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Nothing seen, nothing lost

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My friends call it a refuge, but I call it regular: the silence out here, in western Orange County. In all the cities in which I've ever lived, there has been this conspicuous B-flat hum. It comes from the computer processors, refrigerators, televisions, the whirring up, on and off of neighborhood air conditioners. Musicians call it the horizon note—the backdrop, sometimes droning but always referenced, within any given score.

When I bought my first home along a dead-end road abutting the Cane Creek Reservoir, I noticed that my horizon note had changed. The B-flat became more periodic. Its sources became apparent because it was now backed by something bigger: silence. As an experiment one night, I turned off the refrigerator and computer and opened the windows. The surrounding landscape filtered into my house, and it was the deepest, most terrifying silence I had ever heard.

What's different about living in this quiet corner of Orange County? First, minor sounds seem louder. That whooshing, tubular roar of car tires is replaced by wind sounds. Pine trees in wind sound indistinguishable from the ocean. Tall grasses sound like paper confetti crumpling. Sweet gums and pines, grown too close together, rub branches and creak like antique dresser drawers.

Other minor voices emerge as well: Finches get flustered and fight. Geese's wings, flapping, emit delicate staccato exhalations. Coyotes alternate between barks and blood-curdling howls.

The most noticeable thing about living in a quiet place is how sounds emerge, sustain, then fall into nothing. And in that moment, the silence that follows is so absolute that the prior sound seems more defined.

In this quiet corner of Orange County, it's also much easier to notice how populated the woods are. Bald eagles soar over my house and gangs of crows blitz my yard.

Rarely a day passes when I don't see a pack of wild turkeys or a black snake writing out his eternal sentence of S's.

The animals and I cohabitate pretty well. They're engaged in their routines, I in mine. They've shed their quaintness and seem somehow both more fabled and ordinary. So, now that I hear that the Orange County Commissioners and a UNC-led airport committee want to build a waste-transfer station and an airport a few miles from my house, I lament the loss we will all undergo. The motorcade of garbage trucks, the steady stream of planes taking off and landing, will be a General Petraeus-brilliant assault on local inhabitants—from the sky and land.

This farming area has been quiet throughout its natural history, so our new neighbors will bring with them a new horizon note—that homogenizing B-flat entwined in the sounds of machinery. From a management perspective, I suppose it made sense: There's nothing out here. And on a map you can see it: There are only farms, forests and open spaces. Nothing seen, nothing lost.

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