ALL I WANTED to do was to listen to the wind in the oak tree. That’s not true. What I wanted to do was to create some sort of record of listening to the wind in the oak tree. I was on the top of the Great Hill, where I’d hurried to get a tiny bit of fresh air and daylight, before the day was over. At the foot of the steps I’d seen a red-tailed hawk turning in the reddish-gold lowering sun, looping westward and out of view, and behind it came another, paler one, shining even brighter.
I tried to catch the second hawk quickly in my phone camera and failed; first I couldn’t find it, then I couldn’t get the autofocus to lock in. It would hold the image briefly, when the hawk was tipped into shadow, and then when the wings and belly caught the sun again it would turn into an hourglass blur. I made circles with the phone, trying to follow the circle of the hawk, and realized with some shame and anger that I was watching the blur on the rendered blue more attentively than the live and buoyant creature against the real sky.
In a diminishing version of that frame of mind I’d gone up the hill, taking the lower branch of the path where it forked, along the hillside clearing rather than through the trees, for the sake of a better view of the sky. No hawk came into view.
I reached the crown of the hill and had begun walking around the path there, looking around for the late-changing leaves, when I heard the dry hiss and rattle of the wind in the oak. It was a youngish and smallish tree, its crown starting around shoulder- or head-height, and it had already lost all its color, but it was holding on to the curled brown leaves with an oakish tenacity, and the leaves were insistently grabbing at the passing wind, scraping and clattering in chorus. It was loud, this drab thing. And a handsome shape, still, as the eye followed where the ear was drawn.
I slowed to listen, then went a few more steps along the path. Next was a maple, a maple whose fine shape and color I remembered taking pictures of the autumn before, now running late, still somehow just only wine-tipped above and deep green below. I took its picture again.
Up ahead, further around the loop, the sun was glowing on some more colorful trees. I could still walk into the sunshine. Instead, I doubled back to the oak and opened the sound recorder on my phone. The wind was going through the tree at an easy, steady buzz now. I recorded 14 seconds of it, then stopped and waited, there with the little oak in the solitude.
The wind ebbed and then strengthened again. I was thinking of recording some more when I heard a siren pulsing in the distance, off to the south. I waited until it chirped off, but now the breeze was quiet and a jet was booming overhead. The wind surged once more, louder in the leaves than before, and with it another siren started blaring, this one somewhere quite nearby outside the park, and not moving very fast. During the worst of the pandemic, when the sirens were going constantly, I’d trained my ear to notice which ones were ambulances and which were police, but I’d lost that distinction again.
Our old apartment was just up the avenue from a firehouse, and when everything became a Zoom call, I realized how much time I was spending tuning out the blare of the firetrucks. In its persistence and haplessness, this one seemed like it must be an ambulance. Waiting by the oak tree I felt guilty, in the abstract, for being irritated by someone else’s suffering and rescue. Directly I just felt irritated. The siren went on and on. An old man and woman walked by, bundled up, the man blabbing on about something or other. Another jet passed, and more people, their stomping feet crunching on the cinders.
At some point, after five minutes of this, a hush fell again, and the voice of the tree swelled in a rush. I recorded nine more seconds of it, afraid to press my luck. Another siren started, this one far away, as I went on around the track. My own sneakers landed softly, near silently, on the cinders. It’s not that hard to do, if you bother. The sun was gone from the ground now.
When I played back the recordings later on, mostly what I heard was the thudding of the wind against the microphone.
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