There was a fox outside my window the other night, calling to my dog.
Come out and play, I’m sure it said. Not speaking fox, though, it sounded to me like “ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!”
My dog, 20 pounds of terror who has kept me sane since I started working from home, responded with "joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!”
Well, maybe those weren't the exact words of the exchange. But my dog and the fox did chat back and forth. Trying to figure out how to describe what I hear down at the end of Annapolis Neck on the Chesapeake Bay is the challenge.
It is an aural landscape I’ve been taking notes on since we moved here way back in 2000. How, though, do you capture sound in words? It's about working with language, imperfect and malleable, and finding pleasure when someone reads what you've written and says, I've heard that sound.
The written back-and-forth overheard at my window – spelled as a collection of vowel sounds currently giving my computer spellcheck fits – comes from the 2013 song by Ylvis, "What does the fox say?"
If you remember it, and it's an everlasting earworm, Norwegian brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker try to harmonize what Vulpes vulpes is saying with its constant chatter. They do an excellent job of mimicking the red fox, who, like the dog and the coyote, makes a dictionary's worth of vocalizations.
I swear I've heard this at night.
It's a kind of onomatopeia, the process of using language to create a word that imitates a sound. The result itself is called an onomatopoeia – oink, meow and chirp.
Don't forget cricket.
On that long-ago first night in our house, a ’60s split foyer with no central air, we left the windows open to let out some late summer heat.
The incessant cricket-cricket-cricket flowed over us, transplants from a house on a busy downtown street where the windows were often shut to dampen road noise. My poor children were, at first, enraptured by the grand parliament of insects discussing endlessly the events of their day.
Then, the chatter progressed to annoying, passed irritating and finally settled into a maddening insect debate.
Explaining that crickets make their noise through the beating of their wings called stridulation did not help at all. Finally, regretfully, we shut the windows and said to ourselves that a stuffy bedroom was better than all that racket.
A cricket serenade is different than a chorus of cicadae, another summer singer around our house. Our cicada has a lower voice, and when many speak as one, it becomes a long, monotonous drone that goes on mechanically forever without purpose or meaning.
Some compare a cicada’s call to that of a jet engine. But we hear that too out where I live, and the comparison is inexact. You can identify the aircraft sounding off over our heads by their call, jets and props both.
Boeings and Airbuses headed to BWI Thurgood Marshall line up on the South and Severn rivers flanking our peninsula. They pronounce their gradual descent to a landing strip 25 miles northeast with a thunderous grumble.
Big Navy helicopters, with wonderfully sibilant names like Sikorsky Seahawk and Superstallion, transit to the Naval Academy with whump-hump-whump you feel as much as hear. Super Hornets arrive for the air show each May with a shriek that is a threat in the right circumstances.
The lonely propeller plane hums nnnnnneeaaaoooowww as it beats along the airpath from Lee Airport in Edgewater. There was that one time when an A10 Warthog wandered down from the air guard base in Middle River to buzz the Coast Guard station at Thomas Point with a frightening scream.
Fishing Creek explains some of the many sounds around our house. The waves travel to us along an open path of water and wetland, sometimes bringing us the faint, almost imaginary wail of sirens far downtown.
My kids heard the recorded bugle playing reveille across the creek for years, not realizing it was the Coast Guard starting its day. They were always up when it played.
All of these machinery noises, every last one, bow before the mighty bassoon of my listening landscape – the call of cargo ships out in Annapolis Roads.
The freighters and bulk carriers and ROLOs anchor just south of the Bay Bridge where it sweeps from Annapolis to Kent Island, waiting for their turn in Baltimore. On a clear night, they become little constellations of light punctuating the dark sky.
When the fog rolls in, they vanish. Fog on the bay is always memorable to see, but its tiny droplets of water scatter the energy of sound and make it hard to hear.
So when the ships sound their horns in caution, it's a very loud opera passing a tale of warning and woe back and forth in bass and baritone.
“I’m hereeeee, I’m hereeeee.”
“Hey, Hey, Watchouuuut.”
“Hereee, I’m hereeee.”
If the fog is silent except for the ship horns, the wind that clears it from the bay speaks loud or quiet depending on its mood.
It howls, it sighs, it soughs, susurrates and whispers. There are thousands of words to describe the wind, but all of them fall short. The word for wind rushing through the leaves of our trees is psithurism – the p is silent even if the wind is not.
I read once that Aztecs told their children the wind shaking the tops of the tree was the jaguar god. I don’t know any Aztec parents to ask if it’s true.
The Greeks had the Anemoi, winds gods named Boreas, Zephyrus, Notus and Eurus. The Haudenosaunee had Ya-o-gah, the destructive bear spirit of the north wind, while the Algonquin people of the Chesapeake had the Western wind god Kabun.
I wish Chesapeake winds had a name today, for they surely deserve it as much as the Mediterranean its Mistral, the Sahara its Sirocco, or the Pacific Northwest its Chinook. Maybe they do, and as I lay awake at night to decipher the wind, I’m just not smart enough to understand.
Some sounds come together, like the sharp birdsong at sunrise over the feeders below my bedroom window. It’s just a happy song of spring, and with the windows open again, a pleasant wakeup.
One year, I decided to keep a list of birds in my neighborhood and copy down their songs. The martin makes a rattle. The cardinal repeats two-part whistles, speeding up and ending in a slow flourish. The tiny wren scolds the bigger birds hogging all the seed.
The call of a mourning dove is one birdsong I can imitate, cupping my hands together just so and blowing across my gathered knuckles. It's playing “coo, coo-COO-coo” on a secret ocarina.
I wasn't sure whether to count the brief appearance of chickens near my house. My neighbor only had them for a short while, I think the foxes may have eaten them. But for a few weeks that one summer we woke to the sound of the cock's crow.
I stopped making the list of birds when it reached 50.
I’ve cataloged sounds over the years that mark time and season, almost as regular as the clock and calendar on my computer desktop.
All of that morning song will diminish as the heat of summer rises, replaced by an insistent kraa from a murder of crows and squeaks of grackles forming in plagues. Or maybe it's there and I can't hear it over the air conditioning.
The other day as my dog and I walked in the woods on an unusually warm March afternoon, treefrogs were peepy-peep-peeping at us from their hiding places. It’s a prelude to the keek-keek-kreeeek-k-keek-k-k of the osprey, the surest sound of warm weather arriving.
But that won’t arrive until the barking of swans out on the creek disappears, a temporary silence created as they start their long flight north. It should be any day, now.
Until then, my dog and I will listen to what the fox says.
Someone recently wrote on our community Facebook page, "At night, you may hear that blood-curdling vixen howl."
It's more than that. Vulpes vulpes, the red fox, barks, screams, howls, squeals and gekkers – a stuttering, throaty warning to a rival.
Sometimes it sounds like slaughter, sometimes it makes me feel lonely and sometimes, I guess, it’s a version of foxy passion. That varied speech, so full of emotion must be a kind of language.
I think the Ylvisåker brothers said that in their kitschy song.
"What the fox say?
What the fox say?"