Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I find as I get older that noise pollution gets more and more intolerable. I'm sure our ancient ancestors had plenty of noises to fill the air but they were the sounds of waterfalls, insects, wind, birds, and myriad other natural sounds. We, on the other hand, have to contend with leaf blowers, chain saws, beeping car locks & back-up alarms & bank machines, screeching sirens & car alarms, horns, airplanes, rumbling tractor trailers, and booming car stereos. I just realized as I write this that most sounds are related to vehicles in one way or another. Whatever their source, they interfere with our well-being even if it is at a subliminal level.

Here are a few excerpts from a recent Newsweek article by Julia Baird:

An Unquiet Nation

Silence is something you assume you will always be able to find if you need it. All you have to do is drive far enough in the right direction, trek through quiet fields or woods, or dive into the sea's belly. For true silence is not noiselessness. As audio ecologist Gordon Hempton defines it, silence 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 silence, Hempton believes, is rapidly disappearing, even in the most remote places. He says there are fewer than a dozen places of silence—areas "where natural silence reigns over many square miles"—remaining in America, and none in Europe. In his book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, written with John Grossman, Hempton argues that silence—a precious, underrated commodity—is facing extinction.

Hempton claims that, during daytime, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas has shrunk to less than five minutes. Think of the snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone, helicopters flying over Hawaii volcanoes, and air tours over the Grand Canyon. It is air traffic that Hempton seems to resent the most: in his book, he travels across the United States in a 1964 VW bus, recording sound as he goes, from Washington state to Washington, D.C., where he meets with politicians and officials to press his case for the preservation of natural silence.

I spoke to Hempton about his work, his mission, and whether he is just a cranky leaf-blower-hating hippie.

Why should we care about silence?

It has become an increasingly rare experience to be in nature as our distant ancestors were. Even in our national parks today, despite laws to protect them, you are much more likely to be hearing noise pollution, particularly overhead aircraft, than you are to be hearing only the native sounds of the land. Yet 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 life, interwoven! 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.

Max Ehrmann was right-on when he wrote: "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence."

Here are some other quotes on silence:

Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation... tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego. His anxiety subsides. His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation. ~Jean Arp

Everybody should have his personal sounds to listen for - sounds that will make him exhilarated and alive or quite and calm.... One of the greatest sounds of them all - and to me it is a sound - is utter, complete silence. ~Andre Kostelanetz

Silence is the secret to sanity. ~Astrid Alauda

Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. What's that you say? Just a minute while Iput my hearing aids in.

  2. That is why I go out to town one day a week only. God has blessed HH and I with retirement and we are in the country. There are sounds but not like the daily grind of the city. Blessings

  3. I live in a block of flats,next to a busy road, under the final approach to a military airfield and the railway isn't far away so sadly I rarely experience silence at home! Much of the time it's not as bad as it seems but I guess that I've become used to it and also tune much of it out.
    When it is silent, wherever I am, I relish and make the most of it because as you say it happens less and less often! Flighty xx

  4. Anvilcloud, I was thinking of you and your hearing aids. What an advantage that is at times!
    QMM, how lucky you are to be in the country.
    Flightplot, it sounds like you are in quite a noisy place! Glad you can tune much of it out and enjoy whatever silence you can find.

  5. Silence is truly golden. I cannot imagine having earplugs in my ears so that I can constantly listen to music (or whatever.) Yet so many do. Perhaps they are tuning out the ambient noise so they can listen to sounds they enjoy, but most music to me is noise pollution! Thankfully, I too can tune out most sounds - except those of the chirping birds, the bubbling brook, and the wind rustling the leaves... :-)

  6. What I've written probably reads worse than it actually is as much of the time there is comparative quite but rarely silence, which when there is sure is noticable! Flighty xx