For a few months now, Monday through Friday I’ve been staying in Shepherdstown, WV, in an attractive old row house, full of character, but which unfortunately sits on a busy street with incessant traffic noise. Like many towns in the rapidly growing Eastern Panhandle, Shepherdstown carries ten times the traffic its streets were made for.

To make matters worse, I’m amazed at the high percentage of pick-up, muscle car and motorcycle drivers who love to blow their pipes, especially late at night. It mimics a reptilian mating call, I’ve been told; but jokes aside, it’s only another manifestation of bad manners among those who have graduated, though age alone, into adult status, with all of the privileges and rights guaranteed therein. And on their diploma it reads: “It’s a free country; I can do what I fuckin’ please.”

You’d think now and then the traffic police would park in a dark place near the intersection where I’m staying and start writing tickets for disturbing the peace. They could put a quick stop to this egregious noise. And why not? Shepherdstown is the oldest village in West Virginia, and prides itself on being a high quality-of-life community.

But, unfortunately, the trouble runs more deeply than poor law enforcement or lax laws which don’t require efficient mufflers on all vehicles. The underlying problem is that too many people have simply lost their ears, in terms of the sensitive organs that they once were, and still could be.

And, indeed, after my first few weeks in Shepherdstown, I “kind of” stopped hearing the traffic noise too. “Kind of” is to say that my conscious mind stopped hearing it, but I’m damned sure my unconscious mind regrets the hard work it has had to do to shut my ears down.

To complicate the problem further, diminished sensitivity in one area tends to overlap into other areas. Shut down ears, next come the eyes perhaps. I know that after a few weeks on noisy German street, I didn’t see Shepherdstown as a pretty town anymore, not like I initially did. And I observed something slowly becoming heavy within myself, on edge, less sociable. Thinking of the title of the book, The Incredible Lightness of Being, I — my being — was drifting, Monday through Friday, in quite the opposite direction.

That’s a lot of weight to put on excessive traffic noise. But I don’t think I’m wrong. Luckily, my ears have had week-ends as a reminder that there still exists a better world for ears. Friday evenings, as I arrive back to my regular home eight miles east of Cumberland, MD, ah, there they are, my old friends, the uncluttered sounds of nature, the song birds, the crickets, the rustle of leaves, the ripple of Rocky Gap Creek that parallels the road I live on.

That moment of return has become the highlight of my week this summer, almost an exultation, if you will. Sitting on my front porch-swing, often well into the evening, I breathe in this magnificent quietude, complemented by the occasional hoot of an owl in the woods; or the howl of a coyote in the nearby wilds; or, more prosaically, the hum of a passing car every half-hour or so, infrequently enough that I find myself looking up to see if it is someone I know, so we can wave.

There’s a small hint of melancholy in all this, however. In this week-end homecoming, I find myself reflecting upon how this was very much how I felt almost every evening when I first moved out here ten years ago; when everything about “out here” was new to me, before foreground became background, through overfamiliarity, as it is wont to do. Stay long enough anywhere, that’s bound to happen.

Irony alert! It has taken noisy Shepherdstown, which I have been accusing of shutting down my ears, to reopen my ears to the quietude of nature in my home environment.

In the mid-1800’s, Henry David Thoreau, my life teacher more than anybody else, was onto this principle in a big way. He built a small cabin, ten feet by fifteen, in a largely uninhabited woods near a beautiful lake. (Walden Pond is far more a lake than a pond.) There couldn’t have been a more idyllic setting, but for one small glitch: the newly built railroad tracks which ran a few hundred yards along a visible shore across the way, on which a noisy locomotive roared by once every day.

In his chapter on “Sounds” in Walden, Thoreau spends almost as much time describing the sound of that daily train as on all of the sounds of nature put together. Being a pastoral kind of guy, you’d think this locomotive would have annoyed the hell out of him. But, no, after it had passed, the quiet was even quieter; the music of God’s world all the more available to his ears. This belching iron horse was like a daily dose of nasty manmade noise that made the quietude of the other 23 hours and 50 minutes of his day all the better.

Too much of the same thing, even of good things, is a problem. Routine, regularity desensitizes a person to those very good things.

And as great as living on Walden Pond was for a couple years, Thoreau just up-ed and vacated his elegant small house to any squatter that wanted to take it over. He left, he says, because he had other lives to live; but, for the careful reader, he lays down the deeper reason. It wasn’t long after he’d moved into the woods, he says in the “Conclusion,” that he had worn a path between his hut and the shore.

As lovely as that path must have been to trod, wise Thoreau was aware that a path trod too many times becomes a rut.

Another rich irony lying just beneath my disgruntling Shepherdstown experience is that just before I took on this week-day gig, I had been seriously thinking of selling my house. The thought had been growing ever bigger in me that home ownership, especially home ownership in the country, was requiring more upkeep than I wanted to keep up with — a never ending “to do” list to just stay even.

I have taken a largely non-ownership approach to living all my adult life, thanks again, in large part, to Thoreau. I purchased “my” place in the country because living in an apartment building in downtown Cumberland had become just too noisy to bear – not traffic noise in this instance, but my downstairs neighbors. And when an even noisier family moved in upstairs, I bit the apple. I bought the farm, so to speak. Not really a farm, but three and a half acres, without a neighbor in sight.

For a few months, maybe even a couple of years (two years, two months, two days?) everything was foreground, delightfully new. But newness wears off, and all too soon I was not seeing my place freshly anymore. Add to that, I was starting to feel as if the place was owning me. A one person household in the country is a big undertaking. Indeed, when I bought it ten years ago (full disclosure) I had in the back of my mind that I would eventually live with a woman here. You know: “build it and they will come”; or in this case “buy it, and she will come.”

Lucky me (I guess), she didn’t. I say that only partly tongue in cheek. Where else does over-familiarity become a rut more than in our love relationships.

Another aspect of my summer in Shepherdstown has been many long afternoons writing in a coffee shop. Couples come in, sit together over a coffee. Together I say, but usually zoned in to their separate smart phones, rarely looking at each other, even more rarely engaging in an interesting conversation. How numb and invisible longstanding couples can become to each other. Too much of a good thing.

Tightly defined love relationships may be a good choice for some people. To each his own. But they have never been right for me, once they’ve become more background than foreground. Which, it seems to me, is the inevitable trajectory, try as one may to keep things spruced up.

Observing couples in a coffee shop, how can one help but not see the difference in energy between those who were obviously seeing too much of each other (i.e., having moved in together; i.e., having taken possession of each other), and those who were not. Having had several “live together” relationships myself, it was a good reminder of what my own life experience has also taught me several times over.

And one more gift from my Shepherdstown summer. I’m sure as hell not going to sell my place in the country. Thoreau left Walden Pond in 1847. Moved back into town. That’s going on 200 years ago. A different time. A different world. There were only a billion human beings on the whole planet in 1847, eight time less than now. America was 17 times smaller than it is now.

Private space and quietude are huge blessings, and rare for people of modest means as never before. I’d kind of forgotten that. Thank you, Shepherdstown. Now I know I have to make country living work for me, come hell or high water. And I can see better what that will take: one, to eliminate from my consciousness all sense of “mine”; to know ever more fully that all that I “have” is temporary, on loan, that nothing is to keep. And two, to get away, frequently, from what I love.

Not easy work. But not impossible.


  1. Chris Hersh

    I think you would have loved Shepherds town in 1972. I played in the town run near the JSB Bank, my friend, Laura lived around the corner a few doors down from the firehall. Many college students rode bikes or walked. Everyone seemed to know each other. I loved going to the library and The Sarah Cree little house. Mechlenburg Heights where I grew up, had a spring house and s pond. A farm backed that property where horses ran down the hill across from my house with the sun going down behind them. Magic!

    1. james ralston

      I’m sure it was great, Chris. As it was when I started teaching at Shepherd College in 1984.

  2. Deborah M Thompson

    There’s a sentence worth a million words: I mean where else does over-familiarity become a rut more than in our love relationships. I’ll be pondering this for at least the next couple weeks regarding how my relationships have gone wrong.

    Love the Thoreau references, of course. Fantastic essay, Jim. Thank you. Hope you are well.


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