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The Quest For Silence

By James Donahue

Our world has become so heavily populated and its people so preoccupied with mechanical and electronic technology that we have destroyed the sound of silence.

As a person who has traveled much of the land, having hiked through deep forests and across the high desert of the Southwestern United States, I can attest to the fact that it is all but impossible to find true silence.

No matter where I went, the sound of aircraft passing overhead, motorcycle or all-terrain vehicles roaring across the open landscape, or the voices of other hikers always shattered my thoughts as I hiked the many trails left by those who walked before me.

People clutter their neighborhoods with noisy machines ranging from powered lawnmowers, snow blowers, leaf blowers and rototillers to powered tools, portable telephones, computers, radios and recorded music players. Trucks and other heavy construction equipment, equipped with those incessant back-up beepers, jar the senses everywhere.

A recent Newsweek story by Julie Baird, which addressed this issue, quoted Gordon Hempton, an audio ecologist, said silence is not the complete silence one might find in a dark cave deep in the bowels of the Earth. Rather, he said, it is “the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”

And that is a profound thought. It also is a state that humanity has almost completely destroyed. There is almost no place left on the planet, except perhaps on the top of a mountain or at some cold point in Antarctica, where one might find that state of true silence.

And even there, the vibrations of satellite radio, television, telephone and other frequency bombardments, while not audible to our ears, are bombarding our bodies and having an effect on our nervous system.

Indeed, Hempton has traveled the world in search of quiet places. In a book co-authored with John Grossman, titled One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, he argues that silence is almost extinct. In his efforts to record true silence, he said it was rare when the sound of a waterfall, or the birds sounding their natural calls, weren’t interrupted by an airliner passing overhead, a vehicle passing on a nearby roadway or some other man-made noise.

Hempton said he trekked into remote landscapes, measuring decibels and rude interruptions to the noises of nature. In 1983 he said he found 21 places in Washington State with noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer. By 2007 there were only three. That is how serious this problem has become.

There is a spiritual connection between ourselves and nature that perhaps can only be truly achieved by sitting in silence and hearing the sounds of the Earth and all of her creatures speaking to us . . . without interruption.

 

The Baird article included the following, which seems to put this thought into perspective: “To be in a naturally silent place is as essential today as it was to our distant ancestors. Besides spending time away from the damaging noise impacts present at our workplace, neighborhoods, and homes, we are given the opportunity not only to heal but discover something incredible - - the presence of live, interwoven!”

 

The writer asks: “Do you know what it sounds like to listen for 20 miles in every direction? That is more than 1,000 square miles. When I listen to a naturally silent place and hear nature at its most natural, it is no longer merely sound; it is music. And like all music, good or bad, it affects us deeply.”

 

I remember that music. As a young man growing up on my parent’s Michigan farm, I spent many hours tramping the woodlands, rolling hills and open terrain that still existed before civilization closed in upon us.

 

I remember how completely exhilarating it was to sit quietly on a log or in a thicket of moss along a flowing stream and just absorb the sounds of nature all around me. The trees, the birds, and crickets, the frogs and all of the scurrying creatures under my feet joined in the great symphony that overwhelmed my senses.

 

At those wonderful moments I knew I was privileged to be in the very presence of the Creator. They are moments that I vividly recall even to this day. How sad to think that I can no longer return to that place again.