A Luddite Listens

The sound emerges from the darkness, miles away across the river: the distant whistle of a train barreling along the tracks in Blount County.

I lie in bed and listen. It's 3 a.m. on a November morning in the year 2010, a whole decade into the 21st century. But this far-off, low pitched whistle has an echo of the ages.

In a world of relentless technology, it's a sound that hasn't changed since my childhood. It's the whistle of the train that brought my grandmother to visit long ago, heralding her arrival as we waited eagerly on the platform. It's the whistle of the train that brought me to summer camp in Vermont, winding through the Hudson Valley and the farmland of upstate New York. It's the whistle of the train that took me to college, leaving Penn Station in the early evening and depositing me at dawn at a tiny station in rural Virginia.

Closet Luddite that I am, I lie awake and, instead of sheep, count the sounds that have not yet been replaced by recordings or computer simulations.

Church bells, alas, do not make the list. It's been a long time since any human being pulled a rope to set them ringing. Sometimes you can even hear the recording skip or scratch, a depressing reminder of how far we've come. Or not.

Birdsong survives, at least for the moment. The liquid trill of a thrush, the persistent "pretty bird" refrain of a cardinal in a juniper tree, the haunting three-note greeting of mourning doves are still authentic. Even the cawing of crows or the gravelly cry of a blue heron seem welcome when I consider the alternative.

The crackle of a wood fire hasn't changed, the hiss and thud of logs shifting and falling in a rain of sparks. On a winter night, it is the sound of safety, of a clean, well-lighted place.

The throaty engine of the school bus as it rumbles down our street in the early mist and stops with a whoosh and squeak of brakes; the muted goodbyes of mothers and children—these morning sounds could be now, or 10 years ago, or 50.

I rise early and put water on for tea, spurning the microwave in favor of the bubble and steam and cheerful shriek of the kettle. It's another safe sound, a sound that signals comfort and continuity. Morning has come again, with no technological intervention. The sky is lightening, as it has since the dawn of time. There will be a warm drink, and a moment to reflect and to listen as another day begins.

Outside, the wind picks up and keens around the corners of the house. Like the train whistle, it's a sound that is at once lonely and comforting. This wind sang through the ancient trees that once grew here, covering the land that was cleared for meadows and fields and later for houses. The first inhabitants of the forest heard it, Cherokee who lived close to the Earth and in harmony with it. Fire, water, wind: these are sounds they would recognize, elemental sounds unaltered even now.

But the days of unaltered sounds are numbered. Will my grandchildren know a world in which even the wind is controlled by computers, a world where tea kettles are silent and artificial birdsong has replaced the real thing?

I sip my tea and listen. There it is again, the distant hoot of the train that passes just before dawn. In its lingering echo, time stands still.

The respite is brief. The whistle fades, and my cell phone pings to announce a new e-mail. I take a deep breath, push the Luddite back into the closet and return to the day.