Thursday, July 02, 2009

Island Lessons: Noise and Anchovy Pizza

Nantucket taught me to appreciate silence.

I didn't really understand what silence was until I came here. I had a sort of amused contempt for the whole concept. I grew up in Manhattan, among growling buses, howling sirens, screching burglar alarms, unexplained detonations, the grinding clatter of construction, deafening subways, shouts and screams and street musicians, probably half-deaf themselves from all the racket, playing out of tune. To me, noise was home. It marked night and day: sirens were my crickets, car horns sang cock-a-doodle-do. As far as I was concerned, people who didn't like the sounds of New York didn't deserve to be there, even as tourists. So what if a bunch of hicks from Iowa or somewhere thought my city was too loud? Let them go back to the midwest and listen to the corn rustle.

That was how I felt when I was fourteen, and I suppose there are Manhattan fourteen-year-olds now who will sneer at me (one more tedious hick) when I say that the noise level in New York -- and in all our cities -- is debilitating and unhealthy. It makes people violent, it makes people crazy, it makes people sick. It armors their nervous systems against constant assault, closes them down, pulls them tight and occasionally snaps them like the cat gut on an over-strung tennis racket.

That may be the central difference between this island and a big city: there is a blissful, unemphatic sanity to the silences here. They heal the chafing nerves, unclench the heart, ease the calloused mind.

And they teach you, also. You can learn a lot about the nature of silence. sitting on the steps in front of a house on Darling Street on a late afternoon in July, or walking into 'Sconset on a February night. Silence isn't just the absence of noise: it's the collective voice of all the fragile sounds that noise conceals. The silence of that July afternoon turns out to be intricately composed, full of the wind in the leaves, the mutter of occasiponal cars heaed for the beach, distant voices, bird song, the conversation of territorial dogs, all bound together with the thread of our own breath. It's a different mix in 'Sconset on a winter night -- branches rattling on the east wind, the distant rumble of surf on the south shore; but it's essentially the same coarse weave, lively and detailed.

If you're willing to pay attention, it seems as if you can hear something more, a faint vibration in the air, a vast whisper beneath the skin of things: the machinery of the seasons, the engines of the wind.

And it's entertaining. It's what minimalist arts strives for and generally fails to achieve. In art the small event etched against emptiness feels hollow and cold because the whole idea of emptiness is a kind of judgment, a failure to observe. The emptiness that frames a pheasant's raucous take-off or a deer crossing Milestone Road in the powdery light of the new moon is actually full, even over-full.

Which is why I smile when a friend write me from New York that she's thinking of moving away but stays on because she "needs the stimuli". Perhaps it's coincidental, but she also over-salts her food. She wants to break that habit, too, but she needs the savor salt provides.

I met an old man years ago who had been a prison nutritionist for many years. He was deeply involved with the natural foods movement, and had no tolerance for sugar, salt or saturated fat -- the staples of the institutional diet at the correctional facility where he worked. One day he tried an experiment. He eliminated all the salt from the food preparation process. The results were drastic, worse than he could have imagined. There were protests, hunger strikes, riots. The inmates felt assaulted and outraged by this new humiliation -- the taste had been taken out of their food. Three months later, a delegation a delegation of prisoners representing the whole piopulation of the federal penitentiary -- warring gangs who had never agreed on anything before -- arrived at his office to formally thank him for putting the salt back in their food. Everything tasted delicious again and they wanted him to know how much theyappreciated it. He smiled and acknowledged their thanks and ushered them out. There was just one thing he failed to tell them: he hadn't put the salt back in their food. They were actually tasting food, not brine, for the first time in their lives.

Silence is an acquired taste, too, and once you have it you can't go back. On my last trip to New York, I found the noise unbearable. It made me tense, angry, hostile, paranoid, scared ... all the old urban insanity took over again. Everyone else looked crazy, too. I was glad to escape.

It wasn't much easier for my friend wheh she came to visit Nantucket. She couldn't sleep, tensed against the unnerving silence of the sea-bound night. "How can you stand it, all the way out here?" she asked, absent-mindedly salting her anchovy pizza. "The quiet would drive me crazy."

I didn't answer or argue, I didn't want tom sound like one of those smug down-easters who tell the befuddled city-slickers "You can't get there from here," and I didn't know how to explain what she was missing. Silence was better anyway.

So I let it speak for itself.

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