Littlefield Notes: Of Peace and Quiet
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA. Photos by Joe D. Finnerty
New tractors each year, and each one makes more noise than the last. The one in the valley now sounds like a big bulldozer. Round and round the alfalfa field, in fury. What thoughts it represents, what fury of man, what restlessness, what avidity, what despair. — Thomas Merton
Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. The river runs straight and true the length of the field from end to end, though at this time of year the river is so low it can’t actually be seen from where we now stand. A neat row of maples, alders and wild cherry define the boundary between field and river, wildlands and cultivated. In the stillness you may hear the sound of salmon splashing; spawning in the gravely shallows just below the field as they perform a final act of procreative self-sacrifice.
Look to the far side of the field, opposite the river and you will see a western red cedar that will take your breath away. This giant was overlooked, forgotten or, as I prefer to think, left on purpose when this field was cleared back in the 1890s. It must have stood then, as it does now, a colossal sentinel, a gateway of sorts leading to the equally impressive waterfall cascading over solid granite with enough volume and force to make its own wind. I like to consider that even in those days when the woods of the Northwest offered the irresistible lore of timbered gold, a young man, proving up on this land stood poised with ax raised, and overcome by the sheer loveliness of the scene slowly lowered his ax and decided to simply let the old giant be, content to leave for future generations a glimpse of the splendors of a once virgin forest.
Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. Swallows dip and dive as they glean their supper from insects flushed by the mowing. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet. From this distance the mower makes barely a sound; and the sounds it does make are so natural and intriguing that you’ll want to crane your ear, cock your head and learn more of this marvelous machine doing good work without aid of internal combustion. The verdant green of the field, the team at work, the placid river, the giant tree and waterfall elicit a scene worthy of a song, a sonnet – indeed a whole symphony!
The reverie is suddenly broken by the sound of a tractor arriving in the field across the river. Pretty soon the unmistakable sound of a baler is heard. The incessant, violent, rhythmic pounding as grass is forced into small squares, clouds of dust billowing up over the tops of the trees. In an instant our world has narrowed by degrees of magnitude, from bucolic agrarian vision to industrial efficiency.
There is a blinding, numbing effect created by industrial process, by the enormous noise of machines doing hurried, often shoddy work. When the world becomes too noisy our minds lose a certain amount of interior space; the world becomes smaller, more insular. Not only are the sounds of the day drowned out, but there is somehow less to see as well; and not just with the eyes, for we see with more than the eye, but with the heart also.