My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter IV

Silences

“Who has not hearkened to Her infinite din?”— THOREAU.

Free alike from the clatter of pastimes and the creaks and groans of labour, this region discovers acute sensibility to sound. Silence in its rarest phases soothes the Isle, reproaching disturbances, though never so temperate. All the endemic sounds are primitive and therefore seldom harsh. Even the mysterious fall of a tree in the jungle — not an unusual occurrence on still days during the wet season — is unaccompanied by thud and shock. Encompassing vines and creepers, colossal in strength and overwhelming in weight, which have strained the tree to breaking point, ease their burden down, muffling its descent, though now and again the primal rupture of trunk or branch rings out a sharp protest, and following the fall is silence — that varying, elusive sensation not to he expressed by the absence of actual noise.

There are silences which tinkle or buzz in the ears, causing them to ache with stress and strain; silences dull and sad as a wad of wool; silences as searching as the odour of musk — as soothing as the perfume of violets. The crisp silence of the seashore when absolute calm prevails is as different from the strained, sodden, padded silence of the jungle as the savour of olives from the raw insipidity of white of egg, for the cumbersome mantle of leafage is the surest stifler of noise, the truest cherisher of silence.

The most imperious hour of this realm of silence is three o’clock in the afternoon, when the sun has absorbed the energies of the most volatile of birds and insects. An hour later all may begin to assert themselves after a reviving, siesta; yet during the intensest hour of silence any abrupt noise — a call, or whistle, or bark of a dog — finds an immediate response. No sound has been heard for an hour. All the birds have been stricken dumb or have been banished, yet as an echo to any violation of the silence comes the sweet, mellow, inquisitive note of the “moor-goody” (to use the black’s name, for the shrike thrush). The bird seems fond of sound and will answer in trills and chuckles attempts to imitate its call.

The condition of perfect silence is not for this noisy sphere. The artist in so-called silences merely registers certain more or less delicate sound-waves flowing in easy contours, which others have not the leisure to distinguish. Often have I found myself as I strolled gloating over the exquisite absence of sound — enjoying in full mental relish the quaint and refined sensation. Yet when I have stopped and listened determinedly, viciously analysing my sensations, have I become aware of a hubbub of frail and interblended sounds. That which I had thought to be distilled silence, was microphonic Babel — an intimate commingling of analogous noises varying in quality and intensity. By wilful resistance to what Falstaff called “the disease of not listening,” I have been privileged to become aware of the singing of a quiet tune, some of the phrases of which were directly derivative from inarticulate vegetation — the thud of glossy blue quandongs on the soft floor of the jungle, the clicking of a discarded leaf as it fell from topmost twigs down through the strata of foliage, the bursting of a seed-pod, the patter of rejects from the million pink-fruited fig, overhanging the beach, the whisper of leaves, the faint squeal where interlocked branches fret each other unceasingly, the sigh of phantom zephyrs too elusive to be felt.

Echoes from vistas of silence far in the jungle lost their individuality in a sob. Grasshoppers clinked in the forest, the hum of bees and beetles, the fluty plaint of a painted pigeon far in the gloom, the furtive scamper of scrub fowl among leaves made tender by decay, the splash of startled fish in the shadows, commingled and blended to the accompaniment of that subdued aerial buzz by which Nature manifests the more secret of her functions and art — that ineffable minstrelsy to which her silent battalions keep step. Preoccupation, the whirl of my own temperate thoughts, scared silence, while as soon as the mental machine was stilled, the very trees became vocal. Thus have I caught fleet silences as they passed in chase of fugitive sounds.

Since the morning stars sang together, absolute silence has not visited the uneasy earth. In this Silent Isle the ears —

“Set to small measure, deaf to all the beats

Of the large music rolling o’er the world”—

become almost supernaturally alert, catching the faintest sound. Kinglake, who heard in the Syrian desert while dozing on his camel and for ten minutes after awakening “the innocent bells of Marlen,” attributed the phenomenon to the heat of the sun, the perfect dryness, the deep stillness, “having rendered the ears liable to tingle under the passing touch of some mere memory that may have swept across my brain in a moment of sleep.” Homesick sailors, too, lost in the profound stillness of mid-ocean, have listened with fearful wonder to the phantom chiming of their village bells.

Apart from the tricks which memory plays upon the solitary individual, inviting him by scents and sounds to scenes of the past, I find that the moist unadulterated atmosphere is a most compliant medium for the transmission of certain sorts of sound waves. The actual surface of the sea — differing from its resonant bulk — seems to sap up, rather than convey sounds, though on given planes above its level sounds travel unimpeded for remarkable distances. The resonance of the atmosphere appears at times to be dependent on the tone and quality rather than on the abruptness and loudness of the sound. I have listened with strange delight to the rustle of the sea on the mainland beach — two and a half miles distant — when the air has been so idle that the sensitive casuarinas — ever haunted by some secret woe upon which to moan and sob — have been mute and unable to find excuse for the faintest sigh. The branches which thinly shaded me hung limp and still and yet the soft, white-footed sea marking time on the harder sands of the mainland set distance at naught in one continuous murmur.

However listless the air, the coral-reef, though its crowded life is inarticulate and mute is ever brisk with minor but strenuous noises. Splashes and gurgles, sighs and gasps, coughs and sneezes, sharp clicks and snaps and snarls — telling of alarms, tragic escapes, and violent death-dealings — blend with the continuous murmur of the sea, and are occasionally punctuated by sudden slaps and thuds as a blundering, hammer-head shark pursues a high-leaping eagle-ray, or the red-backed sea eagle dashes down upon a preoccupied bream, the impact of its firm breast embossing a white rosette on the blue water.

In the absence of vibratory media the noises of the reef are isolated. furtive, echoless — staccato accidentals and dull dissonances out of tune with the soothing theme of the sea. Hence, when, as I wandered absorbed in an inspection of minor details, and a mellow whistle, constant but varying in volume, broke in upon my musings, it was vain to repress the thrill of excitement. A sound so foreign and incongruous also had a certain element of mystery. In a flash unsensational ponderings were displaced by a picture of a steamer in distress far away. Had I not on a similar occasion of a secret-disclosing tide heard through seven miles of insulted and sullen air the flop of an inch or so of dynamite exploded by a heartless barbarian for the illicit destruction of vivacious fish? Had I not listened with amazement to the buzz of a steamer’s propeller and the throb of her engines six miles away when unaccustomed “nigger-heads” of coral showed yellow in the sun? The calm, shallow sea conveyed the sounds with marvellous fidelity and surety. Yet this unaccountable call came from a quarter whence steamers may not venture, and was I not the only whistler within a range of many miles? No steamer ever gloated or warned or appealed in so fluty a note — plaintive, slightly tremulous, nervously imploring.

Alert, I tracked the strange sound along an eccentric course to its haunt, finding nothing more than the empty shell of a huge sea urchin, which in accord with a whim of the sea had floated and was now held aloft slantwise to the lips of the wind, firm in the branching tines of stag’s-horn coral. A rustic pipe — giving forth a sonorous moan, now cooing and crooning, now bold and confident, and again irresolute and unschooled. Not too sure of instrumentalism, oft the note was hesitating, soliciting a compliant ear as became a modest wooer of the muses, polishing his unceremonious serenade to some, shy mermaid, or hooting at shyer silence.

A new art, a rare accomplishment! So the musician was diffident, half-ashamed, half-shocked at his audacity, wholly self-conscious; earnest to please yet doubtful of the reception awaiting his untutored, artless play. Gathering courage, the breeze moistened his lips and a triumphant spasm of sound boomed out, and again the tremulous undertone prevailed. It was more than a serenade — a primitive sensation from primitive matter — a vital function, for as long, as the wind blew and until the lapping sea gurgled in its throat and its note ceased with the bursting of a bubble, there, held fixedly by living coral, the dead shell could not choose but whistle. So I left it to its wayward pipings, happy to have been the sole auditor to a purely natural, albeit mechanical, monotone. Upon such an instrument did the heavenly maid beguile the time when she was yet uncouthly young — at the hoydenish age when men also cajoled her with clicking sticks and the beating of hollow logs, and music was but a variety of noise.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32