Throughout my girlhood -- and well into my adulthood, if I’m being honest -- I often daydreamed that I was showing George Washington around and explaining the amazing things that the 20th century had wrought. By the 21st, I’d pretty much stopped having this reverie, but it came back to me recently when I was hiking with my husband in the Garvies Point Preserve in Glen Cove.
We had found a bench along a path overlooking Hempstead Harbor. Through the trees, we could see a little beach, the sparkling water and, beyond, the Sands Point hills. The view was much like what George Washington would have seen in the 18th century, had he happened to walk along that path and pause where we were sitting.
But the aural landscape, what he would have heard, would have been very different.
As peaceful as the scene looked, the sounds of modern life never ceased. Motorboats churned in the bay. A leaf blower, that bane of suburban life, droned nearby. Overhead, airplanes winked in the sunlight, their jet engines muted but audible.
George (may I call you that, sir?) would have wondered, I think, at the constant intrusion of noise. In his day and well beyond, there were likely many places, easily accessible to town dwellers, where one could sit and hear only the sounds of nature. Had we been sitting in that same spot 250 years earlier, we would have heard the waves lapping, the wind in the trees, birds singing, squirrels chuckling and not much else.
As I write, I’m sitting in my garden in Port Washington on one of this year’s freakishly warm November days. I’m in shirtsleeves, enjoying the fall colors, the purple of the beautyberry, the gold of the remaining redbud leaves, the last roses. Our little waterfall burbles delightfully. Wrens and blue jays call. But I also hear trucks a half-mile away on Shore Road. Every few minutes, planes whoosh along the flight path from La Guardia. If it were just a tad warmer, I’d be hearing air-conditioning compressors. At this moment, I hear no sirens or car alarms, but that could change in an instant.
In January, my husband and I spent a few days in Greenport. Through the closed windows of our Airbnb came the rumble of Long Island Rail Road engines idling at the end of the North Fork line. We hiked every day, finding trails through the morainal hills. And finding quiet. On the beach at a county park in Southold, a half-mile from the trailhead, we heard only the wind, the waves, the gulls and each other.
I’ve read a lot about light pollution and the dark-sky movement, but not so much about quiet places. As difficult as it is to find dark skies, finding quiet seems even harder. Most of us would get to such places in cars, which means, at a minimum, motors and the hiss of tires, or by ferries, which thrum and throb.
The society we live in and enjoy demands trucks and generators, airplanes and compressors. We are all complicit in our noisy soundscape. But I wonder what George Washington would think of these ever-present background hums and rumbles. Would he miss the familiar quiet of his time? I’ll ask him the next time we meet in my daydreams.
Reader Barbara Selvin lives in Port Washington.