Most folks I know reveled recently at “ringing in” the New Year. For my wife Mary and me, “ringing in” every week has become a ritual as we listen to the deep, vibratory gong of the Congregational church bell a few doors down from home. We’re not church-goers, but delight in the bell’s big voice saying “welcome” to the new week each Sunday morning. It greets us as we awaken from a busy Saturday night, while we have breakfast, or on a morning walk. When we’re away or a storm cancels services we find ourselves at a loss.
Bells “sounded the cadence of everyday life” in colonial New England, observes history professor Richard Cullen Rath. Funeral and wedding bells marked individual rites of passage and bells gathered communities for worship and town meetings. Some places enacted laws requiring residents to live within the sound of its bells. With clocks ubiquitous on wrists, walls and in all manner of electronic devices bells are no longer necessary to call people together, yet there continues a passion for ringing them.
Ringing bells is “an act of sonic identity,” Rath notes. They vary in their volume, tone and resonance and are the very speech of a community. “Just as we do not know a man by his face and manner only but wait to hear his voice,” wrote literature scholar and Connecticut lieutenant governor Odell Shepard, “so we cannot be sure about a town until we have heard its bell. It sings for all that we have found to say in answer to the songs of the earth and sky.” Each place’s bells have local accents, a distinct elocution and cadence. Not only the size and composition of a bell makes it distinctive, but its sound is affected by the nature of the belfry and nearby buildings and topography.
For nearly thirty years, I’ve had a weekly acquaintance with the towered voice of the nearby church. At last I had the urge for a face-to-face meeting. On a snowy afternoon, Pastor Jim Wheeler took me into the attic, up a narrow, creaking stairway and through a hatch to the belfry. Suddenly I stood in the silent presence of this long-time sentinel the size of a small car engine. Hung from a rusted metal frame beside the wagon-like wheel attached to the pull rope, it was dully illuminated on all sides by louvered vents through which snow sifted. The space smelled of old wood and dust. With a verdigris patina it looked, in the low light, like something seen underwater.
“Cast by G. H. Holbrook, Medway, Mass., 1857” I read in low relief on the bell. The company’s founder was apprenticed to Paul Revere and it became a renowned and award winning manufacturer of over 11,000 bells shipped throughout the nation and to foreign countries over sixty-four years. The bell’s lip is chipped, though by the patina it must have happened long ago. Rather than a defect, it seems a distinction that, like the revered, but cracked Liberty Bell, could only make it more beloved.
The bell is a kind of metallic chanticleer and its music is powerful and inspiriting. It seems to fill the atmosphere with something palpable that resonates through the air, among trees, into buildings, and at last vibrates through the body. “I heard the bells,” Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden just a few years before Holbrook cast the instrument I’d been hearing for decades, “the Lincoln, Acton, or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept.”
When the breeze is right, Mary and I can hear the faint chime of other, more distant church bells. But it’s the full throated one down the street that moves us. We share its sound as it simultaneously reassures and energizes us with the beauty of its music and regularity. With apologies to poet John Donne and grammarians everywhere, we do not have to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for we—and anyone else willing to give a listen.