Distant sound, “a vibration of the universal lyre” (Walden 83)

“All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden

This is another case of Henry observing a natural wonder that’s hiding in plain sight… or in this case, in plain hearing. Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? Shortly after reading this passage, I was hiking at a local prairie nature preserve, when I heard the screams and shouts of kids playing outdoor games at a nearby camp. I had the prairie all to myself that day, and you might think that all the screaming would have disturbed the day’s tranquility.

But it didn’t, and for the reason Henry explains. Though the voices were urgent, the distance reduced the sound to no more than that of the wind brushing the tallgrass, or quiet bird-chatter. Somewhere in the half mile or so between the children and me, their collected voices took on a certain tranquility.

Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska

Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska. (No, you can’t see the screaming kids in this shot, which is facing the wrong direction anyway. I just like this view.)

“The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it,” Henry explains. “It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.”

Try it the next time you’re out in a reasonably quiet place. Listen for distant sounds.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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