[ToC]

 

A LISTENING AIR

Nora Kipnis

 

My father resents the accusation that he is somewhere between a collector and a pack rat. On a brief tour of our house you might find wedding pictures from his marriage to his first wife, his father's old shoe shine kit, a rack of CDs that lays dusty in the age of iPods. My grandfather's piano scores fill up an entire shelf in the front hall closet. One countertop in our kitchen is dedicated to my father's collection of kerosene lanterns. The horsehair and mahogany chairs in the basement—furniture his Russian immigrant grandparents worked so hard selling handbags to purchase—now swell with water that flows in from behind the boiler with every rain.
     Recently my father has started collecting Zenith radios, models from the interwar era. They are all similar: wooden-looking, glowing Bakelite boxes the size of microwaves, with brown plastic dials and gold trimming on a circular face. One sits on his bedside table. Others cluster around the house, some in the finished attic, sitting on the bookshelves I helped him install a decade ago. I imagine a family huddled around them in the evenings, listening.

Radios fascinate my mother, too. As a teenager she stayed up at night with a ham radio, tuning in to listen to truckers she'd never met. She eventually learned their language and began to talk to them.
     Learned their language. As though they were an alien species who spent their nights, while we humans lay in bed, traversing the broad lonely roads of this enormous country carrying loads of concrete, love letters, homogenized milk, plastic toys. Their backyards are the freeway medians, those miles of land unused except as hiding places for police cars. My seventh grade social studies teacher told me that the square footage of all of the highway medians in the United States put together is larger than all of the unused farmland in the continent of Europe. Truck drivers are land-rich.
     It is, perhaps, truckers who built this country as it is, homogenized yet inscrutable. Tropicana for all, and Kraft cheese, and graying wooden picnic tables, packed in a giant box and then backed into a department store loading dock. Or perhaps it is the radio that built this country, easing the lonely highway nights for those who drive our massive need for consumption.

*

In 1919, army friends Karl G. Hassell and Ralph Matthews began manufacturing radios to-order out of oak cabinets in Matthews' kitchen. There is something in wood that is so beautiful, so secret. I wonder if the first listeners of radios felt as though trees were speaking to them, relaying messages just the same way humans speak to one another through radio.
     The radios quickly became popular for their beauty and simplicity, so the two men moved the operation a year later to a two-car garage and started using Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic. Leo Baekeland invented it in 1909, ten years before Hassell and Matthews began manufacturing Zenith radios. Bakelite is made with a machine called the Bakelizer, which subjects a mixture of sawdust, formaldehyde, and phenol to high levels of heat and pressure.  The Bakelite Corporation's logo was the infinity symbol because the material could be used for anything: light sockets, cars, telephones, jewelry, radios. As radio grew, so did Bakelite. By 1930 the Bakelite Corporation had a 129-acre factory in New Jersey and almost half of American homes had a radio.

*

I listen to the radio as I fall asleep, the BBC Radio 4 from 12:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. First they do the Shipping Forecast—twenty minutes of a soft-voiced British man reciting numbers and words I don't quite understand. My father explained it to me. Location, barometer pressure, wind direction and strength, visibility. I love the names of the regions, how they sound like a faraway magical land—"Fairisle," "Isle of Man," "Viking," "Dogger," "Hebrides". I pictured the ragged sailors listening, just as I was, but with the desire to stay awake, looking at the brightening horizon. After that they run the news, and if I haven't fallen asleep yet I catch Farming Today, my favorite show. The reporters interview farmers and fishermen, those who work and live with the land or the sea, about sheep shearing and droughts and late frosts. There is always in the background the lowing of cattle or the sound of threshers. If I fall asleep finally, I dream of blue-tongued oxen and the hills of Yorkshire, dotted with sheep.

*

Birds and other animals have the ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field, and use it to travel south for winter. Scientists believe this has to do with a magneto-sensitive protein in birds' retinas called cryptochrome. Its impact on how a bird sees the landscape has been simulated in photographs. When facing north, a bump of grayish shadow surrounded by a halo of light rises out of the earth. Facing south, the parabola is upside down, pointing towards the horizon. East or west, the light slants upwards towards north.
     Radio waves interrupt the reaction of the chryptocrome to the magnetic field, so birds get lost on their ways. They follow the paths of our communication instead of their own, the path of survival.

*

Once a bird inadvertently flew into our kitchen when we left the door open during a heat wave. For two days we left the doors open to the outside and hung a sheet in the threshold to the living room. I wondered if it got distracted by the radios, but decided it must be impossible. It sat on the counter next to the kerosene lanterns, eyeing us while we ate our breakfast cereal. It must have found its way out, because a few days later it was gone.
     It made me think of Derrida, how we fell in love with that bird. For a moment we intended each other's intentions, we inhabited the same room. We looked at cereal together.

*

I have no magnetoception; the road guides my yearly migration. The radio, too, helps me stay on my way—not so for birds, whose capacities to detect magnetic north are interrupted by radio waves. Winding between the cliffs of the Delaware Water Gap, the radio turns to static and I change the station, once, twice, three times. You can tell a lot about a place by what's played on the radio. There's always the usual top 40, but the rest is different. Driving west on I-80 from New York to Oberlin, as I get further from New Jersey hip-hop stations become emo or Christian rock.
     When the Poconos flatten out into farmland, I pass an Amish man on a horse-drawn carriage on a dirt road that runs parallel to the highway for a few miles. Metal towers that look like aliens keep vigil over the rolling Pennsylvania hills, their afternoon shadows stretching across the fields. It's strange, how human-like they are. Some are tall and thin, some short and squat with arm-like projections.
     Before I pass them again at the end of the year, four million birds will have died by flying into transmission towers or their wires, confused by the glowing red lights they give off.

*

Birds' ability to see radio waves tells me that even empty air carries a secret sound. There is nothing silent, only things we haven't yet discovered how to hear. Even trees have their songs. Their music has already been deciphered. An Austrian designer, Bartholomaus Traubeck, made a machine that uses a digital camera and Ableton music software to translate the rings on slices of wood into sounds. He made trees sing. I listen to one of them and it sounds ethereal, calm, waiting. When the camera glides over a knot, the tree is alarmed by the memory of its dead limb, then again relaxed as the rings come back together again on the other side.

*

"What do you think birds are saying when they sing?" my sister asked my father once, peering out the window at them flitting around the feeders.
     He thought about it for the afternoon, and then got back to her. "They don't say much. It's sort of like, 'Look at me! I'm a bird! I'm a bird! Who wants to make a baby? I want to make a baby! Look at me! I'm a bird! I've got a pretty good nest!' " My sister laughed for days about it.
     I wonder what they think we are saying when we talk. Whether birds ever look at us the way we look at them, whether they wonder about us.

*

Before the invention of polyvinyl chloride, records were made of shellac, the resin secreted onto tree trunks by female lac bugs in India and Thailand, a resin Baekeland intended to replace with Bakelite. When radio first became popular, record companies were worried that they would go out of business since people could listen to music for free. In response, they began demanding royalties from radio stations. Record companies won't go out of business any time soon; even if they do, the human desire to record will find a way. Try as I might, I can't find a recording of the first transcontinental message relay after WWI that Matthews' and Hassel's radio station, 9ZN, participated in on December 14, 1919. I suppose it may have never been recorded. The beauty of radio is its ephemerality, its invisibility. But, as was six and I first realized that a radio was uncontrollable when had to hear Shania Twain again, we are innately obsessed with recording, with re-hearing and re-reading and re-seeing, so we can re-member—we can be a part, again, of a complex experience. We record the sounds of the past in sheets of plastic and keep our grandparent's furniture in the basement and find a way to play hundreds of years of a tree's life in three minutes and forty-eight seconds.
     Radio and vinyl, Bakelite and trees, my father and birds, magnets and highways—these words circle through my head like rings on tree trunks. We follow roads on the earth's surface like birds follow the magnet at its core. The arm of a record player follows the grooves history traced inside the trunks of trees. The road burns rubber but is stained by its passing. They all have their layers, their ways of recording, of remembering, of holding on to what's past and yearning towards the future. We can scrape a needle or a camera across the grooves we have made on the resin of insects; we can collect Bakelite radios and hope they don't break; we can let water seep into our grandparents' furniture. We can let the voice of a man in London lull us to sleep in Ohio while a swallow hurls itself into wires that, to it, were invisible.

 

 

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It started with me hearing [Years] because my brother posted it on Facebook, and then the memories of Bakelite came flooding back.