Are there any truly quiet places left, free of the din of all of the noises made by humans? There are so many more unnatural noises than there ever were before. We have all our beeping, buzzing, nudging devices. We have stuff that hums that we don’t even notice, such as our refrigerators. Many of us are within earshot of traffic even when we are at home. A population that just keeps growing, spreading into previously pristine spaces, also adds to the noise.
For his book with John Grossmann, One Square Inch of Silence, Gordon Hempton traveled the country in search of untouched places and recording what he heard there. Hempton considers himself an “acoustic ecologist.” (I had never heard of such a thing.) In One Square Inch, he and Grossmann make this case for the significance of silence:
“Good things come from a quiet place. Study, prayer, music, transformation, worship, communion. The words peace and quiet are all but synonymous, often spoken in the same breath. A quiet place is the think tank of the soul – the spawning ground of truth and beauty.
“A quiet place outdoors has no physical borders or limits to perception. One can commonly hear for miles and listen even farther. A quiet place affords sanctuary for the soul, where the difference between right and wrong becomes more readily apparent. It is a place to feel the love that connects all things, large and small, human and not; a place where the presence of a tree can be heard. A quiet place is a place to open up all your senses and come alive.”
In “Personal Havens,” a story Grossmann wrote for the Winter 2009 edition of Creative Living magazine, the author makes the case that our need for private havens, where we can find some quiet, is greater than it has ever been before.
But is it really? Or have we grown so accustomed to being tethered to our cell phones and other gadgets, so accustomed to having our favorite music and TV shows and movies on demand, that we don’t even want silence anymore? Are we becoming allergic to sitting alone with our own thoughts?
I don’t know of any research on whether people want or need more quiet time than they did before. The book titled Quiet was a big-time bestseller, so maybe that’s indicative of something, though the topic was more about introverts than about quiet.
Personally, I’ve become more comfortable with sounds in contexts where I never wanted them before. I grew up with two brothers and a sister, and a father who liked having the TV on all the time. (My mother didn’t make much noise.) Sometimes, the only way I could do my reading or homework was to go into my parents’ closet, turn on the light, and close the door. The clothes would muffle all the sounds, and I could work in peace.
Now I’d be claustrophobic before the first minute had passed. And now that I live alone, there is no need to hide out. I have my whole place to myself. But here’s the thing: Sometimes I turn on music while I’m writing. And if what I’m writing takes up little of my mental space (for example, emailing), I can even do some of that with the TV on.
I still crave utter silence, though, or just the kinds of sounds you hear in nature. I go out for walks almost every day – there are so many great trails here in Santa Barbara – but I never listen to music when I do.
So do we need more quiet than we ever did before? Or have most of us accommodated to all the human-made noises to such an extent that we actually want them in our lives more than we ever did before? As social scientists like to say, more research is needed.