David Michael Miller
Nice summer day, windows open. Over the phone, I am trying to help my mother understand that she is dying. Suddenly, a neighbor’s unusually loud saw changes the conversation from difficult to almost impossible. Just the latest instance of noise pollution in Bay Creek.
The Bay Creek neighborhood, just south of the Capitol between Monona Bay and Wingra Creek, was quiet in 1992, when I moved in. The noise pollution from the Alliant Energy Center started in 2004, when eight hours of heavy metal music and bomb-like fireworks at 10 p.m. announced the commercialization of Willow Island. Later, Brat Fest moved to Willow Island and became a very loud event with amplified bands on four stages performing simultaneously for four days. During the Dane County Fair at the Alliant Center, helicopter rides go over our house several times per hour for hours on end.
Noise pollution has also increased from neighborhood sources: snowblowers, boom cars, a neighbor’s drone, weed trimmers, rototillers, saws, sanders, power washers, radios, barking dogs and people yelling at barking dogs to be quiet. Then there are the leaf blowers, leaf vacuums and leaf mulchers. Most of us have small lawns. Why not just take a little longer and use a rake?
Fireworks are another source of noise. When I was growing up, fireworks displays occurred only on or around Independence Day on July 4. In 2012, I heard fireworks displays on eight occasions between the middle of May and early October, including one from Brat Fest.
Small planes are a particularly bad source of noise. In 2015, 25,000 airplanes both took off from and landed at the Middleton Airport, and 14,000 airplanes both took off from and landed at the Dane County Regional Airport — apparently joy rides or paid rides for sightseers. That’s an average of over 100 flights per day, fewer on days with bad weather, more on nice days. More than once, I have counted 15 flyovers in a 75-minute period, always when I am trying — and failing — to concentrate on an important or creative task.
One would think that noise would be limited by people asking their neighbors to make less of it. Three neighbors have told me recently about neighborhood noise that disturbed them. Not one of them had talked to the noise-maker. Why not? Because it takes courage. And it is usually both unpleasant and futile because, no matter how polite the request, the response is unsympathetic or even belligerent. Once, I asked a man to stop setting off fireworks (it was not July 4). He refused and called me an “asshole” in front of his young son. I once asked a neighbor who was playing loud music outdoors to turn it down. He stepped so close to me that he brushed against me, yelled in my face, and told me to go home and wank my wiener.
Our local governments promote noise. No elected or appointed official will oppose noise as long as the Alliant Energy Center or some for-profit operation might make money off it. In late 2015, the Madison Parks Commission set a high noise limit for events in city parks, then raised it even higher to placate the complaining people who stood to profit from loud events. And consider “Shake the Lake,” the city-sanctioned Fourth of July event. We take pride in making so much noise that one of our wonderful lakes — habitat of nonhuman animals, surrounded by residences — shakes? Our local governments have failed to fulfill two of their basic functions: to protect the commons — the areas and resources that we all share — and to protect minorities from the harms of majority rule.
Some people have a high tolerance for noise or may even like some of the sounds that I have mentioned. Okay, we’re different. But some of us need quiet for the activities that enrich our lives: working from home, reading, writing, playing musical instruments, having intimate conversations, meditating, solving problems, doing research, playing games that require concentration, enjoying birds from our porch, trying to meet the daily challenges of our lives. For us, noise is a toxic pollutant that other people push into our homes and brains against our will and that reduces our happiness and our quality of life. So would you all please consider making a little less of it?
Rick Marolt is a resident of Bay Creek in Madison.