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The Last Laugh

by Wendy Liles

My office is located on the 26th floor of the tallest building west of Chicago's South Loop,looking out over a flat expanse that once--not so long ago in the grand scheme of things--was wet prairie and marshland. It is now completely developed to the horizon--and beyond. This is not to say that Chicago is all steel and concrete. Mayor Daley's tree-planting program and other initiatives to make the city a more pleasant place to live have seen to that. There are more trees here than there probably ever were. But that's just it--nothing remains unchanged. Even the Chicago River flows in a direction more convenient to its human conquerors.

Last summer, I took a brief side-trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas on my way back home from a conference. While only a drive-through (which is not a proper way to appreciate prairie), it did provide a direct experience of unabashed openness sufficient to enable me to look out of my office window and imagine how the landscape here might once have looked. If I direct my gaze to where land meets sky and let my eyes lose focus just a little, pretending that the smoke from the industrial scrubbers rises from distant grass fires, I can almost convince myself I am seeing bison herding down Interstate-290 in place of the evening rush.

But I am hard-pressed to imagine what the soundscape was like. It is much easier to see in the mind's eye than to hear with the mind's ear. If I have trouble seeing through what is currently outside my window to what was once there, I can close my eyes and resort to visual imagery. But I can't really close my ears.

As I type this sentence, I can hear the warble of an ambulance speeding to a nearby hospital, the urgent blast of a fire truck, the wail of a police siren--no, two--one going north and one south, the "El" (elevated train) rattling by every few minutes a few blocks away, an airplane's sore-throated roar, the perpetual swish of traffic flowing down the expressway and the chop of the helicopter that monitors it, the grating ring of a jack-hammer against cement on the street below, the whir of a drill and the pounding of hammers on the floor above where renovations are going on, wind whistling up the elevator shaft and the elevator bell ringing loudly when it arrives at the floor, the quiet--and not so quiet--hum of building systems, a high-pitched whine from the thermostat on my office wall and the clanking of the ineffective radiator it is supposed to control, treble and bass voices interspersed with caffeinated typing in adjacent offices, this generation's rock music from one radio and the last generation's from another, an occasional slamming door, a sound like a fog horn that goes off all day every day every 6 seconds for about 20 seconds that I haven't been able to track to its source, and noises from my computer which must be the hamster inside running on its wheel, as I have
no other explanation. In short, an auditory assault. And, yes, it is hell.

It is a lonely hell sometimes. Most of the people around me -- more adaptable than I am -- are unaware of the daily torture life in the city can be for someone not as adept at disregarding sound. They think me simply odd when I say "Do you hear that? What is that? It's driving me up the wall!"

I am grateful, however, that I cannot close my ears -- and I get the last laugh -- when I hear the peregrine falcons, which for the last several years have nested on a window ledge of the top floor two floors above mine, as they circle in for a landing. I heard them long before I ever saw them when I started working here two years ago.

I both heard and saw them for the first time this spring late last week, returning to their city home.

About the author:

Wendy Liles [E-MAIL] is a recovering information systems consultant and project manager on the journey back to her creative roots as a musician and writer. She is actively involved in ecological restoration efforts in the Chicago area, particularly at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie [WEBSITE]
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