I usually don’t notice it most mornings, it comes to us from the south on a still wind before dawn, and my mate claims not to hear it. Today I rose with it, because of it, and it is acutely present. The slightly pulsing 50 Hz drone of a heavy engine or engines on oil or gas-field equipment, or the generator engine on the monster drag line Sabine Mining operates in the lignite field several miles away–these are the sounds of prosperity common in East Texas.
I could just as well cite the howling rumble of traffic on I-20 or US 59, both within a mile of the house, or the sounds of the Union Pacific freight trains three miles to the north, on approach from the west before they pass through Marshall, turning left towards Chicago. A north wind small or great carries their air-horned annunciations toward us.
Not too long ago I heard that everywhere is urban, even the rural places we believe are out in the country. Automobiles, media, and cell phones offer proof; and, at least in the first-world, ultra modern nations like the USA, location and mailing codes like ZIP + 4 drive the point home. Then, of course what point on the earth’s surface cannot be expressed in GPS coordinates? I wonder, though, if an obscure islet in the Marshall Islands is truly urban. I’ll wonder further some other time about that one. It’s enough to say, the claim that everywhere is urban is certainly a Westerner’s statement.
Years ago on my first trip to China our group visited a Buddhist monastery in the countryside. Truly rural, not in the city. During the monks’ prayers we observed and heard their chants and the sound of a giant tortoise drum, struck only a wide intervals, rather soft, and tiny cymbals, perhaps some struck sticks. I wandered from the temple area about a hundred yards and stood to look at unfamiliar things, yet what I heard dominated the moment. That giant drum sounded, resounded, more powerfully, pointedly, at a distance. I believe it did the same a mile away. No chanting, no small instruments, no chants or incense, only the widely spaced, deep, pure beats.
This week at the Calling Conference on campus I conversed with a visitor from Shreveport who once lived close to the First Baptist Church there. He especially remembered the chimes and loved hearing them. Only last Sunday my mate and I remarked on the purity of the carillon chimes as we heard them on our way onto the church campus. They punctuated our week in a way we had not experienced in more years than we could remember.
Reflecting on this, I cannot help thinking about the traditions of life, work and worship that we Christians gained directly from the Jews and the Scriptures, the unbreakable routine of the week’s rhythm completed with the Sabbath–a truly human iteration and a gift of God. I think, too, of Rosenstock-Huessy’s insights in The Multiformity of Man about the modern industrial domination of humanity under a mechanically-measured, highly structured frame of time. (Yes, his observations need some updating, and I have a mind to do that sometime.) It is a matter of time that also pervades space–our spaces–and all experience. There is no gentle spacing as between the beats of a giant drum, no daily or weekly carillon recitals.
There is only the typically unceasing drone, whether we hear it or not, whether it is present in awareness or for a time unheard or ignored–the drone of a particular frame and conception of prosperity, such as I have been hearing while I write. It is not that the droning dominates my awareness but that I may find distractions from it momentarily, or that it may be sublimated to other sounds in the course of a day, such as the sounds of our devices at home. It is that the droning is always present, and once having become aware of it when I am at home, I turn my focus toward it as it intrudes. It is (at least for this moment) a reminder of the ground-vibes of our devised environment; it is part of the general soundscape in which the machines dominate.