I spent my earliest years on a farm at the edge of the historical Florida Everglades. It was at the base of the central ridge, where the prairie country segues into the ‘glades as the elevation slopes imperceptibly toward sea level. Until I was about seven we had no electricity. Our lighting was kerosene lamps. We had a wonderful, cacophonous silence: no radios, no television, and only a few human voices.
For the grownups, evening recreation was getting together in the “canasta house” — a little screened-in building open to the humid breeze — and playing cards or just telling stories. For a small boy with no other kids to play with, it was sitting in the darkness on the screened porch, comic books exhausted, and listening to that silence.
When you live away from lights, with only dim lights around you, the night takes on a palpability unknown to residents of towns and cities. In the flat prairie country of south-central Florida, in those days, visibility was so good that it was common to sit and watch thunderstorms playing out over the Gulf Stream, 75 miles to the east. I sat and watched the show, and the sounds closed around me.
At first, the nights seemed deathly silent. Then you began to realize that it seemed so only because the sound was omnipresent. Just as a person with rheumatism takes for granted the ringing in the ears caused by aspirin, one doesn’t at first notice the rich texture of the night sounds on the prairie. When you just sit and listen, though, the aural tapestry develops hundreds of colors, accented with bursts of more distinct hue that enter the consciousness almost like a flash of light in the visual world.
The background ringing of small frogs and insects was ever-present. The chirping of thousands of crickets and their relatives tended to be unnoticed until the one or two nearest — frightened into silence by your approach — decided again to take up their bows. Then it was as though an unseen guest had crept up on you, and you would start slightly before relaxing and enjoying the familiar tune.
The basses of the evening orchestra were the bullfrogs and pig frogs, the former with their deep “jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum,” and the latter a noise like a pig grunting — often mistaken for a gator’s grunt by newcomers until they actually heard a gator (and never again thereafter).
In the Winter the Chuck-Will’s-Widow, close cousin to the Whippoorwill of more northern regions, was essential to the performance. A Mockingbird might have been up late, or awakened from birdy dreams, and be declaring its possession of the surrounding territory. An occasional peep or quiet mutter from nearby shrubbery would attest to the presence of other avians too sleepy — or leery of the farm cat — to venture away from their perches or nests.