Sounds of Convenience and Comfort

Even in the region’s rural places, we’re never far from civilization.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014
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Boat on a lake

In the moonlight, the pond shimmered. A soft breeze showed on the surface, fleeting patterns of disturbance appearing and disappearing like the passing shadows of cumulus clouds on a windy day.

I stood in the deep shade of the hardwoods that line the pond’s southern shore, eager to launch my canoe. When I turned away from the pond, it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Feeling my way from truck to boat, I loaded up my fishing tackle, life vest and paddle and, before shoving off, checked the time on my cell phone: two minutes past five, sunrise more than an hour away.

As I paddled across to the deepest part of the pond, I took great pains to be quiet. That’s when I noticed the sound of traffic—distant at first, probably in Northampton, but getting closer, the sound of a lone tractor-trailer rolling north along I-91. A minute or two later, the big rig roared by me, not 50 yards away. With the sound of 18 wheels rolling over asphalt at 70 mph fading in the distance, I heard another truck approaching from the south.

I have fished often in this spot along the highway, in this man-made pond with trucks whizzing by. As an angler, I can’t divulge its exact location, but the pond is part of a chain of ponds that came into being in the 1960s, dug to provide fill for the construction of I-91 along the longest straight stretch of the 290-mile highway through Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. For open-water and ice fishermen, not to mention growing legions of paddlers, the pond is no secret: I learned about it 15 years ago from Deac Tiley, owner of Bub’s Bar-B-Q in Sunderland and an avid bass fisherman. When Tiley told me the pond was weedy, not particularly pretty, hard to fish from a boat, and impossible to fish from shore, I knew it had to be a great spot.

On this particular morning, as the sky slowly brightened, my attention remained fixed on the sound of I-91. Floating in deep water and casting into shallows, I flipped my plastic black worm into a fringe of lily pads and fanwort and let it slowly sink before twitching it across the drop-off and back to the canoe. I may have caught a fish or two, but what I remember is the sound of the highway, the volume slowly rising.

It occurred to me what a funny juxtaposition fishing right next to a highway creates: in many cases, the occupants of the cars and trucks rushing by come from urban places—Hartford, New Haven, New York—and might well look out the window to see an unspoiled and bucolic place; from my canoe, the same place looks… I should say, sounds… compromised, diminished, violated.

But here’s a funny thing: not 10 minutes later, I’d tuned it out. All the man-made sounds seemed to disappear, as the sounds of the wind, of insects and birds and amphibians and the occasional hooked fish came to the fore.

Over the years, I’ve taken only a few people to fish in this spot, but none have complained about its proximity to the sometimes deafening roar of I-91. This lowly, man-made pond on the highway exists in the buffer zone between civilization and wilderness—really, between industrial civilization and residential civilization on the edge of what remains the wildest part of Massachusetts—and while it goes largely unnoticed by millions who pass it every year, it is a familiar, even favorite haunt of a few locals willing to forgive its noisiness.

As someone who’s been fishing and hunting all over New England for decades, I’ve pursued my outdoor avocations in busier, louder places than that highway pond. I’ve fished for obese catfish in the Charles River, dunking my Wonder Bread-covered hook into the slack water beneath the Route 128/Route 30/MassPike highway infrastructure in Newton. I’ve hunted ducks and geese in a pond in East Bridgewater right off Route 24, a highway that makes I-91 seem like a quiet country road. I’ve casted for stripers at Hull gut, where the incessant whirl of the municipality’s Class One wind turbine barely rises above the shriek of city sirens and seagulls.

But even when I make the extra effort to get far away from the madding crowd, the noise of civilization rarely subsides for very long. Maine’s Allagash wilderness seems remote until you realize that the same dirt road you traveled to get there is traveled daily by college outing clubs from all over the Northeast. Camped along the Saint John River, on the longest and wildest free-flowing stretch of river in the East, the solitude might go unbroken for days, or be shattered at 20-minute intervals by an unrelenting parade of logging trucks and Bowdoin College vans hauling trailers loaded with canoes and kayaks.

As part of a generation who grew up listening to loud music, I’m surprised that I’m so sensitized to the noises that impinge upon my attempts to find solitude in nature. By the same token, I’m often surprised by my capacity to tune out disagreeable noises like the rush of highway traffic by a favorite fishing spot. Being aware of the distant sounds of grinding gears and squealing tires while I walk in an otherwise quiet forest may be irritating, but I find it alarming when I realize I’ve become desensitized to the blare of the mechanized world and that high-decibel cacophony is now merely white noise.

Even in Western Mass., a place known for its unspoiled natural beauty, it’s remarkably difficult to find real peace and quiet. In the Berkshires, it seems possible to get away from the noise by taking to the steep, wooded terrain in towns such as Savoy, Monroe, and Florida. But if I stop along the trail, sit long enough to slow my pulse and breathing, I’ll likely hear the low rumble of traffic in the distance. Many a night I’ve crawled into my tent and settled into my sleeping bag, sighing contentedly, only to have my peace pierced by the sound of traffic moving along Route 2.

Mostly, I consider it noise pollution, but perspective is everything: on a few occasions, finding myself horribly lost, I’ve felt utter joy hearing the whistle of a train as it travels along the Deerfield River or the otherwise obnoxious blast of a car alarm coming from North Adams. In those moments, man-made noise suddenly serves as a beacon, helping me find my way back to the comfort and safety of civilization.•

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