Looking for quiet
Trying to find some true quiet, the dog and I took a walk before the sun was up last week. A few birds were already awake, but the full morning chorus had not yet started. One of our roosters was working on a solo.
Down by the pond, a bullfrog was clanking. Across the street in a poplar tree, the nest of baby woodpeckers was silent, which meant that the parents were still in bed instead of flying in and out with breakfast.
A car passed, the lovely woman who brings me my newspaper every morning, and we waved.
No other vehicles were out — no logging trucks, no commuters, not even the early morning fisherman who stops first at the beach and then at the point around 6 every morning, casting for about 10 minutes at each place. I don’t think he’s looking for dinner. I think he’s looking for quiet.
Quiet and darkness are two things we don’t have enough of in our modern world. And by darkness I mean dark enough to view the light show of the night sky — the absence of artificial light.
Same with quiet. I don’t mean silence, the lack of all sound, but the absence of human-created noise. I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to find a place where no motors hum, where no trucks rumble, where no TVs or radios blare, where no airplane interrupts the bird song. A place where you can just listen to the natural world: a running stream, last night’s rain dripping off the trees, the gurgle of a turkey or the splash of a landing duck.
I guess it’s noisier in the summer, with Jet Skis on the lakes and generators in the woods. Traffic picks up as visitors drive around for the scenery, or to bring boats to the lakes, or to head to their camps. They come for the quiet, maybe not knowing they are stealing the quiet as they come.
Quiet is relative, of course. My own visitors from the city see — and hear — how peaceful it is up here, compared to round-the-clock, high-decibel noise in their neighborhoods. And it is peaceful, relatively.
But even on the quietest of nights we can hear the dam, a mile and a half away. Airplanes pass overhead, cars and trucks rumble by. Indoors we have two fans going when it’s hot, and the pump runs at regular intervals. Our refrigerator hums and my bedside clock ticks a little too loudly. The light bulb in the bathroom has a buzz.
Even deep in the woods or on top of a mountain, miles and miles away from a village or road, you can hear engine noises. When the power goes off during a blizzard, there’s always a half-hour of blissful quiet and you can hear the deer in the woods and the hoot of an owl, even from inside the motor-free house. Then, somewhere, someone cranks up a generator and it’s all gone.
Acoustic engineer Gordon Hempton calls quiet an endangered species. Hempton, who lives near Olympic National Park in Washington state, travels the world recording sounds and searching for those increasingly rare places where the only sounds come from nature.
I heard him on the radio last week, talking about how finding even a 15-minute “noise-free interval” is almost unheard of. Over the course of 30 years that he’s been recording sound, he’s kept a list of every one of those intervals — 15 daytime minutes without man-made noise. His list numbers 12.
I listened to Hempton talk about hiking deep into the Olympic forest with a friend, listening to the elk, a wren, the river. The two hikers agreed not to talk at all as they walked in. That’s a hard thing to do, since walking and talking go together so naturally, and because we humans like to fill up space with stuff and quiet with sound. We can’t seem to help ourselves.
But Hempton said that walking in silence allows you to listen, and that the more you listen, the more you hear. “When you’re in a quiet place, your listening horizon extends for miles in every direction,” he said. On the hike out, he said, after spending so much time listening, he and his friend spoke only in whispers.
“Quiet,” he said, “is quieting.”
I knew what he meant. And I started to think about quiet places and noise interruptions. I thought about hearing distant motors while swimming underwater, and hearing car alarms from the tops of mountains.
I thought about the number of times I’ve said “Shhhh!” to someone on a hike so I could identify a bird call or discern whether that rustle in the underbrush was a chipmunk or a bear.
Even Hempton’s own voice, going on and on about quiet, started to bug me.
I turned off the radio. I think that was the right way to really understand his point. It’s one I’ll try to keep in mind as I walk, maybe a little more quietly, through the woods.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.