An ancient proverb: Silence is also speech. Or, “It is better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
From the writings of Gordon Hempton, a sound ecologist:
Good things come from a quiet place: study, prayer, music, transformation, worship, communion. The words “peace” and “quiet” are all but synonymous and are often spoken in the same breath. A quiet place, he tells us, is the think tank of the soul, the spawning ground of truth and beauty.
A quiet place outdoors, he has found, has no physical borders or limits to the perception. One can commonly hear for miles and listen even farther. It affords a sanctuary for the soul, where the difference between right and wrong become more readily apparent. It is a place, he has found, to feel the love that connects all things, large and small, human and not.
Sadly though, he reports, as big as it is, our planet offers fewer and fewer quiet havens.
No place on earth untouched by modern noise. No place at all.
Even far from the paved roads in the Amazon rain forest, he writes, you can still hear the drone of distant outboard motors on dugout canoes and from the wrist of the native guide the hourly beep of a digital watch.
The question, he says, is no longer whether noise will be present but how often it will intrude and for how long. The interval between noise encroachments (measured in minutes) is the measure of quiet he uses to define quiet and its opposite, and in his experience a silence longer than 15 minutes is now extremely rare in this country and long gone in Europe.
Take for example Walden Pond, home to Thoreau’s experiments with solitude and serenity. A blogger who lives nearby warns us not to visit there in the summer because it will be least inspiring: People from all over, he reports, flock there to swim. You will have full parking lots, he warns, and tons of noise. Even in the quieter time of winter, there is always the persistent and invasive sound of tractor trucks and snow ploughs on nearby highways, the drone of jets, the brutal buzzing of chain saws.
Walden is no exception to the situation even in our wilderness areas and our national parks where the average noise free interval has shrunk to less than five minutes during daylight hours.
By Gordon Hempton’s calculations, the rate of quiet places extinction vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction.
Today there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the United States and by that he means places where natural silence reigns over many square miles.
Fewer than a dozen.
In 1984, early in his career recording natural sounds, he identified 21 places in his native sonically-fascinating Washington State that met his definition of quiet places, with noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer. Twenty years or so later only three remained on his list, his favorite a place deep within Olympic National Park, the Hoh Rain Forest, which he believes is quieter than any other national park or wilderness area for one reason only: overcast skies, 200 completely cloudy days a year, many of these cloudy days also rainy. Rain and lots of it, he believes, is a big deterrent to selling tickets for scenic tours, for drawing in humans, for attracting what are now known as flight-seers and the prop plane noises that accompany them overhead.
As tour operators promote these air tours over this and other national parks, boasting that this particular spot is “the Grand Tamale, the only non-tropical rainforest in the world,” Gordon Hempton counters by claiming the Hoh Rain Forest as his Grand Tamale too — America’s quietest spot, his little One Square Inch of silence, which he chooses to defend from all human-caused noise intrusions, which means keeping out all air traffic, commercial flights as well as air tours, as best he can, so that the sounds of river singing, the dawn chorus of bird song, and then simple and exquisite air stillness are protected. Or what he calls a whole valley experience of sound, the result of place not an individual performer, when he can feel the importance of the living community, how one thing is not more important than the other. It’s everything that matters, a collective place that makes music.
This ecologist, whose life’s work, sound level meter and recorder in hand, has been dedicated to searching out, preserving, and seeking to save silence, has come to think of silence in two ways.
Inner silence, he believes, is that feeling of reverence for life. It is a feeling we can carry with us no matter where we go, even on a noisy city street. It resides on a soul level.
Outer silence, he maintains, is different. It is what we experience in naturally quiet places, without the modern noise intrusions that can remind us of modern issues beyond our control, such as economic aggression and the violation of human rights. Outer silence invites us to be reconnected to what binds us together. It can recharge our inner silence. It can fill us with gratitude and patience.
This notion of inner silence (refreshed by outer silence), a silent mind freed, as one writer puts it, from the onslaught of thoughts and thought patterns, is an important step in spiritual development across world faith traditions, where the importance of being quiet and still in mind and spirit is essential for transformative spiritual growth to occur.
In Christianity, there is the silence of contemplation, including Centering Prayer; in Judaism, prayers of silent presence are considered to be at the heart of a growing relationship with God; in Islam, there is the wisdom writings of the Sufis who insist on the need to find silence within; in Buddhism, the descriptions of silence and allowing the mind to become silent are a key feature of spiritual enlightenment, in Hinduism and the many paths of Yoga, and in some traditions of Quakerism, silence is an actual part of worship services and the time to allow the divine to speak to the heart and mind.
Known for its focus on silences, in Quaker spirituality, silence is the point in the hour glass of our busy and hectic lives through which the sands of prayer must pass. As the sands trickle from top to bottom, one Quaker teacher tells us, filtered by silence, a deepening, indwelling, and empowering process slowly gives birth to social action.
In his own quest for inner and outer quiet, when Gordon Hempton is not staking out square inches of silence in wilderness settings, he makes his home in Joyce, Washington, if not the quietest town in America, he claims, then one of them. His closest and loudest neighbor is a cow, often buried in fog about 500 yards down a country road that most weeks sees three cars other than his.
The loudest sound inside his home is a landline phone, set to only ring once before going to voice mail; the second loudest is an antiquated refrigerator that hums, gurgles, and slurps to do its job — keeping his beer cold and Yoplait yogurt fresh. The third loudest sound is the steady low hum of his computer work station, which empowers the business side of his field work.
Other than that, just the occasional sounds on schooldays of the windblown laughter from the playground of an elementary school about a mile away, and in the spring courting frogs, with what he describes as their all night hootenanny.
On the other hand, the houses I have lived in, from childhood, have been surround-sound: in the suburbs of Washington D.C. we lived within close earshot of a busy throughway which eventually became the Beltway; when we moved to a college town in California, we first lived in a house on one of the car-clogged wide main roads to the Bayshore freeway and just down the street from an elementary school, where the bells went off hourly, even in the summertime. If it wasn’t the auto cacophony and then in later years proximity to train and rapid transit tracks that filled the airways, it was dueling rock albums, laughter soundtracks from televisions that were on from dawn to midnight, or in the brief time my mother and I shared a rental house, her insistence on turning on (if not actually listening to) the radio every waking hour and into the night, as comfort she would tell me.
In one of my journal entries from that time, I recorded my frustration that “even now, at just before six o’clock in the morning, mother’s news talk is on. Her constant need for human voices is incredible to me, for whom the balance of some silence is essential (and never complete, what with the central heater hissing, the birds chirping in intervals between downpours, and the cat’s tussling). Without human interference, I wrote, there’s always enough sound for me.”
And now we live in a small house on a small side street in a small town nearby, empty nesters in the quietest house I have ever lived in, and still when I wake to meditate or write at 4 or 5 a.m., having been awakened by the dogs’ persistent scratching on the stairway door, even when muffled by thick towels. I feed the dogs and am immediately subjected to the dry food crunching, water lapping, then the loud licking of hot spots, the scratching of ubiquitous fleas.
Then the sound of the coffee pot brewing, which dings when it is done and then again when it is about to turn off, the refrigerator motor, which can go on and on, and this even before, within an hour of waking, the high pitched droning of crickets or whatever these insects are in this environment, squirrel squawking, squealing car brakes, gunning engines, train whistles a half mile away, and the beginning of the day’s jet path over our neighborhood.
Taken all together, this combination of minor and more major sounds, besides being spiritually depleting, can become the stuff of what we call noise pollution or toxic tones, sound that is undesirable for human hearing: street noise, traffic noise, noise in public transport places, noise in playgrounds and parks, noise in shopping malls, in workplaces, around airports, and now even in National wilderness areas.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, noise is any sound that “lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably unpleasant,” or “is undesired or interferes with one’s hearing of something.”
As the Right to Quiet Society asserts, the definition of noise itself is highly subjective. To some people the roar of an engine is satisfying or thrilling; to others it is an annoyance. Loud music may be enjoyable or a torment, depending on the listener or the circumstances.
Most people might not be bothered by the sound of a 21-gun salute on a special occasion. On the other hand, the thump-thump of a neighbor’s music at 2 a.m., even if barely audible, could be a major source of stress.
Sound is measured in a unit known as decibels (dB). Though there is no fixed particular decibel limit determining when sound becomes noise, it is commonly understood that a continuously high decibel limit constitutes noise pollution. Various jurisdictions set limits, from none to a common sound limit of 65dB in the daytime and 55dB in the nighttime. A quiet home would register around 20dB, with 70dB as a safe average for a 24-hour day.
Using these limits, appliances in our homes alone (such as garbage disposals, blenders, vacuum cleaners) can cause a cumulative sound of about 87dB, or way over the limit of noise pollution.
Other pollutants are tools and devices for home use (lawnmowers, snow blowers, chainsaws, and power tools), construction, recreational vehicles, music (personal stereos, rock concerts, nightclubs), sirens, and even humans yelling or cheering crowds. The sound of a subway train, honking horns, jack hammers — fixed features of urban life — register at 120 dB.
Another acoustic ecologist and sound recorder, Bernie Krause, notes that in November 2000, an award was given for the loudest sound system ever produced for the interior of an automobile, with a sound pressure level of 174dB, a factor or two louder than a .357 magnum pistol being shot off in your ear and a factor of seven louder than standing on a runway 10 yards from a Boeing 747 at full take off power.
When noise becomes dangerous is when we are exposed to too much noise over a period of time, which groups like Noise Free America tell us cause hearing impairment, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disturbances, disturbances in mental health, impaired task performance, and negative social behavior.
The National Institutes of Health says that some 65 million Americans are regularly exposed to noise levels that can get in the way of work and sleep, and 25 million are at risk of noise-related health problems.
This noise pollution that is physically and spiritually unhealthy for humans is of course also threatening and unhealthy for other living things. While studies have shown that some birds thrive in noisy neighborhoods, even nesting near compressor sites that sound like jet engines (black-chinned hummingbirds and house finches), new research findings indicate that other species are being found more and more clustered only in quiet areas, choosing to nest in these places and with much less frequency. Biologists in Montana have published a paper linking enzyme stress levels in elk and wolves in Yellowstone to the proximity and noise of snow mobiles.
With several Endangered Species laws, the US government has outlawed human harassment of marine species, whether by noise or another irritant, but nearly all research on toxic tones, the dumping of a large volume of loud noise into the ocean every day, has been on sea mammals — overlooking its effects on the fish and plankton population.
For everyday human relief from noise pollution, toxic tones, we can wear earplugs in noisy places, turn down the volume on radios, personal headsets, and TVs, sound-treat our homes with heavy curtains and rugs, add acoustical tile to our ceilings and walls, look for quieter appliances, grow trees as buffers.
But what, again, of the destruction of silence in our world as an environmental catastrophe? The soundscape, our acoustic environment, has been described as a commons — something that belongs to all of us. There are sound habitats, we are told, no one will ever be able to hear again. They are forever silenced, fully extinct or hopelessly altered.
Gordon Hempton and other acoustic environmentalists, seekers of natural sounds, are working to be keepers of our few remaining silent places. To preserve aural solitude. To create quiet sanctuaries in hopes that by preserving one square inch of quiet at Olympic National Park, for example, they might change noise pollution worldwide.
Again, as individual guests in wild habitats, if you travel alone, of course, this eliminates the need for talking, if you travel with others on trails, use hand signals, once you enter the woods, speak in whispers, travel with respect for others need for quiet, leaving your technology at home: no cell phones, no talking GPS devices, no iPods.
Collectively, think always of noise, as one science writer put it, as audible trash by muffling motorcycles, quieting our campgrounds, limiting thrill craft like snow mobiles, and lowering watercraft noise levels. And build bigger, better buffers against jet plane noise pollution by reclaiming airspace over our parks.
There has been progress lately in our efforts to join with sound ecologists in battling sound pollution in the wilderness.
A federal judge in Denver just last month handed a partial victory to environmentalists by issuing an injunction against oil drilling in Great Sand Dunes National Park, based, in part, on sound monitoring data that the judge felt presented adequate evidence that the drilling of these wells is likely to cause irreparable injury to the refuge’s sense of place and quiet.
We are reminded that, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our national parks, we do so not for what our parks have become in this fly-over world of ours, but for whom we have become to them: defenders of the wilderness, its majesty and its silences.
From a Quaker poet:
I need not shout my faith. Thrice eloquent
are quiet trees and the green listening sod;
Hushed are the stars, whose power is never spent;
the hills are mute, yet how they speak of God.