“I got back into bed with the fly swatter and listened to Jim’s beautiful snores and all the ancient din of the farm.”

Two philosophers are now certain of their theory “the greater civilization becomes, the noisier it gets”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, July 29, 1939.

“I’m getting jumpy,” announced Jimmie Frise, “with all the racket that’s going on.”

“Summer is a noisy time,” I submitted.

“Just listen to it,” sighed Jim. “That dull roar of traffic. Street cars, motor cars, horses, wheels, horns tooting, bells ringing, engines grinding in gear, trucks rumbling, exhausts coughing.”

“And that hissing sound?” I mentioned.

“That’s a steam shovel a couple of blocks away,” said Jim. “I traced it down at noon. You should see the great noisy thing, grabbing a ton of rocks and junk at a grab and slamming it into a truck.”

“Those are rivetting hammers,” I interrupted, as a far insistent rat-rat shrilled above the dull thunder of universal sound.

“Doors slamming,” intoned Jim, “windows banging, boxes falling, things being chucked about, men with shovels scraping them on the pavement, boys whistling, men shouting, people gabbling, feet tapping, machines making 700 different kinds of screeches, hums, clicks, toots, bangs, thuds.”

He buried his head in his hands.

“Maybe you should take a couple of brown pills,” I suggested gently. “When you’re well, you don’t notice the noise of modern life.”

“You’re wrong,” said Jim. “I never was better in my life than I am right now. It is when you are perfectly well and healthy that you resent the unnatural racket of modern society. When you are ill, full of bad food, not getting your regular sleep, your nerves on edge from driving too much in your car, listening too much on the radio and going to too many movies, you are in tune with modern civilization and you never notice its evils. Like noise.”

“Puh,” I retorted.

“Mark my words,” said Jim strongly, “we’re heading for disaster. And it isn’t political either. We’re doing everything nature does not want us to do. We’re organizing. Nature hates organization.”

“Look at bees,” I countered. “Is there anything in human affairs as well organized as a hive of bees?”

“Okay, then,” said Jim bitterly, “we’re headed back to the bee-hive. Nature made us strange and strong, with brains and adventure in us, and gave us the chance to be as free as lions. But we decided to organize instead. And in about 100 years, we will be bees instead of lions.”

“Lions are nearly extinct,” I pointed out. “What is left of them are either in zoos or slinking in the desert, avoiding big game hunters.”

“And where are bees?” inquired Jim sweetly. “In hives, being robbed and smoked and dinned with tin pans. I would rather be a lion, slinking in the desert, than the head bee in the hives of the best honey producer in the buckwheat belt.”

Noise Will Drive Us Nuts

“Man is a swell creature,” I agreed. “He has conquered everything. What he can’t enslave or use, he kills. If he can’t eat it or harness it, he shoots it for sport.”

“Yes,” said Jim, “and in the case of song birds, wild song birds, no matter how beautiful they were, nor how sweet to hear, they were slowly being obliterated until somebody discovered that they were valuable to the farmer for eating injurious insects and weed seeds. All their beauty availed them nothing. But the minute they had a commercial value to man, they were saved.”

“We’re a pretty swell species,” I admitted.

“I have a feeling,” said Jim, “that we’ve been so cruel and ruthless in the five or ten thousand years we have got organized and conquered the whole world, that some special fate is being planned for us.”

“We’ve certainly wiped everything else off the earth,” I confessed. “Animal, vegetable. We just took the whole show and made it ours, as if we were the only thing that counted.”

“And the point is,” said Jim, “nature doesn’t care any more for a man than she does for a bug. Some day, somehow, nature will correct the balance.”

“Some big plague will take us,” I suggested.

“Science has pretty well mastered plagues,” said Jim. “I think it will be a more humorous finish than that. I think the just and reason able end of us will be the result of our own actions. For instance, we’re getting noisier and noisier. The greater civilization becomes, the noisier it gets. We’ll finally drive ourselves nuts with noise.”

“Won’t we grow immune to noise?” I cautioned.

“In 100 years,” said Jim, “we will have organized everything. The human race will be like a hive of bees. All our individuality will be gone. We will be helpless items in a giant whole. Each of us will know only the one thing, the turning of a nut, the tending of a machine, the turning on and off of a switch. We will all be living robots. Safe and secure, all our political troubles ended, all our social problems solved, no more crime, no more poverty, like bees we will hum at our work, each of us trained to do our little job expertly, each of us trained to use our leisure for our own best interests and the good of the whole. Meanwhile, we will have got noisier and noisier. You can’t organize anything without noise. The greater the organization, the more stupendous the sound. All of a sudden, a giant jitters will smite the human race. All of a sudden, a sort of overwhelming lunacy will sweep like a storm across the world. Screaming and running and hiding and burying our heads, we will leave all our precious tasks, to escape from the awful jitters of noise. And before we can get organized again, in the silence that will fall, we will all have starved to death, died of thirst, of exposure. Because being units of a vast organization, we will be helpless to survive without the organization.”

“I hope you’re right,” I said devoutly.

“I can see my great-grandchild,” mused Jim, “gnawing at a steel gear.”

“I don’t suppose,” I supposed, “that we could start some anti-noise campaign?”

“There have been several,” said Jim, “and they didn’t get anywhere. All they did was add a little more racket to the rumpus. No. It isn’t industry we have to change. It is the human heart. We must try to persuade humanity that it isn’t science they want, but nature. The human heart must desire differently.”

“But maybe,” I suggested, “this desire in the human heart for bigger and greater splendors of science and industry is only a sort of lunacy that nature has planted in us to avenge the buffalo and the tigers and the forests and the bees and the hens and cattle and all the things we have enslaved or destroyed?”

“Ah,” said Jim darkly. “Aaaahaaaa.”

“Up till this minute,” I professed, “the noise didn’t seem to worry me. But since you have been talking. I’ve suddenly become conscious of the racket. Isn’t it terrible?”

We sat in Jim’s high studio on the top of The Star building and listened. The summer afternoon heaved and groaned with a vast sound. Sounds near, sounds far. Traffic ebbing, flowing, cars, wheels, horns and blasts. A hundred factories around gave out their varied roars, buzzes, clacks. From distant works of majesty and power came the sound of steam shovels, rivetters, giant hammers, great drills.

“I’ve got to get away,” shouted Jim loudly, as if to make me hear above the tumult. “If only for a day or two, I tell you I’ve got to get away.”

He leaped up excitedly and began throwing the papers on his desk about violently, stuffing them in drawers. He grabbed his coat and vest and hat.

“Where are you going?” I demanded.

“My Uncle Abe,” said Jim, “has a farm. I spent my boyhood holidays there. It was so quiet. I used to think I’d scream when I was a kid. Silent as death. The trees never rustle. No wind stirs the pond beyond the barnyard. Only the faint lowing of cows, the soft patter of rain …”

“Jim,” I butted in, “let’s go. We owe ourselves a couple of days’ rest. Will your Uncle Abe have room for me too? Just for a couple of days?”

And like fugitives, we fled from the city of dreadful sound, driving like refugees to our homes to pick up pyjamas and fishing rods – there being bass, Jim said, in the pond beyond the farm yard – and out into the peaceful country.

“Of course,” said Jim, as we drove madly along the crowded highway, “you can’t get any impression of peace from the country, just driving through it, because the noise of the car and the rush and hoot of cars passing us, and the necessary strain and tension of driving in traffic …”

Down a darkening side road we drove, and the lights were lit in Uncle Abe’s farm house when we turned in the gate.

In fact, electric lights. And they were burning brightly not only in the house, upstairs and down, but out in the barnyard and at the side door and a specially livid light was burning part way up the lane to light the scene for at least 20 motor cars.

“What’s going on here?” demanded Jim sternly.

But when we found a little place to park and turned off our engine, we could hear music loudly braying.

“A dance,” gasped Jim. “Good grief.”

Uncle Abe was at the door, welcoming the guests. He welcomed us joyously.

“My gosh, Jimmie,” he bellowed. “I’m glad you come. This’ll make up for those awful quiet days you used to bellyache about when you was a kid.”

“What is it?” asked Jim.

“The youngsters are putting on a dance,” said Uncle Abe. “They give a dance each week at the different homes. Hear that band?”

We heard it all right.

“All local boys,” cried Uncle Abe. “The best dance band in seven counties.”

Uncle Abe showed us up to our room and we met Aunt Emily and the kids, and were introduced to the company so far assembled, about 30 in number, more to follow. Jim and I got chairs and sat in the parlor to watch.

Countrymen have better wind than city musicians. They can go seven days without coming up for breath.

After an hour, Jim whispered: “Let’s go out and walk around a bit.”

And we sought the peace of night. But half way between the house and the pond beyond the barnyard, the roar of the bullfrogs collided with the fading boompah on the band. The crickets shrilled, the mosquitoes nagged around our heads, and a whip-poorwill came and yelled from a tree beside the road.

“What time is it?” gritted Jim.

“It’s just 11,” I said.

So we walked up the road a way, but after having to leap the ditch several times in the blinding glare of headlights of cars careering madly along the narrow gravel, we decided to go back and make the best of it.

We went back with clamped teeth and watched and listened, and the young people, full of abiding fire, danced to the rumpus of the seven-man band, and sandwiches were passed and it was a quarter to two before Jim and I went up to bed and the last of the cars roared and backed and twisted out of the barnyard.

“I doubt if I can ever get to sleep,” said Jim gauntly.

But in five minutes, Jim’s snores were harmonizing with the ever increasing band concert of the bullfrogs. One measly mosquito with a baby voice, far worse than six, came and fidgetted around my head, teasing me awake every time I nearly dropped off. I jabbed Jim to stop his snores, only to have him start again just as I thought I had disposed of the mosquito.

Dawn Comes Like Thunder

Then, all of a sudden, a rooster crowed.

“Jim,” I hissed. “Jim.”

“Whaaa,” said Jim.

“Listen to that.”

The rooster crowed and Jim snuggled back to sleep as though he had heard a command.

Seven times the rooster crowed, and then, like a bugle, a cow bellowed.

I sat up. It was still pitch dark. I tiptoed to the window. A sickly pallor lay in the east.

“Jim,” I said, shaking him. “Wake up.”

He sat up.

“Listen,” I hissed.

The rooster crowed. The cow bellowed. A door slammed. Feet crunched on the gravel. A herd of pigs suddenly began to scream.

A horse kicked the barn well enough to knock it down and a pump handle began to thud and squeak.

With a blissful sigh, Jimmie rolled back and in an instant was asleep.

Daylight came like a fire horse. With every degree of daylight, the thunderous racket of the barnyard increased. Fifteen cows began bawling and five horses joined the choir with whinnies. The pigs seemed to go mad and begin murdering each other. Three roosters, a hoarse one, a short one and a long drawn one, went into competition, and a sort of din arose of hens, ducks and the silly yodelling of geese. Right under our window, the awful roar of an engine began, backfiring, spluttering, banging, slackening and accelerating by turn. I leaped out of bed.

Under the window, the hired man was working on the tractor. He twiddled and tinkered at the engine, the sounds rending the morning, the tractor shivering in fury. Suddenly it died.

“Hello,” I called down.

“Hello, there,” said the hired man looking up.

“Doing a bit of mending?” I inquired pleasantly.

“She’s been acting up lately,” said the hired man. “I thought I’d tune her up.”

“You weren’t at the dance last night?” I queried.

“Not me,” said the hired man. “I like my sleep.”

“Uhuh?” I said.

And he cranked her and started the terrible roar again.

So I got back into bed with the fly swatter and listened to Jim’s boastful snores, and to the cows and the pigs and the roosters and all the ancient din of the farm until a quarter to seven, at which time I kicked Jimmie awake, packed my pyjamas, and after a hasty breakfast got Jim to drive me down to the highway to catch the 8.30 bus back to the decay of civilization.

Editor’s Notes: I’m not sure what he meant by “brown pills”. There is reference that it could be heroin, but from what I can tell, though it could still be obtained legally in Canada until 1955, it was still tightly controlled. The drug scares of the first decades of the 20th century restricted many drugs, but perhaps people of Greg and Jim’s age still used the term for other medicine?

To older readers, a steam shovel, might be recognized as a generic term for an excavator, but at this time it was really powered by a steam engine. Actual steam powered machines were being replaced by diesel ones by the time this story was written.

Greg seems a little surprised by the electric lights at the farm? Maybe just because it was late, but maybe because rural electrification was slow in Canada? Household electrification came late to rural Canada. In the census year of 1951, when almost all urban homes in Canada had electricity, a third of rural households were still without electric lighting, and three out of four were cooking over a wood-and-coal range. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the country’s ten provincial governments subsidised and otherwise supported rural electrification for the first time, and by the 1970s almost all rural households had electricity and running water.