The Sounds of Silence
Without the hum of urban traffic the outback seems very quiet but that very quietness encourages one to listen. Ridiculously at first the silence is deafening.
The first thing one notices after that is the sound of the desiccated grass as it is flattened underfoot when walking. The blades of grass crack like broken bones when a boot compresses them into chaff. The rasping sound of the foot on sand. The left step, the right, and the scrunch of the stride, followed by the cracking sound of the grass when it steps on it is quite mediative when repeated over a reasonable distance.
Then afar one hears the sound of muffled human voices hidden from view. The very sound of another human voice raises inquisitiveness,and in the distance it is possible to make out a shade shelter made from sticks and under it men sitting in the dust chatting to one another about who knows what. Out of respect your eyes are averted and the walk is continued.
On another day the wind is up and the strings of the casuarina tree make orchestral sounds. In the wind it hums, or whistles. Further along the road the pendulous seed pods of the Elegant Acacia tambourine their unwritten tune on each new gust of wind. At first it is a subtle sound, like the sound the rosary beads hanging from the waist of an old style nun as she rounds a corner. As the breeze rises the tree vibrates. The sound of the rattling pods becomes more agitated and the whole tree adds to the sound. The wind lessens and an uneasy calm settles for a few moments as the tree awaits the next gust.
On the plains one does not have the advantage of elevation that allows you to hear sounds from all directions as you do, say, when you are aloft in the You Yangs, or the Grampians. There the screech of a cockatoo, and the sound of a crow directs your attention to a compass point first and then you search into the distance for the originator of the sound. On the flat plains the sounds emanate from all directions too but anyone on the ground can only hear a few hundred metres at best. One does not have to have good hearing to hear the Babblers go about their day. The bird is busy little chatterer. It walks, climbs and performs acrobatics with it mates all the while babbling away.
In a land of immigrants it should not surprise one to realise it also has immigrant avarian strangers. The rooster next door is availing himself of the light of the full moon to such an extent that Irish visiting teacher Sianaid could not sleep on her first night here. Her sleep was interrupted several times by his cocka-doodle-doos hours before his hens were. She could not ignore his boastful call as it was from a vantage point only a chain from her open bedroom window. Her second night was not much better even though she closed her window.
Drought is hard on birds. And as waterholes dry the native birds naturally reduce their numbers. So it was with pleasure I saw a parrot soaked to the craw under a sprinkler in the school garden this evening. So wet and bedraggled was it that it had lost all shame and it rolled, legs akimbo upside down as close to the mechanism as possible. It relished in the water as another might in a dust bed. Replenished, it just stood in the spray enjoying the moment. For not a second did it make a sound.
Another common sound in this uncommon setting is the sound of trucks crossing the cattle pit on the highway near the hamlet. Given experience one identifies cars, cars with caravans, and semitrailers. No experience is needed to recognise the rumble of yet another road train across the steel cattle barrier. Each prime mover drags three, or four, trailers. The massive weight each loaded wheel carries drums in the space separating the steel bars. All through an otherwise silent night the drums roll and echo as each vehicle continues on its relentless journey.
A visit to the outback is refreshing. Listening is improved when common daily sounds can no longer be heard.
Ps. The Elegant Acacia is not only a musical tree it is also a food source. The seeds can be cooked in a naked flame. Once peeled, eat the kernel. It’s resin is also edible as are its grubs.