A Plea for Silence

It’s been almost two weeks since the Fourth of July holiday, yet loud explosions still rent the silence every evening, echoing across the mile of water between my home on Lummi Island and the Lummi Indian Reservation to the northeast of us. During the day, especially on weekends, motorcycles, some seeming not to be fitted with mufflers at all, roar up and down the hill in front of my house. Other times,  I’m treated to a constant background symphony of chain saws, weed eaters, lawn mowers, aircraft, and passing cars broadcasting booming bass notes from their open windows, sometimes audible from a half-mile away.

Why should I care? It’s because I don’t have earlids. The racket comes through whether I want to hear it or not. In an era obsessed with “property rights,” I seem not to be permitted to enjoy the natural sounds emitted by the creatures on my property, the sounds of waves washing over the beach below my house, or even a conversation in my back yard, without interference from other people’s noise.

When I was a kid my mother used to comment that so-and-so was making so much noise she couldn’t hear herself think. Some might argue that this is just a figure of speech. . . but is it really? Maybe there’s something to the idea that our thought processes cannot go on properly when interrupted by a constant cacophony of racket. Studies have proven that noise has a deleterious effect on our immune systems, on blood pressure, and generally increases our stress level. And this is true whether we’re conscious of the noise or not. Our bodies react negatively to noise even when we’re asleep.

Gordon Hempton, a well-known professional sound recordist who makes his home on the Olympic Peninsula, has written a book, in company with co-author John Grossman, on the subject of noise, or rather silence, which I heartily recommend to your attention: One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. Hempton advocates preserving silence at a special spot within the Olympic National Park, the implication being that it will effectively control sound over a large surrounding area. The book is mostly an account of Hempton’s pilgrimage in a VW van to Washington D.C. to meet with various government officials in order to convince them that the preservation of silence in at least one place in the United States is a worthwhile goal.

For me, the most interesting part of Hempton’s book is the record of his progress across the U.S., with camping stops at a number of places I’ve visited myself, the most notable being the Red Rock country of Southeastern Utah. When I first visited there forty years ago, it was a quiet place indeed, probably one of the quietest places I’d ever visited. Nowadays the silence there is shattered by off-road vehicles, tourist fly-overs, and high altitude passages of jet aircraft. Hempton’s comments about the impact of excess noise on these places is highly vindicating to me. Sometimes the campaign against noise has seemed like a lonely one, and it’s good to know that there are others who fight this battle as well.

Hempton does a far more thorough job of making the case for silence in his book than I’m able to in this short blog entry. But I do encourage you to pay more attention to the sounds around you and the sort of impact they make on your consciousness. It’s been my experience that anyone who objects to noise tends to be branded as a crank. The ability to endure noise without complaint seems to be a badge of manliness for some, to the point that I’ve become reluctant to object to rackets any longer, since it frequently has little or no effect, and usually creates more tension than it alleviates. My solution is to retreat behind a high-quality pair of noise-canceling headphones and listen to the nature recordings of Gordon Hempton and other sound recordists, many of whom can be discovered by searching for “Nature Sounds” on such sources as Amazon.com.

Outside of Gordon Hempton, one source of such sounds I especially recommend is Listening Earth – the website of Andrew Skeoch, sound recordist and Sara Koschak, photographer. They specialize in the sounds of the Australian bush, and other recordings made on their world travels. I recommend them because they document their work beautifully with both text and Koschak’s fine photography. Also, they maintain a blog, complete with sound samples, which allows you to vicariously accompany them on their travels.

Check on my book list for references to “sound” for more suggested reading on the subject.

Kevin Jones