IT’S AWFULLY QUIET in the Village of Chatham. Mostly you hear the normal sounds of life, a little traffic, the clock chimes, a conversation, a talkative crow or the whisper of couple of 432,000-pound GE locomotives hauling hundred-car freight trains to the melody of their air horns, which seldom exceed 110 decibels–the same as a chain saw. Hardly noticeable.
We can adapt to the soundscapes of our environment. Or, being a meddlesome species, we sometimes fight to keep the volume down. But certain loud noises can enhance our lives in unexpected ways. Take the Columbia County Fair.
This year’s fair will last six days, ending by long tradition late on Labor Day, Monday, September 7. It can rattle your eardrums; then it’s gone, almost as if it hadn’t happened except that summer weather usually hightails it out of town right behind the trucks hauling away the carnival rides and the blooming onion concession.
Inside the gates of the fair the mix of sounds is rich in variety and texture. The cheesy pop music emitted by some of the midway rides isn’t meant to cover up the screams of kids and their brave parents swinging through the air under conditions once reserved for astronauts. Why pay for scary rides if they aren’t going to test the strength of your bladder?
The Columbia County Agricultural Society, the not-for-profit group that runs the fair, has said in years past that the only headline performers who reliably draw crowds are singers and musicians well known to country and western fans. But the fair also provides a roster of live music and entertainment by professionals and amateurs, and it’s hard to recall hearing any of it overlap uncomfortably like a Charles Ives mash-up of competing marching bands.
Oddest of all are the acoustics of the livestock sheds. The cows don’t have much to say and it’s as if their bodies absorb the noise around them. They create a separate audio planet, a space to meditate on farming and fertilizer. The nearby sheep are more restless and frequently complain about something or other, probably the dairy cattle.
You’ll hear the usual burble from the games of chance and from fairgoers of all ages, thousands of them from around the county and the region, talking about food, directions, whatever. A surprising number of these talkers speak directly to one another without the intervention of a phone, tablet or pad. Future generations will find this form of mass communication a curious habit from a bygone era.
At a certain time Saturday afternoon all verbal communication stops at odd intervals. The monster tractor pull contests have begun. The pulls used to be–and some places still are–contests where farmers show off the power of their workaday tractors. But nobody’s cutting hay with these highly specialized pulling machines. The explosive noise of their revved engines drowns out the sound of a passing train half mile away. Spectators wouldn’t show up in droves for the monster tractor pulls (they pull sleds with huge weights) unless the events gave them pleasure. It’s an acquired taste.
But the crowning sensory treat of the fair comes on the two evenings of Demolition Derby. This is not just a guy thing. Women compete and win. No one is seriously injured doing this. So all you need to appreciate this sport is a willingness to accept that smashing things, especially cars, is not only fun. It is deeply satisfying.
Think of it as professional wrestling performed in bumper cars. The stripped-down derby vehicles occasionally emit flames, which are immediately doused by brave (no joke) volunteer firefighters. Drivers’ fans cheer their heroes from the stands. Remember those old gladiator movies? Only one car survives, barely. The automotive devastation is apocalyptic.
The whole event is loud and raucous and an ecologically naughty because of the mess and the smoke and wasted gas. But the demo derby cars are off the road… forever. And if this isn’t the future we want for ourselves, we’d better support smarter ways to get around that don’t require burning carbon fuels like gasoline. Save internal combustion for the guilty indulgence of demolition derbies.
There’s an echo at the modern Columbia County Fair of the event first held 175 years ago. But most of the sights, sounds and tastes are a celebration of why we live here now. If you haven’t gone in a while, come back. If you never went, don’t miss it. You won’t believe your ears.