Connoisseurs of quiet say it is increasingly difficult, even in the wilderness, to escape the sounds of vehicles, industries, voices. A study published last year in the academic journal Science found that noise pollution was doubling sound levels in much of the nation’s conserved land, like national parks and areas preserved by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Noise that humans create can be annoying but also dangerous to animals who rely on hearing to seek their prey and avoid predators. “We’re really starting to understand the consequences of noise and the importance of natural sound,” said Rachel Buxton, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who worked on the study.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience total silence — and it is profound and oddly disorienting. I once stood in a place so totally quiet — a friend’s enormous ranch in New Mexico — that I could hear myself digesting.
Ironically, there really are some spots in the city of Manhattan where you can enjoy near-silence, while my suburban street echoes almost constantly with birdsong, night-time coyotes (!), leaf-blowers and construction work.
Have you ever noticed how we now spend our lives in thrall not only to technology — but to dozens of its ruthlessly dictated speeds?
I thought of this when I visited The New York Times building, a stunning white-column-covered tower in midtown Manhattan.
First, like many lobbies now, you have to be buzzed through a set of metal gates by their security guards.
Then you choose a dedicated elevator that will tell you which floors it will take you to — but those doors close quickly! You have to pay close attention and move fast.
We do this every day now, accommodating our pace to that of computers, cellphones, (maybe even a landline, still!), escalators and elevators.
Crossing Manhattan’s busy streets means facing a timed light, even if you need to cross six or eight lanes of traffic. If, as I often do, you’re struggling with arthritis or an injury affecting your mobility, those seconds fly by.
Only if you live in a rural area or don’t spend much time in urban settings can you avoid this tyranny by tech.
I won’t romanticize the rural life — where some students are up in darkness to meet the school bus (more life-by-appointment) — or where farmers’ lives are dictated by the needs of their livestock or other animals.
I do often wonder what life was like in the pre-industrial 19th. century and before, before electricity and artificial light and kerosene and gas, when the only illumination was candles, often reflected in as many mirrors as possible.
When the only noise might be the ticking of a grandfather clock.
When our rhythms were primarily dictated by light and darkness, cold and warmth — not the 24/7 demands of a global economy where someone, somewhere can expect us to do something for them right away.
When a long journey consisted of stagecoach or carriage rides, punctuated with real rest stops and fresh horses.
Candle Hour has become a soul-level bulwark against so many different kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping not just out of my day but out of time itself. I shunt aside outrages and anxieties. I find the less conditional, more indomitable version of myself. It’s that version I send into my dreams.
At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now. Studies have noted the disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to blue-spectrum light — the sort emanated by our devices — on the human circadian rhythm. The screens trick us into thinking we need to stay alert, because our brains register their wavelength as they would the approach of daylight. But light on the red end of the spectrum sends a much weaker signal. In the long era of fire and candlelight, our bodies were unconfused as they began to uncoil.
I love the writing of fellow Canadian Carl Honoré, whose career focuses on urging us all to slow down.
if all the world’s a stage, America is a prime player: a rich, loud, attention-seeking celebrity not fully deserving of its starring role, often putting in a critically reviled performance and tending toward histrionics that threaten to ruin the show for everybody else. (Also, embarrassingly, possibly the last to know that its career as top biller is in rapid decline.) To the outside onlooker, American culture—I’m consolidating an infinitely layered thing to save time and space—is contradictory and bizarre, hypocritical and self-congratulatory. Its national character is a textbook study in narcissistic tendencies coupled with crushing insecurity issues.
How to reconcile a country that fetishizes violence and is squeamish about sex; conflates Christianity and consumerism; says it loves liberty yet made human rights violations a founding principle? In conversations with non-Americans, should the topic of the U.S. come up, there are often expressions of incredulity and bewilderment about things that seem weird when you aren’t from here. Talk and think about those things enough, and they also start to seem objectively weird if you are from here, too.
Maybe it’s why I find loud voices, and the enormous egos behind them, let alone those who kowtow to them, so difficult and unpleasant. People who feel a constant need to draw attention to themselves and their concerns, certainly past the age of 12 or so, strike me as exhausting.
I’ve been taking a jazz dance class for a decade and enjoyed it greatly, until this year.
A woman, 48, feels compelled to talk, often and loudly, throughout the class, offering her opinion on everything from the music we’re moving to to the latest show she’s seen.
I asked the teacher, twice, to ask this woman to be quiet, to no avail. I know another student (British origin, interestingly), also complained.
I’m now looking for a new dance class.
I see the same phenomenon on-line, where some people are all-angst-all-the-time. Their neediness sucks all the air from the room and leaves me wondering why, as with the woman in dance class, they feel compelled to dominate every possible space, real or virtual.
The current Presidential election has proven the point as well, with Donald Trump garnering huge, (i.e. disproportionate), volumes of airtime and headlines through his incessant bullying and bombast. This week he added personal insults — “You’re a beauty” — to injury when he attacked journalists who dared to challenge him at a press conference.
For broadcasters, turning down an interview with a candidate is anathema to a news culture trained to pursue maximum access. Yet the starkly different strategies of the candidates are straining the industry’s bedrock notions of evenhandedness.
“The two candidates are running two different kinds of races,” said John Dickerson, the moderator of “Face the Nation” on CBS, who has interviewed both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump on his show.
“At every opportunity possible, you invite both of them on to share their views and answer the questions of the moment,” Mr. Dickerson said. “But a lot of this is on the candidates. If they believe a point is better expressed by their surrogate, or not talking at all, that’s sort of their choice.”
Networks are seeking novel ways to maintain balance, like staging voter town halls that provide candidates with equal airtime; seeking a wider spectrum of on-air contributors and campaign surrogates; and bringing more fact-checking into segments, as Jake Tapper has done recently on CNN to some acclaim.
Still, the presence of Mr. Trump can be irresistible, especially in an election in which viewership and advertising rates have soared, generating tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for an industry threatened by digital competition.
Someone’s footsteps (what sort of shoes are they wearing? Are they young or old? Thin or heavy?)
The distant echoing whistle of a passing train.
The hum of the refrigerator.
Your dog’s whimper as he naps.
Your children, laughing (or crying!)
Blessed with sight, we often forget how much we hear, or could hear, in any given moment if we stopped to pay closer attention. If you live in a noisy, crowded city — car horns, engine sounds, cellphones, sirens, the beeping of a truck backing up, bus brakes sighing — it seems counter-intuitive as we we’re always trying to block it out.
But stand somewhere quieter, eyes closed, and you’ll be amazed how many sounds you’ll pick up.
Some of my favorites include:
Street singers, walking and clapping their hands, in Andalusia
The clanging of metal halyards against metal sailboat masts
A bird in Kenya whose call sounded just like a beeping alarm clock
The muezzin’s chant from a tower in Istanbul
The chatter of coins dropped onto a small china dish, change returned in Paris
The click of my husband’s key in the front door as he returns from work
Wind soughing through tall, fragrant pines
The gurgle of a canoe paddle pushing water
The specific thwack of a well-hit golf ball
The specific clang of a well-hit softball off of a metal bat
A coyote howling beneath our (suburban New York!?) windows
A baby’s giggle
The crunching of car tires on gravel
Tea being poured into a bone china teacup
Jet engines revving — a trip about to start!
That odd sing-song-y noise before the subway doors close in Paris
But you do not need to be an acoustic engineer armed with a stun gun and sophisticated measuring tools to be awed by the singing sands of the Kelso Dunes in the Californian Mojave Desert (caused by an avalanche of very dry sand down a steep slope) or by the cascading roar of the sea inside Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose his “Hebrides” overture…
Mr. Cox also plays with, and explains, the acoustics of whispering galleries like that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the one by the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, in which sound is guided along the tiled archway.
(I added the bold/italics as I think this is so cool!)
Two pioneering composers are turning forest plants and animals of Thetford Forest into virtual conductors this summer, creating ‘Living Symphonies’ where visitors will be able to hear the sounds of the forest in musical form from 24-30 May.
The artists, James Bulley and Daniel Jones, have been working with Forestry Commission ecologists to map the true extent of woodland wildlife and plantlife in one of the East’s most beautiful forests, reacting to all that is alive within a forest. The composers have then created a musical motif for each organism living in the forest, then, with speakers hidden amongst the trees, digital technology generates the full symphony in real time – when an animal moves, so does their music.
If a flock of birds moves across the canopy the visitor may hear a cluster of clarinets move with them. When rain causes some animals to emerge while others hide away; it will also trigger moisture sensors causing their musical counterparts to do the same. The animals and plants become the conductors.
Together they hope to create a remarkable new way for audiences to explore forests with their ears as well as their eyes. As the visitor explores the music they will also become aware of just how complex an eco-system a forest is.
My husband is a Buddhist, so I’m very aware of all the mature, adult arguments for staying calm, breathing deeply, counting to ten before reacting, (or to 100), that we are all in control (hah) of our emotions and can always choose another reaction beyond anger.
It was a combination, with the usual final straw: endless noise of garbage trucks, leaf blowers and children shrieking plus a delayed assignment I feared might head south, (and with it my budgeted income).
After doing an eight-day silent retreat two years ago, I returned to normal life with a much deeper appreciation of — and deep hunger for — silence. Silence unbroken by, (as I write this, another fucking jet has just screeched over my head, thanks to changed airport traffic patterns since we bought this place), endless, endless, endless noise.
I wait all year, desperate to flee our small apartment, to enjoy the additional 60 square feet of our top-floor balcony, at the treetops, where I work, read, nap. Relax. In New York, we get summer from May to September, at best, and I’m eager to enjoy being outdoors, finally, day and night.
After the umpteenth scream from the kids playing below, (shared space we all pay for), 100 feet below my balcony, whose parents were both deafened and stupid, I called the management company for our co-op apartment building to complain.
When the manager there called me rude and hung up on me, I thought my head would explode.
Only in New York has anyone ever dared to tell me “You’re rude” when I’ve lodged a complaint. Whether I am, (and it’s entirely possible by the time I call, completely fed up), or not, is not the issue.
If you’ve chosen — and I did 2.5 years as a retail associate — to serve others for a living, part of your job is to resolve problems. Politely. You don’t call someone names because you don’t like what they’re telling you.
I can’t stand being interrupted, not listened to when there is a legitimate problem — and being name-called on top of it.
The results are not pretty. Not pretty at all.
I have a temper.
Which any of you regulars here already know!
In our family, anger was too often the primary language, the go-to choice. Instead of actually explaining that something we’d just heard — or acknowledged we’d said — was hurtful, we’d just hop the express train to full-on hostilities. I can still quote verbatim, decades later, some of the phrases family members tossed my way.
It creates an opposite-but-equal reaction, then as now.
No, fuck you.
I know my temper, and my very quick rise to rage on occasion, is both a professional and personal liability.
But people who didn’t grow up in the toxic stew of anger have no idea. Emotional armor becomes normal, and a vicious retort your quickest and most reliable/legal self-defense.
I could meditate for another fucking century — and being disrespected would still make me crazy.
Selfishness — screaming brats in a public space — drives me crazy. The laziness of not disciplining said brats, by their parents or their kids’ friends’ parents, drives me crazy.
A lack of accountability drives me crazy.
We ate out recently in an indie restaurant recently that had done something (blessedly!) radical — posted prominent signs saying “Your children are welcome. We expect them to behave in a manner that allows all our guests to enjoy their meals” (or some variation of that.)
The bottom line is you don’t want fights and conflicts to choose you. It’s a much stronger position to be in when you are in control of your entry point into the fray. But how do we encourage that control when our anger is screaming war cries in our ear, urging us fearlessly into battle? As the cliche has it, let cool heads prevail. When you are under attack are you willing to bypass your ego and consider a non-violent response? Equally, can you still feel empowered if you haven’t raised fist or voice in anger? I think the idea of self-empowerment is at the root of the expression of anger and I would argue that there are people who love their angry selves because it makes them feel so empowered. But we need to get beneath the anger to work out what’s really going on.
For years, I would say that my father gifted me with rage. This may sound like “I tripped into the door again” dressed up in riot grrl bravado. But I am never sugar and spice and everything nice. I am piss and vinegar and what the fuck do you think you’re looking at?
When a friend needs to get stuff out of her asshole ex’s apartment, she calls me. When a landlord suggests that, instead of asking him to expend “money and energy” on fixing my toilet, I simply turn off the water pressure when I’m not using it, I photograph every code violation (however minor) and call the board of housing. I bankrupt him. When the resident creep in my building mails me a letter saying that he’d like to be my “friend” (quotation marks his), I don’t just knock on his door, I throw my shoulder against it. I tell him it doesn’t scare me that he knows where I live. I know where he lives, too. He doesn’t so much as look at me again.
Anger is an arrow: a sharp point with a clear path. Once it has struck, there’s a victor. A victim. My mother’s arsenal is stocked with fluttering laughs, “Oh honey” and “please, don’t.” Just be quiet, she says. He’s had a bad day. Don’t bother him. Don’t bang the cabinet.
Have you ever visited a place so quiet you could hear yourself digest?
For me, it was a ranch in southern New Mexico, land owned by friends of ours, land so wild we ended up confined to quarters because a mountain lion was on the prowl nearby.
We’re now in a spot almost as quiet, the “northern neck” of Virginia, about two hours’ drive southeast of Washington, D.C., a city where the sound of airplanes seems almost constant.
I sat on the dock in the sunshine here and heard only gulls squawking, a dog barking, a distant lawn-mower and wind in the trees.
We live in a town 25 miles north of New York City where two specific, unwanted and frequent sounds drive me mad — the leaf-blowers and the constant buzz and roar of helicopters and airplanes taking off from a nearby airport. They’re constant, the routes changed since I bought our place, making our top-floor balcony less restful than it once was.
I’ve lived in much noisier places — downtown Toronto, (constant sirens from a nearby fire-hall), the edge of Paris (right on the peripherique, ring road, constant traffic) and Montreal (snow-plows in winter.) Then I moved to small-town New Hampshire and enjoyed the change from non-stop noise.
My appreciation for silence really blossomed after an eight-day silent retreat that Jose and I took two summers ago. Like everyone there, some 75 people of all ages from around the world, we were forbidden from speaking, and only occasionally whispered a bit in our room. Mostly we wrote on Post-It notes to one another and shut our traps.
It was a very powerful way to realize how exhausting it is to be chatty and charming and social, (even civil), with the many people we typically encounter every day in normal life. Here’s my post about the sounds I heard there when everything else was still.
The retreat also showed me how pleasant it is to remain silent while surrounded by others equally committed to a break from wasted words. Try it for a day and you quickly realize how much we speak, yet how little we really say, (some of us), that we truly feel or need to communicate from the depths of our heart.
EVER since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car. The Quiet Car, in case you don’t know, is usually the first car in Amtrak’s coach section, right behind business class. Loud talking is forbidden there — any conversations are to be conducted in whispers. Cellphones off; music and movies on headphones only. There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon. The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol. Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car’s rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.
Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.
“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”
“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”
“Yes,” said the woman behind them.
My husband won’t go to the movies anymore, at least not in the evening, and the reason is twofold — other people attending are so rude and noisy, and I spend too much time hissing at them or saying, loudly, “Shut up!”
Which is, yes, very rude of me.
I admit it, I lost it last week.
I was sitting, reading a book and savoring a coffee, enjoying the luxury of leisure in Manhattan before meeting a friend for dinner. A woman right beside me — with lots of room to sit further away — shouted into her cellphone in Portuguese.
“Can you please lower your voice!?” I finally asked, fearing a nasty fight. To my surprise, she moved immediately and came back to apologize, explaining she’d been speaking to her son, via Skype, in Brazil.
Silence is healing, soothing, calming. It lowers our heart rate and speed of respiration. It allows us to focus on our other senses. It offers us a deep, refreshed sleep. It allows us to focus and concentrate our attention, whether on work, reading or a spectacular work of art in a museum or gallery.
In this post, from July 2011, you’ll read all the sounds I became newly aware of on an eight-day silent retreat Jose and I took. I posted several short essays that week, as peeling away the cocoon of noise/music/conversation/traffic laid bare a fresh set of insights and appreciations that were simply unattainable within the noisy distractions of everyday life.
When Jose and I re-emerged, reluctantly and nervously, into “real life” I immediately noticed how edgy and anxious noise renders me. I eat more, more often and more quickly. My mood alters, and rarely for the better.
I treasure silence, an increasingly rare commodity.
Do you savor silence?
Where, in your daily life, do you find or create it?
As I type this, at 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning, I hear: my neighbor’s conversation (sigh), fully audible through our adjoining wall; traffic on the bridge a few miles away, birds in the treetops mere feet from our windows, the fridge humming, a few jets high overhead.
The scale of our noise problem isn’t in doubt. In recent years rigorous studies on the health consequences of noise have indicated that noise elevates heart rate, blood pressure, vasoconstriction and stress hormone levels, and increases risk for heart attacks. These reports prove that even when we’ve become mentally habituated to noise, the damage it does to our physiologies continues unchecked.
Studies done on sleeping subjects show that signs of stress surge in response to noise like air traffic even when people don’t wake. Moderate noise from white-noise machines, air-conditioners and background television, for example, can still undermine children’s language acquisition. Warnings about playing Walkmans and iPods too loudly have been around for years, but some experts now believe that even at reasonable volumes a direct sound-feed into the ears for hours on end may degrade our hearing.
Yet by focusing on the issue exclusively from a negative perspective, in a world awash with things to worry about, we may just be adding to the public’s sense of self-compassion fatigue. Rather than rant about noise, we need to create a passionate case for silence.
There are few things more healing — to some, unnerving — than deep, rich, unbroken silence. Journalists learn early to use it professionally: when conducting an interview, leave a gap in the conversation and many people, unaccustomed to it, will keep on talking to fill it, often with things they might not otherwise have said.
Those who meditate in Buddhism talk about taming, or trying to, their “monkey mind” — the thoughts and fears that too often bound around our brains like a crazed chimpanzee. For some people, the notion of sitting totally still and calm, eschewing every possible distraction and interruption, is terrifying. You’re….not needed! Not connected! Not productive.
We spent a week this January on an isolated and large (28,000 acres) ranch in New Mexico. The silence was so rich it echoed in my ears. I could hear myself digesting. I felt profoundly restored in a way almost nothing else had ever produced.