence/dependence. Our conversation was just entering that moment of mutual empathy and coping strategies when the first waves of thunder enter our space. Not from a summer storm, no, instead it’s a fire-engine red Donzi race boat sporting a rooster tail of carved water, its 2,700 horse power hardly sweating at over 40mph and heading in our direction. While the speed of this vessel almost outpaces its sound, it’s the sound that hits us first, forcing us to stop our talk. Without word, we change our heading to anticipate a wake, and as the roar builds to an earsplitting rumble, we see the iconic middle aged man at the wheel and younger bikini-clad woman alongside him, eyes straight ahead, with blank looks as if they were in a sensory isolation chamber. We remain silent for the passing, and then turn back to our original heading and try to remember where we were in our conversation. Just as we are about to begin, a swarm of jet-ski’s approaches. These motor-cycles of the sea are probably fun for those riding them: blindingly fast acceleration, tight turns, and unlimited freedom from driving constraints and noise, noise, noise to confirm your power. They move like a hive, splitting up to pass on our starboard and to port seemingly without direction. The crucial moment of our conversation is pushed out through our ears and we realize we have to turn our lives over to the noise as we understand it.
And then it’s Sunday, the day of rest. We meet a dear friend from Sag Harbor. Together we walk the path of whalers from her quaint village home into town to enjoy some sweets, but more importantly, her company and tales of the past. As is inevitable with age, she wears hearing aids so we have to enunciate clearly and talk slowly. As we amble down the historical main street, there is a scuffle of arguing dogs, owners straining to keep them separated. We halt our talk and gingerly rush by, hoping to avoid being drawn into the fray’s jaws. As our friend is dispensing some relevant pearls of wisdom picked up over a lifetime of meeting interesting people and events, we slow our walk to listen more intently. And then it happens. It’s the Sunday ride and a parade of over 100 motorcycles invade. The resonating rumble of their internal combustion engines drowns out any words. You can almost feel the deep throated sound hit your body as much as you ears. Conversation stops, not just for us but all those lining the street. Even the dogs halt their bickering. Surprisingly, the motorcyclists avoid any simple classification. They are young and old, bearded or clean shaven, men and women. We are all forced to stand at attention for the sound parade.
Eventually we return to the place by the bay and prepare to return to Boston. Back to the lounges we stretch out, sun making a blaze of light off the bay and we listen to the waves and birds. We try to catch a moment of serenity to sustain us during the upcoming week of hectic urban jobs. And then we feel a slight sensation in our guts. Unlike food poisoning, it’s more like the fibrillations of a quiver experienced during a horror movie when the subsonic base kicks in. I can just start to hear a deep thrumming in the lowest register. As I look to the skies, initially I see nothing but can now clearly pick up helicopter sounds. Then as the chariots of the one percent come into view we are blasted by the full sonic envelope and retreat inside. We close all the doors, windows and shades, lying on the bed in a darkened room. We play our favorite ocean sounds recording through headphones, and close our eyes.
It was in this moment of internal bliss that I realized I was not without fault, too. I began searching and made a fearless moral inventory of the noise I make. There is my coffee bean grinder and playing the radio first thing in the early morning; ignoring the Thursday ritual and cutting my lawn Sunday morning; playing opera on the stereo full volume with the windows open; and on. I started to recall all the neighbors l upset with my lack of awareness and wondered how I could make amends. And realized I had to make a direct reckoning with those I had harmed, as long as doing so would not cause additional damage. I would go to the hardware store as soon as I got home. I had an epiphany! I will buy dozens of foam earplugs for everyone on my list! Thus having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, I try to carry this message to noise makers and to practice these principles in all our noisy affairs.