Go down by the water at night and you’ll hear them. You don’t even have to get very close — they’re loud, and probably never more playfully described than here. To set the mood with some mostly North American frogs, go to Animal Diversity Web’s frog call page (University of Michigan Museum of Zoology). Or listen to samples from Smithsonian Folkways’ 1958 LP Sounds of North American Frogs. Now read on:
“[A]ll the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake — if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there — who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention. The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once scorned water, and passes round the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r–oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straightway comes over the water from some distant cove the same password repeated, where the next in seniority and girth has gulped down to his mark; and when this observance has made the circuit of the shores, then ejaculates the master of ceremonies, with satisfaction, tr-r-r-oonk! and each in his turn repeats the same down to the least distended, leakiest, and flabbiest paunched, that there be no mistake; and then the howl goes round again and again, until the sun disperses the morning mist, and only the patriarch is not under the pond, but vainly bellowing troonk from time to time, and pausing for a reply.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden
Nature isn’t quiet — certainly not at night. I can imagine Henry lying awake in his little cabin, listening to the cacophony outdoors.
Some people wear noise-canceling headphones when they want quiet, or use white noise generators to help them sleep. I’ve heard that some of these have an urban setting, to generate traffic noise for people from the city who suffer the misfortune of trying to get a night’s sleep in a quiet place.
What is the difference between noisy nature and urban noise pollution? It isn’t that nature isn’t more benign. Life and death are playing out in the darkness. The air is full of opportunity and danger. Nature only seems benign because most of us live in places where there aren’t any big predators left except us.
Nature’s systems are older and more complex than our human-made systems. The feeling we get when hearing or experiencing them is more primal. In terms of human history our technological society began just a moment ago, while thousands of generations of our human and pre-human ancestors heard the sounds of nature. To some extent, I think, those experiences may be wired into us.
But this chapter isn’t really about Henry judging the sounds he hears. This chapter lacks the rants or earnest righteousness of “Economy” and some of the others. Mostly, he is just listening, wondering, marveling, enjoying, a detached observer. The main point is to listen, to be aware of your surroundings whatever they are.
And so we end the chapter, “Sounds.” Next: “Solitude”
(About “A Year in Walden”)