My Story

Seeking Solitude

The Curse Of Noise Pollution

By James Donahue

My wife and I once lived in what was supposed to be a “quiet” Midwestern American town of about 4,000 people. The word quiet, when used to identify this place, however, was a misnomer. My town, like nearly every community throughout the world, is a very noisy place.

We lived in the county seat. In Michigan that meant we have three police departments. We had the town police, the county Sheriff’s Department, and the State Police. All three have more officers than are needed, and they spend a lot of time racing through our streets with their sirens turned on. There also seemed to be a lot of ambulances. And we had a very active volunteer fire department. I found it hard to believe a town of that size could generate enough “emergencies” to justify so many sirens and keep so many emergency personnel racing hither and yon. I worked for a local newspaper and know how many serious problems occurred. We were lucky if we got one major police story or structure fire to write about in a week.

The community was in the heart of a rural farming area, located in the Midwest. There are several towns in the area, but the one I lived in is about as large as they come. A peculiar thing about all of these little towns is that there are sirens mounted on towers in every one of them. They are a spin-off from the old days, before there were personal electronic notification devices, when town fire fighters had to be called from their jobs to fight a fire. Now, even though they are no longer needed the sirens are still being used as some kind of “town crier.” You can literally set your clocks to them. In the town where I lived the fire siren was blown four times daily. It went off at 7 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. every day except Sunday. It didn’t seem to matter that some people worked nights and had to sleep during the day. The whistle was blown faithfully. I also worked in a nearby town where the fire whistle was blown every day at noon. I don’t know about the other times of the day. I have friends living in another area towns. They all confirm that sirens are blown daily where they live too. 

I once attended a town council meeting and asked why the whistle is blown. My question was rewarded with blank stares. “We’ve always done it,” was about the only answer I could muster. I felt as if I was in a room full of zombies. It apparently has never occurred to them that the sirens could be turned off. At one point the whistle stopped blowing. This lasted for several weeks. When I dared to ask the city manager about this I was told that some part of the electronic system was broken. The town council ordered a new part and repaired the siren after receiving telephone calls from citizens that complained about not hearing it blow.

The noise goes beyond these “official” machines that seem to come with the trappings of modern civilization. The streets are filled with vehicles that either have no mufflers, or the mufflers are modified to make a lot of noise. Drivers enjoy tromping the gas pedal at every corner, making their engines roar and our windows rattle as they pass. The young people were not satisfied with loud mufflers. They also had stereos blaring in their cars and in their homes. They enjoyed their screaming rock music so much they wanted to share it with the world. Loud speakers were cranked up to the max, and every car had its windows down. The ground literally vibrateed as these vehicles passed. Dishes rattled in our cupboards.

There also are gas powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, trucks with loud beepers sounding when they are backing up, chain saws, and noisy garbage trucks.

The noise pollution followed me to my job. There I worked against the sound of humming computers, chattering workers, ringing telephones, running motors, more community sirens and a variety of other sounds that clutter the mind. Studies have shown that too much noise in the work place affects performance of employees. Their ability to do mathematical calculations drops and they have reduced short-term memory capabilities. The noise affects people both mentally and physically. High blood pressure, heart disease and various other illnesses have been linked to noise pollution.

In the apartment where I lived were numerous electronic devices that make noise. The refrigerator, for example, has an extremely loud motor that was constantly clicking on and off. When on the television emits a constant assault on the senses. I suggest that you turn away from the television for a few moments and just listen. . . not to what is being said, but to the noise in general. The sounds that come out of that box can be very annoying after only a few moments. Radios are no better.   Nor are little cassette players with headphones that you can snap on your belt.

There also is a human and animal element as well. I am referring to barking dogs, shouting neighbors and crying children, for example.

There was a time, before steam engines were invented and before electricity was artificially created from wired generators, when people enjoyed a more tranquil way of living. As we moved through the industrial and more recently the electronic age, the noises have intensified.

Noise pollution crept into our environment slowly. The change was so gradual we didn’t notice its effect. People welcomed the light bulb when it arrived. They couldn’t wait to get their homes wired for electric power. They loved the Edison phonographs, the radio, the telephones and later the televisions. Each new invention seemed to make our daily lives more wonderful. We welcomed the noises that came with these new inventions, never realizing what it was doing to us on a spiritual level.

Now we can’t escape noise pollution. My wife and I lived for a while with a Navajo medicine man in a remote high desert area of northeast Arizona, where you can drive for miles and never see a house. But even here there was noise pollution. The Navajo had electric wires strung all over the reservation. The government built homes for the younger families contained television sets, radios, microwaves, water pumps, refrigerators and all of the other trappings of modern life. Every household kept several dogs that liked to bark at every moving thing. When I would go for a walk down one of the lonely dirt trails leading across the reservation, my senses were assaulted by passing pickup trucks, and jet aircraft flying overhead.

The tragedy of all this is that the human race has inadvertently found a way to go into self-destruct. Humans no longer have the ability, the will, or even the thought of seeking a moment of peace for purposes of meditation and personal reflection. Without this, it is difficult, if not impossible for us to look within ourselves and find the real God.