Sunday, January 13, 2019

Loud Noise

Most children are well aware that there is something hiding beneath their bed, some large, dark shape, breathing slowly, that is poised to grab any limb that dangles over the edge of the bed and pull it under. This is why they are wise to hide beneath the covers. It won't see them, and they won't see it and it will go away and they can fall into a deep sleep, where their dreams will be haunted by more large, dark shapes, breathing slowly, poised to grab any limbs that dangle over the edge. 
In the year 1710, a grown adult, George Berkeley, proposed the idea that if a person does not sense something, its existence is not provable. He wrote, "The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived: The trees, therefore, are in the longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them." Evidently, he was one of those who never outgrew the habit of hiding under the covers. His words resonated with other light sleepers and, in June 1883, the editor of The Chautauquan rephrased it, "If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings, would there be any sound?" That flaccid phrase survives to this day.
That kid scares me. 
Two months later, on August 27, there was a sound that most people on earth could have heard or felt. There were three explosions on the island of Krakatoa, the third of which was so loud that it was heard 2000 miles away in Perth, Australia and 3000 miles away on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. The sound waves from the explosion reached 310 decibels and swept across the globe three and one-half times. The sound ruptured eardrums forty miles away and deafened anyone within ten miles.
While the monsters under the bed and trees are alleged to disappear when one closes one's eyes, as puerile and useless as that phrase is, were one to put it out of sight and mind in a landfill, it would not disappear. Evidently, it would remain for millennia. On June 25 of the year after Krakatoa, while in Rome excavating Esquiline, a collapsing, 2000-year-old garbage dump 400 feet from the embankment of Servius Tullius, archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani had to back away from the ancient dump, which included household waste from one million people and at least 24,000 corpses. He said, "I was obliged to relieve my gang of workmen from time to time, because the smell from that polluted ground (turned up after a putrefaction of twenty centuries) was absolutely unbearable even for men so hardened to every sort of hardship as my excavators."
Archaeologist William L. Rathje was familiar with that odor. Starting in the 1970's, he spent two decades excavating nine modern-day landfills. This was not out of desperation, it was his livelihood, he had mouths to feed. He wrote, "Landfills seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than to transform them into humus or mulch." Indeed, he found intact, perfectly legible newspapers dating to the 1950's, a fifteen-year-old steak, still recognizable, "in a lot better condition than Ramses II", and, in every excavation he conducted, he found whole hot dogs, some of which were several decades old.
When the ancient Romans buried the ghastly waste at Esquiline under a deep layer of soil, they thought they had made it disappear forever. Horace even wrote a poem about it:

nunc licet Esquiliis habitare salubribus, atque 
Aggere in aprico spatiari, quo modo tristes 
Albis informem spectabant ossibus agrum

Translated into English, he said:

But now, one may well live on the Esquiline quite free from pest,

And take a walk upon a sunny terrace, where but a few days ago
The melancholy passersby beheld the fields disfigured by men's whitening bones.

Obviously, Horace neglected to conduct a long-term environmental impact analysis. Surprise. Two thousand years later, the dead were still there, vigorously exhaling their malignant, pestilential breath. Fifty-five feet below the surface of the earth was as close as they would get to any mythic Roman Underworld, another doctrine that would do well in a landfill, but the problem is that it is the landfill and it wouldn't disappear anyway. The simple reason is biodegradation does not prosper without light, oxygen, heat, and water. 
The doctrine may be called Phenomenalism, the belief that things don't exist outside of perception. The fallen tree in the forest, the monster under the bed, the monsters under a blanket of fresh dirt. The Age of Reason was supposed to take care of these superstitions, but it appears that this one slipped through. The faithful are not limited to children or adults shivering under the covers, landfill operators, or Horace the satirist, it includes most of humanity today.
The person throwing a beer can out the window of a car, the fisherman tossing an old fishing net into the ocean, the municipality sending raw sewerage down the river, the bulldozer operator moving dirt over the mounds of shredded plastic, the nations dumping 28,500 barrels of radioactive waste into the Atlantic Ocean 250 miles west of Land's End, and soldiers driving thousands of tons of military equipment into the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Espiritu Santo Island after World War II, these are faithful acts of Phenomenalism, where sins are absolved by interment. Out of sight, out of mind.
Ignore the man behind the camera.
Despite rusting military equipment on some of the beaches, there are beautiful photographs of Espiritu Santo Island, showing a wild desert coastline, perfect for snorkeling and kayaking. There are millions of photographs taken each year of natural sights, carefully framed to exclude trash and marks of civilization. But what were the sounds when these photos were taken? Some of the most photogenic vistas known are backed by urban infrastructure, often roads or concession stands. We do not hear the noise when we marvel at the natural wonder. This leads us to three corollaries to the doctrine of Phenomenalism. The silence of film has made it easy for humans to believe, "If I don't hear it, it doesn't exist", "Hearing is believing", or worse yet, "If it is sound, it is not trash." 
Sound was an unanticipated danger of urbanization. As we unearth our soundscape, we are finding a rising decibel level around the world: multimedia players, heavy equipment, street festivals, traffic, airplanes, sporting events, railroads, smokestacks, dogs, and weaponry. We also find a rising level of hearing-impaired wildlife, with increased stress, site abandonment, hearing loss, altered communication strategies, altered migration, reproductive failure, missed environmental cues, and the likes. We would do well to take note of the loss, but it's getting harder to pick out the voices in a noisy room and those high notes are totally gone and do I have to shout and maybe I will just get up and go to another room and what? - how many times do I have to tell you to turn up the confounded television? Do you hear me? Should this continue to increase, we may not know the difference between a still photograph and reality. 
We're back. 
At that point, we might think that the problem of noise has been solved, but we should recall Mr. Lanciani's exciting day. Disappearance is a state of mind. Sifting through our doctrines brings surprises, some very foul, some very loud. We need to dump them into some deep, dark, biologically active pit. The Underworld, Hades, whatever. Do it right or years from now they will erupt, rising from the grave, deafening, malignant, pestilential, exhaling the stench of death. 

Flood, Theodore L. 1883. The Chautauquan. Page 544. Volume III. June, 1883. No. 9. 
Horace. 33BCE. Satires. Satire VIII. 
Lanciani, Rodolfo A. 1888. Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries. Page 67. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA. 
Millington, R. M. 1869. A Rhythmical Translation of the First Book of the Satires of Horace. Longman's, Green, Reader, and Dyer, London. 
Rathje, William L.1992. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Harper Collins, New York.

No comments: