Letter from the Lake. It’s an early morning on the shores of Wrighter Lake, a place in the far reaches of northeastern Pennsylvania that originally beckoned as a respite from the sights and sounds of suburban New Jersey.
This morning, as my neighbors in downtown Princeton no doubt are listening to sounds of recycling trucks and car alarms (and wondering why there are so many alarms sounded yet so few car thieves sighted), I am on a deck sipping a cup of coffee and listening to an e-oww, e-owh sound coming from the brush a few feet to my left.
It’s a catbird, my all-knowing companion announces from her seat, a few feet away. No, it’s a cedar waxwing, I say, just to pretend I know something about birds and their calls. I do know it’s not a woodpecker, because we would have heard the tick tick tick tock of his pecking on the trunk of the pine tree 20 feet in front of us. And it’s probably not the oriole, either, or the goldfinch, since we have not seen either of those winged marvels the entire weekend.
I look around and see the familiar gray bird that seems to come closer to the deck when there are people on it. Yes, it’s the catbird. I should have known: That e-ow is almost like a me-ow.
As the sun continues to rise in the morning sky, it’s my turn to be all-knowing. Through the thin line of trees comes the first report of another sound now common to the Wrighter Lake landscape. It’s the unmistakable blare of a two-cycle gasoline engine. “They’re mowing their lawn — again?” says my companion, mixing a little incredulity in with her exasperation.
No, I say, it’s not the lawn mower.
“The edger,” she guesses.
No, I respond. It’s the power washer. As even the catbird could tell you, this is a likely to be a day-long project — a great way to spend a day at the lake.
Listen up now. Paying attention to the sounds around you can occasionally lead to some nails-on-the- chalkboard moments. In this case it’s the annoying sounds of suburbia that have replaced the peace and quiet of the lake. But listening closely can also pay off in a world where basic communication skills seem to be steadily eroding.
In my extended family I am one of few males who can’t listen to a car engine and immediately tell you that it’s a valve problem that’s causing that engine to gasp. But by listening carefully I can at least tell when the shallow well pump that draws water from the lake to the cottage is running continuously, a sign that the pump has lost its charge and will run forever unless it’s tended to.
The ears also come in handy when fixing the pump. First you open a valve to bleed air out of the system. Then you restart the motor, close the valve when water starts gushing out of it, and hope that it holds its charge. You know you have succeeded when the sound of the motor goes from a high whine to a lower roar. I doubt that’s in the repair manual.
The other day I got an exorbitant water bill for the garage apartment I rent out. I walked over to the vacant apartment and listened. Not a sound of running water, I thought. I listened some more, and then I heard the faintest sound of a steady trickle of water through the pipes. Re-seating the flapper in the toilet made the house silent again.
Listening skills can give you an edge in many situations. How can baseball umpires be so right so often on close plays at first base? The answer is that they listen for the thunk of the ball into the glove as they watch the runner’s foot hit the bag. The home plate umpire also relies on his ears to call a foul tip, which the television viewer can see only in slow motion instant replay.
To be a good listener doesn’t mean you have to possess particularly good hearing. Like a lot of our faculties, a little effort is needed to make use of what you have. Example: The teenage boys in my house have outstanding eyesight. But finding the form sent home from school can be difficult — it requires moving piles of paper, digging around a cluttered kitchen table, and then being persistent.
In our office (and I suspect many other offices in this central New Jersey melting pot) people with perfectly good hearing answer the phone and put the caller on hold. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying,” they announce. But, I wonder, how many words did they actually listen to once they heard the foreign accent of the caller?
Back at the lake I brace for Labor Day, the unofficial last day of the season when the motorboats are given their final workout, the jet skis race from one end to another, the lawns get another cut, the weeds a final blast from that edger. Mankind gets to issue one more final roar over nature before retreating to suburbia for the winter.
We take a seat on the dock and are treated to a rare delight. Silence, interrupted only by the whoosh of a kingfisher soaring like a stealth bomber a few feet above the water and by the flapping of wings as a heron glides along the shoreline.
A slight drizzle this Labor Day has kept the gas-powered devices at bay. We sit back and watch as the lake is gradually enveloped in a mid-day fog, coming in — just as Carl Sandburg has described it — on little cat feet. They are very quiet little cat feet but on this day they have the final say.