The night roar

9 September 2008, from Writings

I am in a deep, dark mood. My hand hurts from slamming the phone down, hard, on the table. I play back in my head the frustrating conversation with a local police officer who told me that the awful, growling, rumbling, grumbling sounds that constantly emanate from the nearby food-processing plant are ‘exempt’ from the city’s noise complaint policy.

In other words, I have no right to complain. After all, I bought a house near the industrial park, and should have known what was to take place there. And indeed, I did know the potential, and made a gamble; but the gamble has paid off poorly.

When I moved here two years ago, the industrial park was quiet, a bit lonely even, but within a few months I started noticing first a hum, then the definite whirring of motors wafting on the air across the park. It was occasional, enough to be annoying, but not enough to pin down.

Eventually, I did pin it down to the food-processing plant, and the randomness proved to be the shifting winds: the noise is worse when the winds come from the north. On a walk one day, trying to track down the real source of the noise, I met the plant manager, a guy named Bill who is also a city councilor and chair of the local chamber of commerce. A nice enough guy, Bill admitted he’d received a couple of other complaints, and he’d taken some time to drive around the surrounding neighborhoods to try to hear the plant’s effects for himself. He’d not heard much, but he’d keep his ears open.

Since then, either the plant has gotten louder, or I’ve gotten more sensitive – probably a combination of both have happened. The plant is definitely running more often: in her second call back to me, the police officer says she’s talked to the plant’s graveyard-shift manager, and the sound I’m hearing is corn cobs, thousands of them, being shoveled out of a truck, down a conveyor belt, and dropped into a steel bin. This is what the plant is doing right now, in the cool latter days of summer, the kids back in school: two 12-hour shifts of corn processing, their nonstop work reverberating across the lonely fields.

Outside, somewhere in the aural distance beyond the mechanics, are the crickets and the frogs. When I first moved here, I was amazed at their loudness, the way their calls filled the night air, sounding wet and close. The swampy area at the south of the industrial park is still a guerilla wetlands, a wilderness squatting there between factories, our neighborhoods, and the middle school. I thought that wetland would stay a barrier, a sound wall that would protect me from the rapacious trucks and conveyors and grinders that convert cobs of corn into corn-based products.

But that sound wall is porous, the barrier ineffective. When I open my front door, step onto my porch, I can barely hear the crickets, and the music of the frogs has been drowned out entirely. I close the door, and hear the far-off hum of the motors, subtle yet maddening. My brain feels like it’s being tugged, pulled, shaped by the constant metal roar, like an alien waveform being broadcast into my head.

As I often do these days, I don my noise-canceling headphones in frustration, shutting out the hum – and with it, shutting out the chorus of the frogs and the group efforts of the crickets, and leaving me only with the dead white noise of the headphones. Often I even go to sleep with the headphones, and yet still wake up irritated and grumpy. No wonder: I love to leave the windows open, listen to the chorus of the night, and be awakened by the songs of the morning. I feel like I’ve applied pesticide to my ears, and that poison kills everything that lives.


Morning. I wake with difficulty, rising out of a complicated too-true dream. My head feels full of dense, gray foam; my body aches from the stress from last night.

But as I sit reading, drinking coffee, I realize something: it is quiet outside. Sure, the crows caw, the various dogs exchange some scattered warnings, a neighbor begins watering in their yard, the morning commute traffic ebbs and flows over the hill. But beyond that – nothing. No incessant roar, no clatter of corn cobs falling, no metal machine music of the factory. I think back to what the police officer told me last night: two 12-hour shifts, and that they change shifts at 8am and 8pm. Sure enough: it’s a bit after 8am.

My head is calm, my ears feel light and untroubled; I can think and observe without the constant background call of the machinery from the north. The morning sounds start, then finish; they come from all up and down the street; small sounds from small sources; cooperative if not harmonious. It is a healthy cacophony, the way things should be here in this small town of friendly people.