My office is located on the 26th floor of the
tallest building west of Chicago's South Loop,looking out over
a flat expanse that once--not so long ago in the grand scheme
of things--was wet prairie and marshland. It is now completely
developed to the horizon--and beyond. This is not to say that
Chicago is all steel and concrete. Mayor Daley's tree-planting
program and other initiatives to make the city a more pleasant
place to live have seen to that. There are more trees here than
there probably ever were. But that's just it--nothing remains
unchanged. Even the Chicago River flows in a direction more convenient
to its human conquerors.
Last summer, I took a brief side-trip through the Flint Hills
of Kansas on my way back home from a conference. While only a
drive-through (which is not a proper way to appreciate prairie),
it did provide a direct experience of unabashed openness sufficient
to enable me to look out of my office window and imagine how the
landscape here might once have looked. If I direct my gaze to
where land meets sky and let my eyes lose focus just a little,
pretending that the smoke from the industrial scrubbers rises
from distant grass fires, I can almost convince myself I am seeing
bison herding down Interstate-290 in place of the evening rush.
But I am hard-pressed to imagine what the soundscape was like.
It is much easier to see in the mind's eye than to hear with the
mind's ear. If I have trouble seeing through what is currently
outside my window to what was once there, I can close my eyes
and resort to visual imagery. But I can't really close my ears.
As I type this sentence, I can hear the warble of an ambulance
speeding to a nearby hospital, the urgent blast of a fire truck,
the wail of a police siren--no, two--one going north and one south,
the "El" (elevated train) rattling by every few minutes
a few blocks away, an airplane's sore-throated roar, the perpetual
swish of traffic flowing down the expressway and the chop of the
helicopter that monitors it, the grating ring of a jack-hammer
against cement on the street below, the whir of a drill and the
pounding of hammers on the floor above where renovations are going
on, wind whistling up the elevator shaft and the elevator bell
ringing loudly when it arrives at the floor, the quiet--and not
so quiet--hum of building systems, a high-pitched whine from the
thermostat on my office wall and the clanking of the ineffective
radiator it is supposed to control, treble and bass voices interspersed
with caffeinated typing in adjacent offices, this generation's
rock music from one radio and the last generation's from another,
an occasional slamming door, a sound like a fog horn that goes
off all day every day every 6 seconds for about 20 seconds that
I haven't been able to track to its source, and noises from my
computer which must be the hamster inside running on its wheel,
as I have
no other explanation. In short, an auditory assault. And, yes,
it is hell.
It is a lonely hell sometimes. Most of the people around me --
more adaptable than I am -- are unaware of the daily torture life
in the city can be for someone not as adept at disregarding sound.
They think me simply odd when I say "Do you hear that? What
is that? It's driving me up the wall!"
I am grateful, however, that I cannot close my ears -- and I get
the last laugh -- when I hear the peregrine falcons, which for
the last several years have nested on a window ledge of the top
floor two floors above mine, as they circle in for a landing.
I heard them long before I ever saw them when I started working
here two years ago.
I both heard and saw them for the first time this spring late
last week, returning to their city home.
Wendy Liles [E-MAIL]
is a recovering information systems consultant and project manager
on the journey back to her creative roots as a musician and writer.
She is actively involved in ecological restoration efforts in the
Chicago area, particularly at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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