As I prepared my canoe for an overnight float fishing trip on the Buffalo River at Spring Creek Recreation Area on Sunday, several other people rigged their kayaks for a day trip.
Perched on one kayak was a big JBL bluetooth speaker. The owner cheerfully told the members of my group that we should give them plenty of space because their music would disrupt the fishing. The plastic hulls of their kayaks reverberate sound waves through the water and cause fish to seek cover.
Long after they disappeared around the first bend downstream, we plainly heard every note of Chris Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey."
"If you hear that, you're not hearing the grosbeak, the warbler and the wood thrush," Rusty Pruitt said with a melancholy tone.
Over time the music's volume diminished. The notes became less distinct. The melody blurred into a drone until all that remained was the thump of the bass. Eventually that was gone too, and then there was silence.
Except that it wasn't silent at all.
Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for designing homes that were said to blend with their surroundings. I long derided that notion as asinine. Any artificial addition to a landscape corrupts the landscape. That was just a rich person's way to justify corrupting a landscape.
My perception endured that until I actually toured a Frank Lloyd Wright home, the Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville. There's always something well worth seeing there, but I am inexplicably drawn to the Bachman-Wilson House. It is a rare example of human interference improving nature. It respects its place. It honors its place. The structure seems part of the landscape. It affirms the splendor of natural light, all somewhat to the inhabitant's inconvenience. The inhabitant must conform to a degree to the place rather than coercing the place to conform to him.
Natural noise from the grosbeak, wood thrush and warbler is in concert with its place. Artificial noise coerces a place to servitude.
When the din of the bluetooth speaker abated, I opened my ears. I did not hear silence. The rush of water created its own melodic drone as it lapped against the banks and churned against rocks. Even in long, straight stretches where it flowed unobstructed, the water whispered, punctuated by occasional yawns and hiccups when it dislodged and moved a rock.
Like commas and periods in this chorus of molecules were the slaps and sloshes of water against our canoe paddles, as were the hollow thumps and taps against the Royalex hull of my 29-year old Buffalo canoe.
In the higher registers trilled the songs of the grosbeaks, wood thrushes and warblers. It's ever present, but our brains filter out extraneous sounds like birdsong. They are not material to our survival in the city, so we don't hear them.
The mockingbirds where I live in midtown Little Rock make siren noises. Police cars and emergency vehicles speed by my place several times a day. Like George Harrison incorporating Chet Akins and Buddy Holly rockabilly licks to add an American accent to the Mersey Beat, Little Rock's mockingbirds plug little siren riffs into their distinctive McClellan-Kerr Navigation System beat. They make me laugh.
I go to the river to get away from city sounds. I don't want to hear sirens, roaring exhaust pipes and car speakers booming rap beats at traffic lights. I associate "Tennessee Whiskey" with a particularly sweet memory, but I can hear it anywhere, anytime. I don't want to hear it on the river.
On the river, it is a claim to all of the territory within a sonic capsule. You can claim for an instant the mere space that you occupy. You can in your mind claim for yourself all you can see. On the river, that isn't much because you can't see around the next bend, and one seldom looks behind.
Amplified music is like planting a Union Jack on everything within earshot and claiming it for His Majesty the King. It says that this land -- this water -- is mine, and that my desire for noise trumps your desire for natural noise. It says that I am more important than you.
On the other hand, does my desire to hear natural noise say the same thing?
Pruitt and I paddled upstream away from the noise. The JBL kayaker warned us, and we took her at her word. We found a quiet spot and caught fish for hours. Our laughter and celebratory hollering was noisy, but it seemed to respect the place.