UR Here: Iowa City as the tonic chord in the sounds of home

Photo by Lauren Haldeman

The return is central to the relationship with home. When we fit back into the familiar, we know we are home. A good practice of home expands our perception of the familiar on that return.

If you have read this column for any length of time, you may remember that my family and I often take summer trips to the Minnesota North Woods. We did again this year, though in May, still truly spring near the Boundary Waters. In recent years, I have been opening my ears up as a primary conduit to my boreal forest experience. One of my favorite activities is to sit on the cabin’s screened-in porch, close my eyes and just listen.

It goes without saying that the soundscape on the return home to Iowa is different. So also in recent years, in addition to the typical ceremonies of returning home to the familiar—such as cutting the grass and going through accumulated mail—I have paid close attention to the auditory world I am reentering. And in so doing, I have grown to embrace the Iowa City soundscape as a tonic chord in my affection for home.

The northern May nights on Sundew Pond are resplendent with the symphony of spring peepers and their jubilant glissandos. A common counterpoint amidst this chorus is the eerie, plaintive yet insistent whooping of a lonely pied-billed grebe. If we’re lucky, we’ll also hear a distant song of mystery from a howling wolf pack echoing across the pond’s waters.

These are the exotic sounds we relish in the northern night. But I feel a profound satisfaction in returning to the familiar sounds of my Iowa City summer backyard night. The peeper chorus is now the undulating cricket chorale. The mysterious wail of the grebe transforms to the stately, reedy hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooo of the neighborhood barred owl in a nearby tree. The wolf howl becomes the throaty bark of our greyhound at some imagined disturbance in our dark yard. I even welcome back the familiar squeak of our metal storm door as I let one of our dogs out, supplanting the woody slam of the Minnesota cabin’s screen door as someone makes a late-night foray to the outhouse.

Our small urban milieu here in eastern Iowa clearly generates a much more artificial soundscape than the wilderness of Sundew Pond. But even reintegrating with the sonic trappings of my modern life in Iowa City is a welcome part of coming back home. While I love to focus my ears on the robin and cardinal song on a typical Iowa summer morning in town, I also feel a sense of satisfaction when I hear the predictable rough hum of the bus’ engine approaching my stop on Friendship Street as I trek back to work. As I walk across the university’s Pentacrest to my office, that same robin and cardinal song might float above the loud drone of a mower trimming the campus grass. Even the background whooshing of Jessup Hall’s air handler reclaims me as I settle into my desk chair. And I know I’m home when the day is punctuated by the airy, strident steam whistle blaring from the power plant at eight, noon, one and five.

Our relationship with home relies so much on what we see. But our local landscape has many more sensory dimensions, which we often ignore. A return offers us the opportunity to re-sense our relationship with place. For me, the Iowa City soundscape has helped me reconnect, and connect with even greater awareness and depth.

Thomas Dean admittedly is not happy when a neighbor cuts the grass at nine o’clock on a summer night. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 222.

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