The Ruricolist is now available in print.


The sound of ticking is passing out of the world – at least out of the public spaces, and out of most private lives. Monks heard it first, in stone chambers with narrow high windows, where wrought-iron heaps of parts, glimmering with hammer-shadows, had been anviled into what would become known as the first clocks. And each slip of the escarpment must have had the finality of a hammer blow, must have echoed from the walls like thunder from the valleys.

They built these machines to remember the hours of prayer when the sun was hidden by the clouds of their northern climate – strange to think now, that it was ever possible for time to be overclouded – and how unbearable it must have been, a whole community losing hours every day, vainly glancing at the sundial or the frozen water-clock, living together in that state of time deprivation which psychologists assure us can drive an individual insane – which has been used as a method of torture.

But then there were clocks, clocks everywhere – clocks in the towers, clocks in the street, a clock in the hall, a clock on the mantle, a clock in the pocket, a clock on the wrist – and each one slipping to tick, slipping to tick, the sound never far away, like the world’s breathing, running through everything – the frantic tick of a wristwatch, the steady pulse of a pocket watch, the white noise of a bedstand clock, the creaking (always ready to fill awkward silences) of a mantle clock, the stately tick-tock of a case clock (crouched like a mastiff in the hall, strong and reassuring, pendulum steady and slow as the voice of a murmuring poet), the crawling, hatefully patient unwinding of the clock on the office wall.

Hearing has more in common with touch than with sight. The noises we know too well to notice are like a steady, guiding hand, with touches that reassure and comfort. (Movies are dreamlike in part because our medium or atmosphere of sounds is thinned out to a conscious selection from a library of sound-conventions.)

The flow of centuries was measured out by the space between ticks – when the tick has ticked and is gone like the time that it took, but still the next tick is to come to tick and go on to the next. Think of the effect of a mother’s heartbeat in the womb, of a mother’s breathing on an infant, of a mother’s voice on a child; and think of this sound, more certain than a heartbeat, as needful as breathing, the voice of a clock’s willful presence. How could it not have formed the minds of those who grew up with it? How can its departure not have an effect, not somehow change the world?

So many old, good sounds are going or gone, or become kinds of luxury: the clatter of hooves, the scraping of gears. People still somehow know that records skip; but when they hear a record skip, do they feel the urgent need to get up and free the needle? With portable music and satellite radio, even static may come to be a mere indulgence, a touch or a flavor.

City people know little of the noises of the country, the wavelike near and far of barking, the symphonies of the birds, the ragas of cicadas, the call and response of the frogs – or the kind of suspenseful quiet when I set a ticking clock by my ear only to cover the sound of my own breathing. But they know the city’s sounds, and the sound which is the city – the rumble of the cars, millions of chattering explosions driving thousands of careering pistons, the asphalt flexing and the manhole covers shuddering, the wheels slipping and the brakes shrieking, the horns blowing and the air brakes sighing. And underneath – what is underneath? What world is in the cities, on the other side of the combustion engine?

If not too long from now the streets are full of cars which glide silently and trail only steam (and will the sidewalks be clammy and tropical with the steam?), if the cars of the future are to be ghost cars, seen but unheard, silent as sailboats – what sound of the city is behind?

Millions of people – could you hear a million alarm clocks go off at the same time? A million people laughing at once at the same primetime joke, cheering the same pass, cursing the same fumble? How far would the music of the clubs carry, would the steel-framed buildings thrum with the beats from their subwoofers as they shiver now at the passing of trucks? Romans said magna civitas magna solitudo – the greater the city, the more alone in it – but what does the city become, if you can shout to your friend across a busy street, and be heard? When you cannot help but hear the sick old men rave? When the gunshot in the slums echoes in the bedrooms of the mansions, and wakes the mayor’s children from their sleep?