Here at the foot of my home range, north light streams onto the glowing screen of my laptop, and my thoughts stumble through ambient noises. I could turn off the rock-flavored music on the radio, which masks the sound of passing cars and an occasional train, but the refrigerator’s deadly hum might be more distracting. After an initial meow of greeting one cat has settled on my lap. The other is asleep for now. The dog, as usual, is quiet, and this may be enough to begin.
Back from multiple trips through southwestern El Norte and the northern Sierra Madre, I’m well-stocked with beverages conducive to deep research, and trying to think of silence. I’m reading an article about “one square inch of silence” in the Hoh rain forest of northwest Washington. It’s near a trail I’ve walked, and is indeed a quiet place, though I remember a deer stepping quietly out of my path and a river flowing below dripping trees.
Earlier this month, I walked for five days through a canyon still mostly resistant to industrial noise, with a friend and local guide capable of quiet concentration, so that for periods it was possible to hear only the sound of breathing and footsteps. Louder as the scrabbly trail steepened, quieting as the grade eased. One night we slept to creek and thunder sounds, another to a river cascade. One night featured wind, drunken shouts of locals buzzed on a corn beer called tesguina, and barking dogs (my hiking friend doesn’t sleep easily, and hates the sound of barking dogs). Before daylight, I awakened to a rooster crowing. The last night had creek sounds, and the faint noise of a recently re-opened mine up the slope. Once, a jetliner passed over, and vehicles on the rim highway announced our return to constant human-generated noise. I do not recall silence.
To be fair, the creator and main promoter of the ‘One Square Inch of Silence’ concept, Gordon Hempton, does not claim pure silence as his goal, and in fact points to our rotating planet as constant background noise for any discussion of the subject. He placed a symbolic stone in Olympic National Park in 2005, and since has been using its existence to pressure the National Park Service to adhere to its stated goal of preserving natural sound-scapes. More accurately, he is talking about something known as ‘acoustic ecology,’ which of course has its host of organizations, associations, institutes and even a world forum with a scholarly looking (i. e – sleep-inducing) journal available online. Though some of these organizations looking to be suffering a bit of ennui (most references pre-date our current national economic hand-wringing, hair-tearing, breast-beating, and finger-pointing), here are some links: World Listening Project, the Acoustic Ecology Institute, the Nature Sounds Society, and World Forum for Acoustic Ecology.
The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse and the Right to Quiet Society may be of help. With time, beverages, and a fast internet connection, quixotic seekers of a more perfect acoustic ecology can battle some of these creaking windmills: car alarms, leaf blowers, muzak, motorcycles, loud mufflers, loud car stereos, train horns and even barking dogs. Madison, Wisconsin-based Noise Free America will be your guide. There, you can also find links to quiet lawn-mowers, vacuums, and for the ver-r-ry sensitive, a quiet computer cooling fan.
Gordon Hempton has made sound recordings for several decades. Jez Riley French’s blog has more, and you can buy a custom-made hydrophone of your own. The World Soundscape Project has more recordings, and a short history of acoustic ecology. My own interests lie more in finding quiet places, and respecting them. Now and then, as the noise of living engulfs me, a story triggers memories. For this, I thank Kathleen Dean Moore’s Silence Like Scouring Sand in Orion Magazine’s current issue. Check it out, while we wait for winter to blanket our chosen pieces of paradise with a quiet so pure that breathing might shatter it.