The world outside grew quiet. The traffic that flowed one way past our house in the morning and the other way in the evening dropped to a trickle and then stopped altogether. Trains, mostly empty, ran every fifteen minutes instead of every ten and our pictures, which vibrated against the walls to signal their approach, stayed silent for longer.
On my afternoon walks around the block, I began noticing noises I swore hadn’t been there before. Whirring bicycle wheels, kids and parents exclaiming over plants in their front gardens, djiti djiti in the verge tree tweeting questions at passers-by. New sounds emerged like wildflowers in the early spring, only one or two to begin with, but then more and more, until one day I walked out of my gate into a symphony of the subtleties of life.
I was in Aotearoa/New Zealand on the eve of the pandemic, called home for my grandfather’s hura kōhatu. There hadn’t been any pressure for me to attend the unveiling of his headstone. Everyone knew how hard it was to get from Perth, how much it cost and how long it took. But I wanted to go. After five years in Australia, I missed te reo Māori, wind rustling through the summer grass, Kiwi accents, a granite ocean smashing into shore. I wanted to sit next to Dad as he reminisced with my aunties and uncles, to lean back into their laughter.
I began recording sounds because of my friend Ramona. She takes sound the way other people take photos. We might be sitting in a bar, listening to a band playing in the corner, and she will unlock her phone, open the microphone app and hit record. Standing in Times Square at ten o’clock at night: record. Eating breakfast at a beach-side café: record. Snoozing, hung-over, in the park: record.
I’m not as good at it as Ramona. Most of the time I forget it’s even an option, nine times out of ten going for the camera rather than the recorder. I freeze experiences in the narrow frame of my camera lens, accidentally stripping the world of its vitality, condemning moments to silence. Every so often, though – when the sounds reach the right frequency, maybe – I follow Ramona’s lead.
I have two recordings from Aotearoa/New Zealand. The first was taken in Herbertville, a blip of a village on the east coast of the North Island. The only way in or out is across a single-laned bridge, which connects to the village’s single street and handily allows everyone to eye-ball any new arrivals. There’s a pub, a camping ground, a golf club that’s more like a farm where people randomly gather to hit balls, and not much else. One local – simply to give themselves something to do, no doubt – has lovingly shaped their hedge so it spells out ‘Bugger’, reflecting in foliage the feelings of any person who’s accidentally stumbled into the village.
I was sitting in my grandfather’s driveway when I hit record. My cousin and uncle had kept his house after he died, giving us somewhere to retreat to after the unveiling, to drink and eat and tell tales that could be true but most likely weren’t. A couple of tables were set up outside, covered in a thin gingham tablecloth and platters of food. I was sitting on a chair with rusty legs and trying not to eat too much of the chopped-up French stick. The sun was inching its way behind the brown hills.
A few minutes before, a cousin had asked me if I had a Bluetooth speaker so we could have music. I didn’t but he obviously found one because the main sound in the recording is a reggae song.
I know, you know
Beneath it, their words mostly indistinguishable, are women’s voices—my aunties, probably. One is telling a story, murmuring beneath the music. The other responds with a high-pitched exclamation.
The song goes on:
Let your body go to the flow, to the riddim like
Ohhh oh, ohhh oh
Mostly, I loved the quiet. Throughout the day I stood in the patch of sunlight next to my front door, held my breath and listened. I heard water drip from our rusted gutter, the gate bang softly in the breeze. Sometimes, it felt like even my pulse was slowing to match the pace of the world outside.
The problem came at night, usually after I’d spent hours watching or reading the news. In that space – after dark but before bed – silence became a vacuum that worries rushed to fill.
What if the borders never open again? What if I can never go home? What if I’m stuck in Western Australia forever? What if … ? What if … ?
I took the second recording at Maungakiekie, a volcano that was once a fortified pā, then a public park, then a grave site, then a monument. A holiday photograph exists of us when we were little, me and my three siblings sitting at the top, Auckland spread out behind us, smiling despite the wind that’s shaping our already-questionable hairstyles into even weirder configurations. All of us, except my brother, Jarrad, are in bare feet, so we must’ve driven up, taking the now-closed road from the south-west and winding our way towards the summit.
This time I came from the north, parking my car next to a café filled with young mothers and students. I ambled through Cornwall Park with its hundred-year old oaks and wide open lawns.
I was in a stand of kauri when I hit record. A yellow rope separated the path I was on from the surrounding trees. An attempt to stop a deadly fungus from infecting kauri roots and starving them to death, a nearby sign told me. Dappled light fell from above, sun and shade dancing across the ground.
Cicadas belt out a beat in the recording, their combined song almost as steady as the tick of a clock. Above them, a tūī calls once, twice, three times. Pauses. Calls again. She trills, clicks, opens her throat and lets her bell-like song ring out.
I started playing the two recordings before I went to sleep. Reggae sounds, then cicadas. Aunties, then tūī. Over and over and over again.
During the day, I basked in my newly-discovered sounds. But at night, I returned to the familiar. I hit play on my two recordings and closed my eyes. I let the sound waves carry me across the Tasman and back home.
Let your body go to the flow, to the riddim like
Ohhh oh, ohhh oh
* NB: The song played in the recording is Spawnbreezie’s To Da Riddim‘
Franchesca Walker (Ngāti Rākaipaaka, Ngāti Pāhauwera, Pākehā) was born and raised in Aotearoa/New Zealand and worked as a historian for the Waitangi Tribunal Unit on Treaty claims before moving to Western Australia. She writes mostly memoir, focusing on her identity as a Māori and Pākehā (New Zealand European) woman, but also performs live storytelling. Her work has most recently been performed as part of the storytelling show, Barefaced Stories.Copyright © 2020 Franchesca Walker.