Sound: Foghorn

Benjamin Anastas
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  • Does not resemble anything human
  • Soothing
  • Barely attenuated by fog

My friend Buff was the first person I knew who had a Sony Walkman. Or it could have been another friend who brought the Walkman over to Buff’s house in the summer of 1981; all I know for sure is that I listened to one for the first time in Buff’s living room in Maine. From the window seat, I watched the others fiddle with the buttons, press EJECT and flip the cassette to the other side, weigh the body of the Walkman in their hands, and say, “Holy shit!” But the sound: that was the thing. When my turn came—the windows behind me white with fog, the logs in the fireplace hissing behind a hearth screen—I slid the headphones on while Buff pressed REWIND. It was Brian Eno’s Before and After Science in the cassette slot. Buff rewound with clairvoyant accuracy to “King’s Lead Hat,” a song he believed in with a manic devotion that I could never share. 

Buff must have subjected us to “King’s Lead Hat” a hundred times that summer, extolling the jerky, discordant majesty of its unfolding, the relentless, mad pounding of the piano and drums. To me, it sounded like Roxy Music (Eno’s former band) after a group-wide session of electroshock therapy. No: “King’s Lead Hat” sounded like Roxy Music during a group-wide session of electroshock therapy. But when Buff pressed PLAY, and the song’s fade-in was complete, I felt closer to its sonic disturbance than I ever had before. With the Walkman on, the sound enveloped me. 

This all took place on an island in Downeast Maine, in the eerie isolation of the kind of fog the adults referred to as “pea soup.” Buff’s house, with its bank of picture windows and clean modernist simplicity, felt like a lighthouse, the cove and stone beach below gone blank, and more fog crawling up the slope and through the stunted spruce trees and rugosa roses that bordered his front yard. The chill a fogbank brings is not just a matter of the temperature; it’s the loss of any sense of direction in the world, the shock of facing a mirror that has suddenly emptied. I’m on the same island now, as I write this, looking out over silver sliding water to a shape I know instinctively as Great Duck Island, the horizon blurry with fog, a little school of mackerel making the water boil off the closest ledge. A seal looks on impassively, bald head swimming just above the surface, until it dives. Who knows what bloody drama happens underneath.

In June of 1959, my grandfather Franz, an acoustic engineer at the firm Bolt Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conducted a series of experiments at the lighthouse station on Great Duck Island for the US Coast Guard. He was an émigré from Jewish Prague, tense and obsessive, with no talent for or interest in bonding with his American coworkers. In 1938 he’d boarded a plane to attend a conference in London with the family jewels sewn into the lining of his jacket, and he spent the rest of his life as if pursued. Franz and the team he’d assembled were trying to measure how the thick fog endemic to that part of Maine attenuated the signal of the foghorn. Great Duck Island was encased in dense fog for a mean of forty to fifty days a year, according to a paper Franz later published in an industry journal—some years, staying on the island, it felt like we were fogged in for forty or fifty days a summer—and the old bull-roarer foghorn at the lighthouse station produced the same booming wail every time it sounded, making it ideal for taking measurements. They erected loudspeakers on the shore emitting random noise in one-third octave frequency bands (basically the constituent frequencies of any sound we hear), and outfitted a fifty-six-foot Coast Guard vessel with sound-receiving equipment: two microphones with windscreens and a battery-operated tape recorder in the cabin with an acoustic calibrator that would activate the recorder when signals were detected. 

Here is the thing that amazes me: my grandfather and his team constructed micrometeorological equipment to measure wind and temperature gradients on the water, and a “miniature wind tunnel” that allowed them to capture and measure the size of the water droplets in the fog. I didn’t know that wind tunnels came in miniature sizes, or that fog could be measured with that degree of precision, at least not in 1959. Then they set out in their Mad Scientist Fog and Foghorn Distillation Craft and followed a prelaid course of marker buoys four thousand yards to the south of the lighthouse, taking measurements with their homemade equipment at intervals along the way. When that was done, they started all over again and took measurements along another four-thousand-yard course of marker buoys to the northeast. I didn’t think too much about the two courses of marker buoys when I read the paper for the first time, but then it dawned on me: four thousand yards is nearly two miles of open sea. In the pea soup, with the foghorn groaning its signal in the distance—a “throat,” as W. S. Merwin puts it in his poem “Foghorn,” that “does not call to anything human.” 

The paper itself is a kind of anticlimax. Figures and graphs show the results of various measurements: the foghorn signal itself over ocean water, and in different types of fog, and the attenuation in the signals of the random noise generator. But in his conclusion, my grandfather writes that “sound attenuation by typical sea fogs… along the eastern seaboard of the United States is small (<1 db / 1000 yd).” Absent any fog, the sound attenuation over ocean water is essentially the same. Fog has virtually no effect on the way the sound of the foghorn travels.

I didn’t know about my grandfather’s experiments on Great Duck Island when I spent summers with the staging area in clear view. I saw two long humps of forest stretched out until they were taut, a stony meadow with a landing strip for small planes holding them in balance. Way out on the island’s point, the lighthouse and the buildings of the Coast Guard station looked no bigger than tremors on an Etch A Sketch. The foghorn was omnipresent, a soothing voice through the walls of my grandfather’s house at night—my dead grandfather, who might as well have still been out on his fifty-six-foot craft measuring fog droplets. Did he feel more at home out on the water, making calculations at every marker buoy, than he normally did in a country that he couldn’t understand? 

I think of the magnetic tape machine running in the cabin of the boat, clicking on and off with the arrival of every signal along the course of nighttime buoys, and recording—what? “King’s Lead Hat,” maybe. Or a sound so tedious, untenable, and strange that even Buff would have spared us from listening to it on his Walkman. 

Those tape reels from the cabin of the boat. That is the music of the fog in Maine. That is what it must sound like to be lost at sea.

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