Tag Archives: silence

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Paying for the Quiet

We clearly thrive an aural stimulation.  But it’s doubtful we were meant to handle the high walls of noise that modern life throws up.

Loud and intrusive racket is a part of living in the 21st Century.  Many of us hardly give a second thought to the noise pollution around us:  restaurants with patrons drowning in the din, apartments a few feet from raucous traffic, sidewalks inches from the continuous roar of traffic.  Then there are also theaters and music venues that pitch amplification beyond the margins of what the inner ear can tolerate. If there should be an unexpected lull as we move from place to place, earbuds are at the ready to fill in the gaps.

On my campus a few of us battle teams of leaf blowers who spew their pollution and noise under classroom windows.  The campus looks quieter than it is.  But this inconvenience pales compared to a whole block on the West Side of Manhattan that is apparently in need of tranquilizers. Apparently one of its uber-rich among them is noisily digging a 36-foot hole for a mammoth swimming pool and theater to go under their $100 million dollar townhouse.  According to the New York Times, one neighbor found solace in a quote attributed to Schopenhauer: “The higher your tolerance for noise, the lower your intelligence.”  We may think we thrive an aural stimulation.  But it’s doubtful we were meant to handle the high walls of noise that modern life throws in front of us.

Of course quiet is not an absolute value.  I know plenty of sane people who function with some degree of auditory tumult.  But  I’m always amazed at seemingly oblivious patrons in public establishments, where the sound is barely less than what can be found next to a runway at O’hare. The phrase “I can’t hear myself think” is more than a figure of speech. Thankfully, many still regard any space that can foster a whisper as an island of sanity.

It follows that there is a price to be paid if a person prefers a buffer from the noise of ordinary life.  Prized residential property in most vertical cities almost always exists in the upper floors of a residential building.  A high view in an apartment complex is in several ways “above it all.”  Aside from a better view, these homes are acoustically more isolated.  Sound dissipates as it travels up and away from the reflective surfaces of the street. Rents thus rise dramatically to reflect that height advantage. They are typically even higher if residential spaces are built with double or triple-glazed windows. Vacant spaces between the glass are devoid of air, the prime medium for the transmission of sound.

Deep in the woods in many parts of the United States city dwellers are shocked to hear their heartbeat.

The ultimate escape from noise, of course, is out of the city and away from busy roads and airplane glide paths.  In a secluded forest in many parts of the United States it is possible to hear your heart pump: a phenomenon that can catch a city-dweller off-guard. It is even quieter after a few inches of snow.

I only realized how quiet living in deep woods could be until September 11, 2002.  Airspace in the United States shutdown for days after the disastrous attacks in New York and Washington, with a resulting atmospheric stillness rarely known to those of us who live under the air highways feeding the nation’s airports.

In the meantime, we buy quiet that we can “see” in the bucolic images of landscape paintings and photographs.  I suspect that seeking the silence of an open space is an unsung function of a lot of landscape painting. Alternately, we may set aside time for activities like meditation, prayer or yoga.  All are meant to happen in calmer surroundings.  With regard to meditation, it seems that we now pay to learn practices that happened to previous generations naturally. A farmer taking a break in a corner of his field would be puzzled if asked by a passerby question if he was meditating.  Functionally, however, the peace that is possible in the middle of a field gives his brain the same kind of break.

De-Stressing in the Woods

                       Yellow Poplar

Thoreau acted on what many of us also know: rediscovering the ground of silence by retreating into a forest offers a chance to rebalance, to reawaken selves diminished by the clutter of  messages that ceaselessly intrude.

In his recent best-selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), Peter Wohlleben explains why he is so passionate about the verdant world of the forest.  Mostly he wants to marvel at a kind of biological intentionality that has trees “talking” to each other, aggregating in communities, nurturing the weakest and the wounded, and finding ways to protect themselves from invaders. In Wohlleben’s world “mother” trees keep their nearby offspring small by denying the light they need to grow quickly.  The slow growth mandated by the sun-blocking canopy of the parent has the effect of hardening the wood structure in the offspring.  That will add years to its life when the older tree falls and allows a direct path to the sun.  Like so much in the biological world, trees are “smart” in the ways they need to be smart.  And while I would quarrel a bit with a language of intention that works better for sentient beings than plants, we can’t help but share his admiration for these living structures.  Trees are the heroes of the planet for their longevity, their towering height and beauty, their life-giving  oxygen, and their capacity to regenerate even when abused by animals and humans. Thankfully, not all humans.

For decades some Japanese have engaged in a practice of “forest bathing.”  This is less a form of exercise than a simpler act of pausing to absorb the wonder of a wooded hillside.  This involves, as they say, “being in the moment,” lingering in a setting that offers psychological breathing space.  In addition, the transpiration-infused air of a forest is said to have its own restorative attributes.

For some time my family has lived on several acres within an expansive wooded valley.  But only recently have I fully appreciated the 100-foot tall poplars that stand as sentinels along the pathway to our house. Their tall trunks are ramrod straight, with branches and leaf canopies too high to fully appreciate from the ground. I marvel at how they’ve managed to endure all that human encroachment has thrown at them.  We rarely take the time, but more often we should stand at their bases in a conscious tribute to their magnificence.

Treks deep into the woods obviously function for the simple pleasure of spending time in the cool shade of these giants.

trees Pixabay

Perhaps pausing at the foot of a tree is a start in the direction of forest bathing.  Americans have other names for it as well. Fishing, hunting and camping come to mind. The ruddy gamesmen loaded to the teeth with various armaments would probably reject the label of “tree hugger.”  But hug them they do as they make their way along angled forest floors. Treks deep into the woods obviously function for the simple pleasure of spending time in the company of these giants.

The relevant communication lesson here lies in the perspective we regain when we withdraw into the natural world.  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau famously observed. For him the company of others was too much of a distraction, as were the new products of the information age delivered by the rapidly expanding telegraph. He acted on a premise that many of us also know: silence offered by a retreat into a forest offers a chance to rebalance, to reawaken selves diminished by the clutter of  messages that ceaselessly intrude.

And, of course, a forest’s presence is its own reward. It’s lushness, smell and density give us an existential lift. In the natural world we are again of a place and not just in it.  We are home with the elements of life-support we already know.  I sense this accutely after what is usually brief rain shower in the Rockies, where lodgepole pines add an indescribably clean scent to the thin air. Fortunately for nearly all of us, communities of trees are close by. Standing among them is to acknowledge that we are but one biological form paying homage to another, each extraordinary in their own ways.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu