Times change – and so do sounds

I miss the cape racer, even though I never got to ride on one. Unfortunately, they don't make them anymore. It was a wooden ladderlike sled with metal runners that was used to haul smelt-fishing supplies – and, presumably, fish – on and off frozen lakes.

I thought of it when I heard some senior citizens talking about flying along the back roads on their cape racers, with sentinels strategically placed to forestall collisions with cars and trucks. And I wished I could share their recollections of riding to school on snowy days on the back of my father's snowshoes, as some of them used to do.

The loss of old objects and practices made me think of another kind of extinction that's less obvious – the loss of sounds familiar in former times.

How many people remember the sound of such a sled or the creaking of an old leather snowshoe harness?

What else are we missing from our sonic environment – or in danger of losing?

One of the earliest sounds I can remember was the rotary blade of a hand-propelled lawn mower. It is a mnemonic of time and place, and I miss it, in part, because it opens up the rich possibilities of recollections released by savoring sound.

Mr. Hankner, our next-door neighbor during my toddler-to-third-grade years, mowed his immaculate lawn on summer evenings just beneath my bedroom window, and I loved to hear the rattling, clipping-clatter, winding noise of his ancient, but sharp and well-oiled mower.

As he reached the end of each row and turned to go back to the top of the yard, the blades would suddenly whir freely as he realigned himself for the return trip. His yard was only a postage stamp of grass, but he kept it trimmed with regimental precision.

After mowing, he would put the nozzle on his hose, and I would drift off to sleep lulled by the soft hissing of artificial rain on his roses, peonies, and velvet lawn.

Whenever I tried to use my family's hand mower, it never made the pleasing sewing-machine sounds of Mr. Hankner's – just huffing and puffing. That would be my own huffing and puffing. I begged Dad for a gas-powered mower, and eventually efficiency won over aural tradition.

Dad liked calligraphy pens. I loved the scratching sound that he made as he practiced Cyrillic letters – even his signature had a Cyrillic look to it. Imagine the sound of ice skates biting the pond and you have the sound of his pen on paper.

I've been thinking of words as a kind of heirloom sound, too. Many are linked to a type of landscape that is fast disappearing, or to inhabitants of the landscape who are no longer around to describe it – such as snowshoe tail riders. We seem to have plenty of great words for flowing water of various kinds – rapids, rips, riffles, and rills; seeps and sinks – that aren't in frequent use. Certainly those water sounds and distinctive ways of running downhill haven't gone away.

But would it be fair to say there are fewer people who will stop and listen to it, and use the tried-and-true names for particular qualities of such flow?

I just learned the term "jackstraw timber," an apt description for the jumbled thickets created when a stand of trees has enough fallen or blown-down members to resemble the old children's game called "pickup sticks" – an heirloom game ... remember the sound of the sticks falling?

We are, of course, making new heirloom sounds all the time. Some of today's most common sounds may be destined for the sound heap of history, such as Mr, Hankner's mower. Perhaps the internal combustion engine is a future heirloom sound. One can only hope so. It would help restore the sound of riffles of water.

Even if the old sounds are gone, it's never too late to restore an appreciation of the subtleties of experience hidden in simple sonic places.

Silence is an heirloom sound too. I hope that will always be savored in living memory.

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