Summer soundscape

It starts with a very low throb. The sound is apprehended about fifteen miles off in the early hours,  around one or two o’clock in the morning, and you smile to yourself as once again you have lived another year to hear it. The windows are open, the breeze has died down. Even the insects are quiet.

You can imitate the sound yourself: place your lower lip against your upper lip and let a series of breaths escape as you make sound in your throat – “hwa-hwa-hwa-hwa-hwa”. It is throb of distant diesel engines pulling a freight train. Three or four engines, a hundred cars.

It is a big one, pulling out of the east, bypassing Sherbrooke and heading up towards the pass at Mount Orford, climbing. The engine throb intensifies as the train gains height and speed. Faster throbbing: “hwa-hwa-hwa-hwa-hwa”, as fast as you can make the sound, then faster than you can make the sound. The engines are really working now, pulling a 100 boxcars, flat cars, tank cars, all the goods that landed at Halifax a few days ago are being pulled to central Canada.

As I lie in my bed, the sound is moving from my left ear, which hears best to the east, then around the north side of the house, and moves over the space of five or ten minutes to the west window. The engines are working hard. Now the locomotive’s horn blasts four times, one long, one short, a pause, and two more short blasts, as it passes roads from Rock Forest to Magog. The cycle is repeated four times: four level crossings.

In the immensity of the diesels throbbing, a new sound is heard: the clickety-clickety-clickety-clickety of the actual wheels on the steel rails, hundreds of them, coming in at a much higher frequency, overtopping the diesel engines and gradually becoming more prominent. Throbbing engines, horn blasts, clicking wheels, but still five miles away at their closest, not loud, but audible to those who listen, the sound of a railway in the summer.

The train turns west to go through the pass at Mount Orford, and just as gradually as the throbbing first appeared, it fades out. Elapsed time, maybe ten minutes. A pure soundscape has played out in your mind. You supply the visuals. Maybe you imagine the sight of a hundred railcars thundering through one of those level crossings, with the signal lights blinking and the ding ding ding of the bells working, which you cannot hear over the noise of the train.

I think of the amazing fact that, as we sleep, enormous trains are pulling goods from one end of the country to the other, goods that end up in Canadian Tire and Sears, goods that end up in machine shops where computer controlled shaping machinery folds metal into car bodies, or oranges and tangerines and olive oil end up in your food shelves. I hear that sound of the Halifax freight train in summer, and sometimes if the atmospheric conditions are right, in winter through the walls and closed windows of my cabin, and I think, some things are very right in the world.


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where I live I can hear the train as it approaches the city, then I hear it as it crosses the city and whistles at every crossing until it is past the city. this is usually around three or four in the morning.

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