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Country Light and Sound

In books, film, and general media, some aspects of country living are presented as “true” when those aspects are really “true when viewed through the experience of city dwellers.”  This does make me sigh, particularly when plot points turn on those aspects.

I was born and raised in Southern California, but lived in a more rural community during high school.  Then, after many more years of city living in two different states, I moved to rural Indiana.  The nearest streetlights of town (population 1,000) were over five miles away.  The nearest true city (population around 10,000) was ten miles away.  I lived in a very small house that was nearing 100 years old, but had been wired for electricity only two years before I moved in, on a riverside farm of about 130 acres that I shared with the landowners.  My closest neighbors were Amish.

I was far enough from town that now, living three miles from the city outskirts, I hardly consider myself living in the country.

Moving from city to country prompts folks to choose one of two paths–adapt to the experience, or adapt the experience itself.  The first step of the latter involves the instillation of outdoor lighting systems to banish the night.

I can’t tell you often I hear country nights, or nights before artificial lighting, described as pitch black.  As someone who used to walk around on 130 acres at night, I can assure you night walks are not akin to a blindfolded stroll.  Nights are not terrifyingly dark by default.  Darkness depends, of course, on available moonlight, but also atmospheric conditions and vegetation.  On a clear night, less than a half-moon provided light enough for comfort.  A full moon’s brightness made hikes up and down the ravines safely possible.

But the moment you look at anything brighter than the moonlight–in fact, in you look directly at a bright moon–everything else will look pitch black.  The rods in your eyes use certain pigments to see in low light, and those pigments break down in bright light to prevent the light from overloading sight.  It can take over half an hour for those pigments to build back up.  So if you’re turning a flashlight on and off, looking at a campfire, going in and out of the house, or–as in the case of reporters–spending most of the time staring into good lighting–the night will indeed look pitch black all the time.

Patience reveals another aspect.

Nighttime sound in the country can also be described very poorly by those who live with constant background sounds.  Such sounds become so pervasive, they cease to be noticed.  Air circulation fans and traffic are two common sources.  That noise covers smaller sounds of footsteps, conversations, breezes through leaves, and the passage of small animals.  You won’t hear the murmuring of a casual conversation taking place on a porch a quarter mile away.

In the country, sources of ambient noise might be moving water and/or wind.  That’s about it.  Being still reveals low sounds of small nocturnal creatures–their movements, their calls, their feeding.  The yip of a coyote carries a long, long distance, as does the whoo of an owl.  From my front porch on the farm, I could hear the clopping of hooves for long minutes before the buggy came into sight.  (Amish neighbors, remember? :)   From my back porch at my current home, I can hear most cars on a back country road when they’re still two miles away.  When I see a character be caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of a vehicle on a country road, I know the writer hasn’t spent much time outside his city limits.

All that quiet stillness will make one very aware of how much noise a clothed human body makes when it moves.  While it’s true feet cause noise on the ground, the sound of moving fabric can give away one’s position as well.  These days, humans would make easy prey for any stalking animal.

There are times that I deeply miss living on the farm.  Even the days, the ones filled with hard work in the July heat, were wonderful.  An interlude.  The in-between.  The time I needed to leave behind an old self and find the new.  But it’s the night–usually in spring and fall, usually when the moon is near full–that I miss most of all.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 23rd, 2013 07:48 pm (UTC)
Except for a year in Vegas and almost a year in Tucson, I've lived in southern CA since 1981. I still miss the stars (in Tucson, at least, we could see them because there was a light ban because of the big observatory) and I miss trees. And night sounds.

Though, where I live now, we have a LOT of trees compared to the rest of LA County, and in certain areas, you can hear the crickets and frogs at night. Sometimes, I drive through a certain street at night with my windows rolled down just so I can stop and listen. :)
May. 24th, 2013 02:45 am (UTC)
I love hearing the frogs--from a bit of a distance. There are some wetlands near my parents' home so filled with tiny-but mighty-voiced frogs that it's difficult to hold a conversation close by!

And crickets are my favorite. Far, far better than the local cicadas.
May. 23rd, 2013 10:57 pm (UTC)
My mother assures me, after her camping experience, that you can walk by starlight.

I've never done it. Indeed, my sisters and I were all in our teens when it came up that we had never seen the Milky Way. We were in the Adirondacks, so with some careful selection, they amended that that night.

Never seen it since, though.
May. 24th, 2013 02:48 am (UTC)
On the farm, starlight was sufficient mainly in winter, when the air was dry enough to crackle and the temps low enough to deter walking. :)

The Milky Way is indeed incredible.
May. 24th, 2013 01:54 am (UTC)
My most rural living experience was a summer working on a dude ranch in the northern colorado mountains where there were a couple evenings where I became very aware of the difference between late dusk light in the open and a complete inability to see anything on the trail under the trees.
May. 24th, 2013 02:51 am (UTC)
HUGE difference, that tree cover. In dense woods, "dusk" comes quite a bit earlier than it does in open fields or desert.
May. 24th, 2013 01:37 pm (UTC)
That's true in the suburbs, too; the house I grew up in has lovely trees all around it and no road frontage, and it gets about twice as dark there as it does here, where there aren't any trees between us and either the street lights or the orange glow of Baltimore. Both houses are within half a mile of city beltways, so I really don't *hear* distant traffic unless I think about it.

Contemplating noise pollution, there's also a whole extra layer of that problem with the ubiquity of stereo systems and then mp3 players.
May. 31st, 2013 05:08 pm (UTC)
so I really don't *hear* distant traffic unless I think about it.

I didn't hear the traffic either, when I lived in Southern California, even though our house was less than a city block from a freeway. The drone of traffic became the city version of "quiet."

The first nights I spent living in the country were mostly sleepless. I couldn't fall asleep because it was so... quiet!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


Blair MacGregor

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