Off Neck / Seasons

Heirloom Sounds

I miss the Cape Racer, even though I never got to ride on one. Unfortunately, they don’t make them anymore. It was a wooden ladder-like sled with metal runners that was used to haul smelt-fishing supplies—and, presumably, fish—on and off the frozen lakes

I thought of it when I heard some of our senior citizens talking about flying along the back roads on their cape racers, with sentinels strategically placed to forestall collisions with cars and trucks. And I would like to share their recollections of riding to school on snowy days on the back of my father’s snowshoes, as some of them used to do.

The loss of old objects and practices made me think of a hidden extinction. I wondered about the loss sounds familiar in former times. How many people remember the sound of such a sled, or the creaking sound of an old leather snowshoe harness? What else are we missing from our sonic environment—or in danger of losing?

One of the earliest sounds I can remember was the rotary blade, hand-propelled lawnmower. It is a mnemonic of time and place, and I miss it, in part because it opens up the rich possibilities of recollections released by savoring sound. We are accustomed to seeing old photos. Old sounds are more or less confined to music. We should start a new concept: the mind’s ear.

Mr. Hankner, our next-door neighbor during my toddler-to-third-grade years, mowed his immaculate lawn on summer evenings just beneath my bedroom window and I loved to hear the rattling, clipping-clatter, winding noise of his ancient, sharp, well-oiled mower.

As he reached the end of each row and turned to come back to the top of the yard, the blades would suddenly whir freely as he turned and realigned himself for the return trip. His yard was only a postage stamp of grass, but he kept it trimmed with regimental precision. Then, after mowing, he would put the nozzle on his hose and water, and I would drift off to sleep lulled by the soft hissing of artificial rain on his roses, peonies, and velvet lawn.

Whenever I tried to use our own hand mower, it never made the pleasing sewing-machine sounds of Mr. Hankner’s—just huffing and puffing. That would be my own, huffing and puffing. I begged dad for a gas-powered mower, and efficiency won over aural tradition.

Dad liked calligraphy pens. I loved the scratching sound that he made as he practiced Cyrillic letters—even his signature had a Cyrillic look to it. Imagine the sound of ice skates biting the pond and you have the sound of his pen on paper. Needless to say, the sound of dipping pen in ink is also an extinct whisper now.

I’ve been thinking of words as a kind of heirloom sound too.

Many are linked with a type of landscape that is fast disappearing, or inhabitants of the landscape who are no longer around to describe it—like snowshoe tail riders. We seem to have a lot of great words for flowing water of various kinds—rapids, rips, riffles and rills; seeps and sinks—that aren’t in frequent use. Certainly those water sounds and distinctive ways of running downhill haven’t gone away. But would it be fair to say there are fewer people who will stop and listen to it, and use the tried and true names for particular qualities of such flow?

I just learned the term “jackstraw timber,” an apt description for the jumbled thickets created when a stand of trees has enough fallen or blown-down members to resemble the old children’s game called pick-up sticks—an heirloom game…remember the sound of the sticks falling?

We are, of course, making new heirloom sounds all the time. Some of today’s most common sounds may be destined for the sound heap of history, like Mr, Hankner’s mower. Perhaps the internal combustion engine is a future heirloom sound? One can only hope so. It would help restore the sound of riffles of water.

Even if the old sounds are gone, it’s never too late to restore an appreciation of the subtleties of experience hidden in simple sonic places. Has anyone heard the sound of one hand clapping recently? Silence is an heirloom sound too. I hope that’ll always be savored in living memory.

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.

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