Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A deafening silence

(photo: singing pine forest near Anemotia)

When I visit Holland it strikes me that there is noise everywhere — highways, airplanes and other disturbing ‘background’ sounds. It is said that more than half of the cities in Europe have to put up with sound pollution. Maybe this background noise is not considered to be pollution proper, but the fact is there is never any silence in Holland.

The truth is that this island is also seldom silent. But the noises here are mostly produced by nature. The only disturbing sounds made by human beings come from building sites, motor bikes, small trucks from which people sell vegetables, fish or clothes, even furniture and try to gather customers by shouting through megaphones; radios with the volume turned up to accompany workers; very loud music celebrating a Greek party night or a wedding — and the Greeks themselves who are in the habit of talking pretty loudly.

The other noises you hear are made by the wind, the sea, rain, barking dogs, tingling bells of sheep and goats, howling foxes, singing birds and especially cicadas that probably produce the loudest natural noise here, especially on hot days when you are lying in your hammock trying to have an afternoon nap. When cicadas are screaming in your ears you can forget sleep. The only solution is to forget the nap.

There are less melodious sounds that can wake you up. Like a rhythmical gnawing somewhere in the darkness. A niece visiting her sister went investigating and got a big fright when a huge scorpion emerged from a bag full of papers. Hearing this story I anxiously wondered about the gnawing noise coming out of my bedroom. When I carefully set out to have a look around I spotted big holes in the window-sill: woodworms maybe, or perhaps the loud sawing noises came from a longhorn beetle? Before you know it, these little creeps will have eaten your house!

Lesvos is known for its many birds who can sing solo or in fabulous choirs, just like the bleating sheep and goats with their tingling bells they create a dreamy, meditative sound that can be heard all over the island. The most powerful sound however comes from the wind that plays the island like a natural instrument. It is said that the head of Orpheus with his magic lyre washed ashore at Andissa and that the music he played can still be heard on the island. That is right - when you listen carefully you can hear one concert after the other.

When you walk through a pine forest, you will hear the wind caress the pine needles, creating a melody that fluxes with the gusts of wind. From further away there’s the sound that rolls over the treetops, a sound that gets louder and louder and finally washes over you like a symphony.

Walking in a chestnut forest, when the chestnuts are ripe, there’s the rhythmic sound of falling chestnuts, harmonising with the higher notes of the crisping leaves far above you. When they are joined by the crackle of a forester’s wood fire and the faraway tinkling sounds from invisible sheep, you can enjoy a marvellous afternoon concert.

The wind can change, with the waves of the sea to produce a mighty percussive performance. Never underestimate this sound. Sleeping close to the beach, the play of the waves and pebbles can keep you from sleeping for nights in a row. And it is not only the wind that makes the waves roll. Some years ago when the speedy hydroplane ship Kenderis passed by the island for the first time, I was woken from an afternoon nap by a booming sound I had never heard before. It was a mini-tsunami that sounded like a drum solo beating the pebbles on the beach. A swelling, a crescendo until the waves came to rest and then it slowly rolled away, by which time the Kenderis that created the waves was long gone.

The mightiest concerts come when the wind with all its powers sweeps through the trees and together with branches, shutters, open windows, crackling thunder and lashing rain performs an overwhelming rock concert. Storms can be ear-splitting.

As soon as a storm thunders by, and the waves at sea finally calm down and when the wind goes to sleep, suddenly, it can be threateningly silent and disturbing. It is said that animals can feel the approach of an earthquake and fall silent. Then your ears almost hurt because you hear no sound — if ever I hear a grumbling sound coming out of the earth, announcing disaster, I always listen very anxiously.

When the wind and the animals are silent and the sea is a light blue field that the clouds use as a mirror, you best think of happy things and try to hear the most wonderful sound I ever heard here on this island: the flop-flopping sound of dolphins breaking the flat surface of the sea, a symphony of happiness that shuts you up for quite some time.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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