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This report is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Of Pine Trees and Silence Vahni Capildeo
When we took the six pine trees home from the Ministry of Agriculture show in Port of Spain, they were hardly a handspan high. The tiny trees had been planted in Styrofoam cups, as if they were no more expected to survive than the unfortunate goldfish sold in transparent plastic bags of water at school bazaars. Transplanted in a row along the north boundary wall of our yard, they shot up. Their bark became tough and rusty. Their branches registered each puff of the north-east trade winds.

The hush and whoosh of the pine trees’ tossing joined the overtones in the symphony of sounds that meant ‘neighbourhood’. Lonely dogs were louder, blended Irish/Trinidadian sneezing and laughter beneath a flapping laundry line was clearer, but the breezes filtering through silvery-green needles added their own presence, faint and insistent like foghorns from the port (in those years free of cruise ships), or the dusk and dawn chug-chug of lions from the zoo at the foot of the hill.

Silence, a sound engineer in Sheffield once explained to me, really means the absence of unexpected sounds. In his work on historical programmes, he often had to remove the deep mechanical reverberations of our post-industrial ways of living, thus (re-)creating the impression of a stiller time, in which birdsong shrilled, and the revelry within a hall or active worship in a church would roll out, attractive and shocking to a lone and humble walker. Isn’t ‘silence’ also the presence of expected sounds?

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