On the way home from the Moncure Post Office, I stop at Jordan Lake Dam for some exercise. It is warm for February, the sun is shining, and I’m about the only one at the park. I take the trail that winds behind the tailrace, stopping to stare down at the water fighting against the river.
Invigorated with negative ions, I continue out to the grasslands. The golden stalks rustle in the light breeze. My thoughts churn slower with every step. It takes about half a mile to transition from driving to walking. I’d been moving so fast, lurching from one task to another, speeding around in my car. I turn left after a nesting box and in a minute I can see the lake shimmering ahead. Then I hear the Hum.
At first, I only heard it when I got up to pee at night. It seemed to come from the exhaust vent. I’d stand on tiptoe, straining to hear. It is decidedly a hum, the incessant weaving of two low notes, kind of like a dissected busy tone: HmmmmUhmmmHmmmmUhmmm It reminds me of a foghorn.
“Do you hear that?” I ask Bob one morning after the refrigerator shut off. He lay silent, straining. “I think I do,” he says, but neither of us is convinced.
By then I’d been hearing it for months—since midsummer at least. “It seems to be coming from inside the house because I don’t hear it outside,” I say. “Do you think it’s just the hum of our electrical system? If so, why would I suddenly start hearing it?”
“Do you want me to turn off the main breaker?”
“Yes,” I said biting my lip in gratitude.
Bob disappears into our bedroom closet and shuts everything down. He comes back to bed and we hold our breath. “I still hear it,” I say. Dang. Must be an earworm. Or aliens.
I wondered if someone has put up a server in our neighborhood. I’d read about a man who started hearing a persistent, barely-audible hum. He walked until he found the source, and discovered a windowless building full of computers.
Or, maybe it’s coming from the nearby quarry. I had not heard the rock grinders at 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) for a while. Maybe they’ve changed equipment. But then I hear the grinders again, and along with it, the hum.
I google “low hum” and read about “the world hum” which apparently only 2% of the population can hear. I read about regional hums, like the ones in Windsor, Aukland, and, Taos.
I decide it’s either environmental or low-frequency tinnitus—between 75 and 80 hertz. My brother, Jamie, who suffers from tinnitus reports hearing a much higher pitch. I discover that when I plug my ears, the humming stops. Jamie tries this and still hears his 4,000-hertz whine.
We live by sight, sound, and touch. When the sky darkens during an eclipse, the birds go to roost and the insects sing. When the insects start talking, I wind down my day. I hear the hiss of a pot about to boil over, or the whump of a wreck on the road outside our house, or the moan of my man in pain, and I jump into action.
It takes a few weeks for me to sleep through the night in a new place. I wake with every new sound, sounds that eventually become part of my new realm of consciousness and not cause for alarm.
Mrs. Kravitz, from the ’60s TV show Bewitched, was ridiculed for her vigilance, but she wasn’t wrong. Someone needs to pay attention. My horse, Jesse, used to stand at the edge of the field while his pasture mates lay in the sun. Rarely did he take a turn at sprawling in the hot grass.
Like Mrs. Kravitz and Jesse, I took it upon myself to pay attention. “You were the centurion,” my mother used to tell me. “You’d stand at the doorway watching the boys play, and you’d let me know if anything went wrong.”
I ask my friend, Kersten, if she’s been hearing a low hum—a new neighborhood sound—and she says yes. My heart leaps. Maybe I’m not crazy after all!
Bob is sure he hears it now, too. “It sounds like a surging motor,” he says, making the hum from behind closed lips. A surging motor. That makes me think about 3M again, so I open Google Earth Pro for a bird’s eye view of our neighborhood. What I see there blows my mind.
In March of 2021, there were two main quarries not far from our house, grinding away at rock, day and night.
By April 2021, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company had added a third quarry a quarter of a mile closer to our house.
Meanwhile, they ramped up production in one of the original quarries.
The sound was alarmingly loud as I stood in the road snapping these photos. I felt like a spy, and it shook me when a pick up truck approached. I waved cheerily, hid my camera, and walked purposefully back to my car, fighting the urge to look back. Did I see a gun rack? Was I too close to his house?
The lake grows closer and I can smell the damp mud ahead. I am not alone, I think. I have the Moncure Hum to keep me company. As quiet as a beating heart, the sound that will likely follow me to my grave.