Blind World Magazine

The sounds of summer.

August 31, 2005.
Washington Post.

To Philip Strong, summer is a muffled thing.

Sounds, he says, are lush and leafy like the season itself. Wintertime tones are bare.

Having been legally blind since the age of 15, Strong, now 32, has learned to listen to the tunings of the different seasons. His Silver Spring, Md., evenings are alive with chirping and whirring and "a cacophony of noises -- crickets and cicadas." The latter's clatter is not as loud as last year, he adds, referring to the legendary Brood X of 17-year cicadas.

When the night is right, he believes he even hears great horned owls.

"Lawn mowers put you in the mind-set of summer as soon as you hear them. Kids are out playing," he says. You hear more radios in the streets because car windows are rolled down.

"There is a whole variety of noises you just do not hear as much of during the winter," says Strong, an advocacy specialist at the American Council of the Blind. "For someone who is blind every one of those is unique."

As the season fades into fall, these are some sounds we have savored: The scruuussshh of a full-grown man sliding through the dust into third base. The dinka-plinka of the ice cream van skulking about the neighborhood. The rumble of coming thunder and the white-noise pleasantness of an afternoon rain. Wasps whispering, bullfrogs bellowing, the crisp flapping of the flag on the 17th green, the metronomic numbness of ocean waves and the ker-swooch ignition of charcoal on the grill.

"I think I hear humidity," says Andy Rosenberg, a broadcast engineer who has worked at National Public Radio for more than 30 years. "I think it has to do with the density of the air. Things sound kind of deadened."

In the coming cooler days, says Rosenberg, 56, "air transmits sound more efficiently. Sounds are crisper."

The songs of birds are different in the summer. Chickadees and blue jays form family-based foraging groups, according to Greg Budney of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A group of birds will protect its territory by singing the same song. "Everybody knows the password," Budney says.

"People actually do pay attention to seasonal sounds," he says. "It's somewhat subconscious."

To Linda Moore, 44, who sits on a bench in sycamore shade reading her Bible, summer sounds a lot like: "Kids." Her eyes are on her two nieces frolicking nearby on the Jequie Park playground in Takoma Park, Md., but her ears are on summer sounds. The clap-clop of flip-flops. The leaf-rustling breeze.

On the sunlit field, there is giggle-filled laughter. One dark-haired boy climbs into a portable dunking booth -- a seat hovering over a blue tank of water. Others stand in line and throw balls at a button. If they hit it -- kur-sploosh -- the kid plunges into the water. If they miss -- well, they just walk right up to the button, strike it, and -- kur-sploosh -- the kid falls in anyway.

"Summer sounds busy," says floppy-hatted Pat Gonzalez, 34, of Pat & Dave's Heavenly Sno-Kones stand near the West Hyattsville (Md.) Metro station. For the past four summers Gonzalez has served up icy delicacies -- tinctured with tamarind or pina colada or another sugary syrup -- out of the back of her Ford van. This year her 18-year-old nephew, Brian Cordova, helps out. Around here, he says, the summer "sounds Latino."

For Philip Strong, it's auditory. Fall, he says, "is probably my favorite season."

Dry leaves make such magnificent sounds, he says, being rustled by the breeze or raked by a neighbor. "On a cool crisp night, I love scuffing through them as I walk," he says. "Listening to the wind blowing them around."

In the winter, Strong says, noises seem much barer, much colder. "I loved to hear the wind blowing over the patio of my old apartment. I'd get that howling noise. There was much more of a coldness attached to it."

You hear branches creaking under the weight of heavy snow and tire chains jangling along the roads like sleigh bells.

Then comes spring. And the birds and the bees. "Bird songs begin in earnest," says ornithologist Budney. "Few species will sing throughout the year. Males are singing as one way of demonstrating their physical prowess. Female birds get to pick. Some males are better singers than others."

Days grow sunnier. Lawn mowers crank up. Kids stream laughingly onto playgrounds and into swimming pools. The circle of sound makes another revolution and the manic, mirthful -- if somewhat muffled -- days of summer return.

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