Friday, December 02, 2011

Listen! The tap-tap-tap of a nuthatch

And now, the Henry David Thoreau Award for the most obnoxious technological product of all time. The envelope, please.

The winner: The gasoline-powered leaf blower.

As I write this, I am sitting in what is called the "quiet cafe" of the College Commons. It is 7:30 AM. Just me and a dozen students who are studying for exams. Outside the window a groundsman is blowing leaves into piles. The noise is deafening. Head-ache inducing. I feel sorry for the students. I feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for anyone in America with a leaf-blowing neighbor.

I watch the guy outside. He is young and fit. It is obvious that even an old guy like me could rake the leaves into piles faster than he is blowing them. There is no conceivable reason why so many should suffer so that he can wield his smelly, lung-polluting, ear-splitting contraption. He's not even wearing ear muffs. We should all be wearing ear muffs.

"I love a broad margin to my life," wrote Thoreau. We know what he meant: a page of print with spacious, empty margins inviting reflective glosses -- a metaphor for a life. Lord knows he filled up enough pages himself, and he was a voracious reader. But words without silence are a mere cacophony. "Silence is the communing of a conscious soul with itself, " he wrote early in his journals. "If the soul attend for a moment to its own infinity, then and there is silence."

We seem hell-bent on wringing silence from our lives. Our leaf blowers crank up at 7 AM on Sunday morning. Our television sets are on all day even when no one is watching. Even the people I meet walking in the woods have buds in their ears and an iPod in their pocket. No wide margins. No margins at all. No white spaces to scribble those solitary notes affirming that one is listening to infinity.