The Sound of Island Silence

What does it mean to listen closely in a noisy world?

The church on Frenchboro.
The church on Frenchboro. PHOTO: TOM GROENING

 

By Scott Sell

There was a night on Frenchboro, a decade ago now, when I heard silence for the first time. It was during a February vacation for the school and most families were somewhere warmer on the mainland, even if it was the Holiday Inn pool in Ellsworth. All told, there were likely five or six people on the island.

Which is why, I think, my neighbors on the other side of the harbor had invited me over to their house for dinner and a movie: an attempt to keep the lone bachelor sane in the dead of winter. It was late when I left and other than their porchlight guiding my way down the hill, the entire island—itself sitting in an inky sea—was pitch dark.

Once I rounded the head of the harbor, I realized it was very quiet. More quiet than usual. Aside from the sound of my boots crunching in the snow, the whole island was still. I stopped walking and listened. There wasn’t a breath of wind. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. It was a silence that gave me the strangest feeling that I had lost my hearing altogether. I felt like I finally understand what Paul Simon was talking about.

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In a time when we’re constantly barraged with sound—advertisements blaring from TVs at the gas pumps, the endless white noise of air conditioning—an island might seem like a good place to escape the din of our every day. The word itself conjures the image of a place that’s defined not by what it possess, but what it lacks: the mound of sand and lone palm tree of cartoons. An empty paradise or purgatory, depending on your perspective.

Of course, anyone who has stepped foot on a year-round Maine island knows this is a simplified way to think about these places. They are towns with commerce, government, wildlife, and problems similar to anywhere else. They just happen to be sitting in open water. Nevertheless, the quiet of an island is often why so many people live or visit or are otherwise entranced by islands, where sometimes it feels like the noises of modern life all but disappear. But what does an island sound like?

They used to be pretty noisy. Once European settlement occurred on Maine’s coast, and especially after the Industrial Revolution reared its head, things got loud. Sail beget steam beget diesel, and by the turn of the last century, everything was cranking at high volumes. Even when some islands started becoming “summer colonies” in the mid-19th century, there were still incredibly loud activities happening: quarrying on Vinalhaven, shipbuilding on Chebeague, fish processing on Swan’s Island.

Not that there weren’t eventual attempts to hush the racket. Voters on Islesboro, many of them summer residents, helped to pass a 1913 regulation that prohibited automobiles on the island’s roads. For 20 years, there was nary a car or truck in sight, or their engines to hear. But just like anywhere else, the inevitable caught up with all Maine islands and the clamor of progress came with it.

* * *

These day, the islands can feel just as busy and sound just as boisterous as any place on the mainland, especially in the summer. But in their moments of stillness, they may very well be one of the quietest inhabitable places you can find. And with the absence of distractive noises, there are thousands of small sounds to appreciate: the subtle shift of snow, the faint creak of tree limbs rubbing against one another. And there are sounds that are unique to each island, noises that make islanders recognize that they’re home.

For Ann Caliandro of Long Island, it’s the bell buoy in Hussey Sound. It was her favorite noise as a child, lulling her to sleep when her family would spend summers there. Now she hears it every night since making the island her home full-time in 2010.

Long Island also has an aural gem of its own: Singing Sands Beach. In her book The Maine Islands in Story and Legend, Dorothy Simpson tells us that there are varying descriptions of the beach’s song: “On a dry summer day and providing the wind is blowing right, it sounds ‘strange musical notes of great beauty.’” More accurately, it squeaks with each step you take, a strange, haunting noise beneath your feet.

A few years ago, Bill Trevaskis—musician and photographer on North Haven —began recording the sounds of his home island, audio tracks of his footsteps on a rocky beach, ferry horns, and animals baaing and baying at Sheep Meadow Farm. Trevaskis says some his favorite island sounds have to do with the fog.
“On a really foggy night, when the foghorns get going in chorus, it’s chilling and magical,” he says. “They often harmonize with each other and create a pretty beautiful consonance out of dissonant intervals.”

And recently, he was boarding a boat on Vinalhaven—where he teaches music at the school—to return home to North Haven when he heard voices coming from what he thought was a boat close to him. The fog was thick and, because there was no wind, it dampened all sounds so he could hear every word of a conversation taking place across the thorofare on North Haven, over 500 yards away—a reminder to be careful of what you say on islands.

There were transcendent sensory moments during my years on Frenchboro: unfathomably beautiful sunrises and the smell of sun-warmed pines at Yellow Head and the taste of Lorna Stuart’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. But it’s those crystalline sounds that transport me back. I’d sit on the parsonage porch at dusk, the voices of island kids whispering make believe in their tree forts the only thing I could hear. Or I’d hike in the silent woods on a Sunday morning and hear the town singing “Amazing Grace,” the wind carrying the song, clear as a bell, across the island from the creaky church.

It’s still possible to find that clarity of sound. On every island I’ve lived or visited, there is that moment on a summer day when the flurry of morning activities gives way to a lull in the late afternoon. Fishing boats have come in and the hum of diesel engines has gone quiet. And not unlike siesta in Spain or riposa in Italy, things settle down as islanders get dinner ready, fix traps in the fish house, a few hours of calm before the next ferry arrives bringing groceries and guests, news and logistics to navigate. It might only last a few moments, but it’s there if you listen closely enough.

Scott Sell is a writer, video producer, and musician who lives in Rockland. He is a former Island Fellow and formerly worked for the Island Institute.

  • Ginny Jones

    Yes! That is why some of us love islands, particularly in winter. The noise of traffic, crowds, dogs barking, music blaring and all the rest is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for me in summer when we have (or so we are told) well over 100,000 people here on any one day in July or August. If they aren’t here it sure feels and sounds like it. Then we are, literally, counting the hours and the minutes until they all get in their cars (or planes) and leave for home, leaving us to enjoy the peace and quiet of what we call “islader’s summer” — the golden end of August and September.