A #Covid-19 Story
Like most city people I thought that a place in the country would be a sanctuary where I could commune with nature. Many writers are known for their affection the flora and animals only found in a natural setting. Jonathan Frazen is known for his bird watching. Also Flannery O’Connor had a childhood surrounded by birds, in this case raising chickens, peacocks and peahens. Vladmir Nabokov was a respected Lepidopterist. In between writing novels, Nabokov loved netting, mounting, studying and displaying collections of butterflies. Sylvia Plath kept bees.
As a writer, I found role models in writers who sought out the bounty of nature. I formed the opinion that by connecting with nature in a deep, tangible way, a writer had a better grasp on reality. Our imaginations were fine-tuned by this experience with nature. Our lives in cities have cut that link, leaving us to walk around in a series of rooms, tone-deaf to the life that goes on in the diminishing reserves of Nature. Our family pet doesn’t substitute for an experience with the wildlife. Our dogs and cats have been bred to live in cities just like their owners.
Bangkok and most sprawling cities have their own unique soundtrack. You no longer ‘hear’ the noise. The background sounds are normalized. All that urban noise floats largely unnoticed through casinos, shopping malls, elevators, restaurants, controlling our emotions, interjecting soothing messages, implanting a mood that encourages buying, gaming, and choosing. Our city brains are washed with rivers of messages each hoping to propagate like a virus, turning us into aural victims that become another zombified consumer. Almost all the sounds are mechanical, man-made from air-conditioning compressors, to siren on emergency vehicles, to the drone of traffic. There is no noise void in a big city.
The idea of silence in a city is radical. It would be a threat to the whole capitalist system that depends on controlling the monopoly and content of noise. Of course, the business model is to sell noise as signal. That’s always been highly successful. Leaving aside the substantial damage it does to the neural processing of the average brain, I think at a deeper level, people love the background noise. Silence is associated with death. To be alive takes the daily reminder of some annoying noise buzzing in the ear.
What is the big deal for a writer who dips his or her toe in the secluded pond? My answer is this: when we submerge ourselves in larger, something we’ve not controlled or constructed, we learn something about who we are and how we are connected to a larger ecology of life. One of the main tasks for a writer is to distinguish between the signal and noise that defines our life. That’s why we read, write and treasure books with a strong signal from the source of life.
Nature is a master teacher in webs of networked insects, birds, animals, trees, plants, rivers, ponds, and vegetation. In the time of pandemic with lockdowns and shutdowns, my country place, once a rice field and now with a wilding of the terrain, has become a sanctuary for birds. It was once a place noted for a thriving populations of eels. The village took the name Eel Swamp. I’d written many books in my bungalow. Outside my windows was a rolling landscape of trees, scrubs, plants and a pond.
The ideal place to wait for Sars-CoV2 to burn itself out.
The first week, I watched green parrots and the arrival of egrets folding their large white wings as they set down near the pond. Hold that picture. The problem is I’ve introduced it without the sound cracked up. Once I introduce sound, and I want to be specific, man-made sound, the landscape changes. You can’t understand noise without examining the backstory. Noise doesn’t appear out of a vacuum. It has an origin, personalities come into play; aspirations, expectations and plans all play a role. How, where, and who of the noise is divided into different worlds. City and countryside noises have different origin stories. I want to detail a countryside noise story.
No one tells you the well-guarded secret about country life in Thailand. The noise. Government announcement over loudspeakers. Chanting over more loudspeakers from the local wat. Music cranked up from temple fairs. Songkran is a vortex of loud, unremitting shouting, singing, drunk laughter. People noise. The entertainment is based on the noise volume. Low levels means boring. Shattering your eardrums means you are having a good time. The same can be said about city noise. In fairness, these examples of noise making in the countryside are minor annoyances. After some time, like the noises in a city, country noise falls to the subconscious level.
It is the unusual noise that focuses our attention. A burst of sound that we can’t avoid or ignore. Such was the case of Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machine. This calls for a brief explanation. Mr. Tao is my neighbor in Eel Swamp. He’s a builder, a contractor, and local big shot with lots of workers and equipment. In a pandemic with a halt to most business activity, he’s needed to keep his staff from sitting idly by while drawing their monthly pay. One of Mr. Tao’s favorite pieces of equipment is a bulldozer.
Mr. Tao’s inventory of heavy machinery includes an old pre-electronics era DF7 bulldozer. Two-hundred horsepower giant that sits in the ribcage of metal. The bulldozer weighs just shy of 20,000 kilos or about the weight of three elephants or a herd of about forty-five water buffalo.* It’s a heavy-weight contender, destroyer, creator—a Hindu god–transforming Nature’s landscape. I study the bulldozer. The general appearance is like a bullet proof military vehicle, with faded, peeling yellow paint, thick heavy tracks and a protective metal cage for the operator. I watched as the operator, Mr. Rung, operated the machine using one hand on the throttle, the other on the lever to control the wench, his barefoot working the foot pedals like an organist. The old DF7 belched plumes of black exhaust. The earth shook as the roar of the monster engine spread its sound waves over our common fence. Each time Mr. Rung shifted the DF7 gears, moving the bulldozer back and forth, smoothing out a pile of sand, a fresh wave was unleashed. I stood by the fence watching.
The man in the DF7 cage was Mr Rung. He ignored me watching from across the fence. He appeared lost in his work. Mr Rung, an older Thai man from Rayong, had once served in the navy, had a drinking problem and had left the navy under a cloud. But he left with a heavy equipment operator’s knowledge of ancient machines that were from an early age of industrial development. Sweat poured from his gray hair line, soaking his shirt. He looked at the road, then the gear box, adjusted his seat. He occupied the captain’s seat, using an awesome tool to build a racetrack road. His leathery tanned face showed no expression. He wore no earplugs. The bulldozer noise was like elevator music. He no longer heard it. When Mr. Rung fired up the DF7 engines, I suspect the noise was reassuring. The machine mammoth came alive. Just to be sure, he gunned the engine to the 20,000 kilo monster for five minutes to show who was the boss.
Mr. Rung’s daily ritual started at 8.00 a.m. each morning. He stopped for brief lunch and Mr. Tao had him back in the saddle by 1.00 p.m. working until dusk. Road construction was not an overnight affair. Mr. Tao had assigned a working crew to create a motorcycle racing dirt track like one in Hong Kong that his son had seen on a YouTube video.
Mr. Tao had ordered a new road for his oldest son named Bank, who in his twenties continued to live at home, where he spent time working on two off-track motorcycles. He was the heir of Mr. Tao’s family construction business. Whether he’d outlive his father given his hobby remains an open question. Bank already had a small 300 meter track, but it was a straight track. He had to turn the bike around and race back. That stopped him from getting the speed gained driving on a circular track. The old strip lay beyond a sand bunker about fifty meters from the green of Mr. Tao’s one hole golf course. Bank designed the new track for maximum speed. He convinced his father it wasn’t dangerous. The design came from Hong Klong model racetrack for dirt bikes. He convinced Mr. Tao a professionally designed dirt bike track hugging the edge of the large property would increase the value of the property. Appealing to greed was the last resort; and it usually worked. Mr. Rung was given the hand-written drawing of the dirt bike track and told to build it. That order guaranteed to change the noise in the neighborhood. But noise wasn’t considered an important factor by anyone in Mr. Tao’s household.
Noise ran in the family. A little history of noise from that household illustrates cultural and sound barriers are closely related. Mr. Tao’s youngest son, nicknamed Ball, played a guitar in a four-person band. He practiced three, four hours a day. He was one of those people whose mastery of an instrument never improved. Lack of timing, tin ear, stubby fingers were a partial explanation. The utter lack of talent filled in the rest. He was part of a band and they started around 10.00 p.m., after smoking pot and drinking, trying out new songs they’d written. The DF7 could have been in the brass section of their band. None of Ball’s friends had ever taken a lesson. They were bad but in comparison with Ball, they were Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. They hooked up their instruments to a professional sound system. They wanted to ensure their midnight audience would not miss a single note.
Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machine, with its ensemble of select instruments, performed its part in a countryside orchestra spread out to cover the range of our hearing distance. During a lull in Mr. Rung’s roadwork, I walked back to my porch and watch birds return to the pond. I was curious as to my own reaction to Mr. Tao’s noise factory on the other side of the fence.
What exactly was anyone’s relationship with noise? Once you raise the idea of noise by implication you also raise the idea of signal. The two ideas are heads and tails of the same cosmic coin. It turns out that most of us swim our entire lives in a shallow sea of DF7 level noise. Like water for fish we don’t notice the noise. All the fake signals from the commercial side of our consumer based society add a fleet worth of DF7s to our daily noise level.
What if the universe was divided by noise levels into three zones?
Pure signal. Think of the lowest possible level of entropy. Pre-Big Bang bundled perfect signal.
Pure noise. This is the highest level of entropy. The end of all matter and energy now dispersed into non-useful work. A universe emptied of time, matter and energy, dark and visible.
Blended signal/noise. This paradoxical mixture is a fabric containing signal and noise; and this is the space where we and all life exist. Life is impossible in either of the pure states. So there must be something in this blended state we find ourselves that explains how we even came to ask the question about the difference between signal and noise. We experience both.
The third choice is where you find the dynamics required to convert low entropy into higher entropy. What process connects (which employs a version of Mr. Tao’s DF7) an umbilical cord of these two pure states? We don’t know. In the beginning, everything was pure signal—until it wasn’t. Since that moment all matter and energy has been flying apart. The bang is still banging and will continue to do so until a state of Pure Noise arises. Maybe this is the cosmic method of demolishing one pure state to create a pure opposite. We live in a universe that is in the process of demolition. We measure the distance between the two states of purity by using the time the great flying apart began. It will return to another state where nothing is left to fly apart.
If we had the ability to freely travel in and out of all three zones we’d come away with a different view about noise. Inside the pure signal zone everything is perfectly clear; everything is known; there is no interference, no flying apart, no noise. In this zone, there are none of Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machines.
In the pure signal zone, you are bombarded by signal. There is no boundary between your and the signal; you are one and the same. 24 hours a day you are processing pure mathematical truths. Douglas Adams imagined this as the Total Perspective Vortex in which no human being can survive the exposure to this level of reality. You enter the atom level of the universe and swim in a sea filled with the infinite number of digits of pi—3.14. Your eyes bleed from integrals and fictional numbers. You are overwhelmed by the strength of such signals, but there is no switch to dial it down; even while sleeping all of that signal and clarity lights up all areas of the brain. There is no respite. Unless you happen to be Adams’ character from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy named Zophod.
The point is we have our limits. We learn that our species can’t cope with such clarity, knowledge and insight into reality. We silently ache for Mr. Tao’s driver to fire up the ancient bulldozer, to hear it roar, to feel it redact the signal crazed world that attacks us from every direction. The lesson is that such a state of pure wisdom, knowledge, with every signal uncoiled into infinity, is lifeless.
Alternatively we escape into the noise zone; pull a chair close to Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machine, where there are no numbers, no truths, and all horizons in every direction are empty. We look for the blue sky. There is no sky. We search for the source of the noise and find an inferno machine pounding the ground. It groans and moans like a wounded warrior. But it never dies. It never describes or explains. This is another dead zone of purity. Pure noise is the meaning to eternal non-existence. It is the face of death. After a while, we start to want to unbury ourselves from this pure noise grave. We gain faith in finding signals. We convince ourselves we found signals in the universe. But how would we know whether we were deceiving ourselves.
The Thais always say find the middle-ground. Compromise. Stay in the blended signal/noise zone. That’s the only position where we, along with all life, started. Sitting across the fence from Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machine, trying to make out the song of a bird. We try to dial in bird; dial out machine. The frequency is unstable. Noise usually wins. We discover this is the place where most of us live. We crawl under the cross-fire of a barrage of noise, thinking on the other side is a signal that will vest our journey with purpose or meaning. Then we look around, the world is alive with Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machine—it’s actually the entropy mechanism that drives the flying apart.
What makes our world maddening is people disagree about noise. It turns out in this middle zone, one person’s noise is often another person’s signal. People are forever stepping on each other’s toes in these debates. The conflict quickly leads to people murdering each other over disputes whether something is noise or signal. The parties claim they have the secret of pull the pure signal from the noisy background. Not a day goes past without a news report of the latest person who reports he/she hs opened the hatch of the Total Perspective Vortex machine and climbed out like Zophod with the truth about the universe.
Mr. Tao’s Inferno Noise Machine is running inside everyone’s consciousness, it is cranking out the stories about how things are flying apart. Some people see this process more clearly than others. On social media when someone leaves a comment on Facebook or composes a Tweet or an email, you can assess how they are coping with their life passing as part of such an inferno noise machine. When you hear politicians and business leaders demanding to open up the economy at the front end of a pandemic, you see the danger of confusing noise with signal. Deep down, we carry with us a primordial belief that we will be spared the fate of all things flying apart. Like Mr. Tao they are making a dirt bike racetrack along a property boundary and asking why above the roar of their machines is lost in the wind and the faint call of seagulls.
A week later, the new racetrack opened. For days I’d expected the DF7 to be replaced by an assortment of Bank’s dirt bikes. But that didn’t happened. There were reports Bank had entered the monkhood, was stranded in Korea, and had broken a leg in an off-track race near Sattahip and was laid up in hospital. Bank’s absence left a lot of noise. I put him and the racetrack out of mind. After a few days, I returned to the fenced property line. I saw no sign of Bank or his dirt bike, and looking out at the dirt bike racetrack, it looked like an embarrassment, a folly. Another pandemic project to keep staff from being idle. Two days later, I saw Mrs. Tao riding a Chinese bicycle on the new road, softly singing to herself. The wind was in her hair. A smile on her face as an egret swooped down and landed next to my pond. She stopped her bicycle, stood up from the seat and watched the egret. She looked happy and content in what she saw.
I never realized the vast disparity in size between an elephant and water buffalo until I did research for this article. Another neighbor in the swamp keeps two water buffaloes as a kind of hobby. Surprisingly, water buffaloes make very little noise.
Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian novelist and essayist, living in Bangkok, is CrimeMag’s South East Asia correspondent and the author of the award-winning Vincent Calvino series and a number of literary novels and non-fiction books. His books have been translated into 13 languages. The Christopher G. Moore Foundation is awarding a literary prize for a work of non-fiction, which advances understanding of human rights and freedom of Expression.