By CYNTHA HUBERT
October 18, 2006
Be still, and listen carefully.
What do you hear?
Wherever you are, it's not likely to be the sound of silence.
Outside in our increasingly urban surroundings it's the drone of freeways, the grinding of construction trucks, the traffic helicopters in the sky.
In the office computers are beeping and cell phones are trilling. Having lunch at a restaurant? Not only is music blaring, but the TV in the corner is probably loudly tuned to ESPN. In the grocery store checkout line? A disembodied voice is telling you about a sale on toilet paper while a woman on a video screen is demonstrating how to make grilled salmon with mango salsa.
Scientists have long documented the negative effects of loud, prolonged noise on hearing, but what about the ubiquitous sounds of everyday life? What effects do they have on us physically, psychologically, spiritually?
Les Blomberg has studied the issue, and he's sad to tell you that the prognosis is not good. The word noise, he points out, comes from the Latin word for nausea.
"There's no escape from noise anymore," says Blomberg, who runs the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt. "We've brought it to the suburbs and even to rural and wilderness areas. We even have problems now in our national parks."
It's true. The National Park Service's Natural Sounds Program has begun to document how the intrusion of man-made noise, from planes to Jet Skis to pagers, is affecting life within some of our most treasured landmarks.
"Yes, there are still places in the parks that are very quiet," says Frank Turina, a natural resources planner for the agency. "But every day they are fewer and farther between.
Silence, it seems, has become nearly extinct, and the effects are both subtle and dramatic.
Reports by the World Health Organization in 1995 and 1999 found that "community noise" - including sounds from traffic, airplanes, construction, rock concerts and motorboats - can affect work productivity, hamper sleep, cause spikes in blood pressure and even harm the ability of schoolchildren to learn.
But it is the more insidious effects of noise that most concern Blomberg and others. They say that the inability to experience true quiet is robbing us of peace and tranquillity.
"It's not something that really has been research- ed, but it's the thing I fear most, because as we lose silence in our world we have whole generations of people growing up thinking that the world is naturally loud," he says. "It's not. We put the noise there, and it doesn't have to be that way."
Blomberg, who has successfully fought for tougher noise ordinances in Montpelier, cites a host of "stupid man-made sounds" that could and should be eliminated, from whining leaf blowers to shrieking car alarms.
The constant intrusion of noise in our lives does come at a heavy spiritual price, says Christina Feldman, author of the book "Silence: How To Find Inner Peace in a Busy World" (Rodwell Press, $19.95, 256 pages).
"Silence is a teacher," Feldman writes. "Within it, we learn some of the deepest lessons of our lives, about aloneness and intimacy, joy and sorrow, conflict and peace."
Silence allows us to listen, see and feel things more deeply, she says. That's why churches are quiet before services begin, why silent prayers are so powerful, why people talk about the joy they feel when they visit the ocean or walk in the forest.
Yet, even as people talk about how much they value the "natural peace" of the wilderness, they are importing more and more unnatural sounds.
"In the modern world we do things in a noisy way," says Mia Monroe, who manages California's John Muir National Monument and its majestic expanse of redwoods.
Monroe has worked in the woods for a quarter of a century, and day by day hears the march of progress. "Most digital cameras are not quiet," she notes. "Strollers can be quite noisy. Big vehicles have 'backup beepers,' and you hear lots of planes overhead. Back when I started here, cars didn't make those funny little beeps when the doors lock. It all adds up."
National parks officials, emboldened by complaints about air tours in the Grand Canyon and other sacred places, are studying the intrusion of manmade sounds.
"Most people aren't even aware that their noises can disturb others," Monroe says. "When you remind them they are usually very happy to comply."
Bernie Krauss makes a living recording nature sounds, and says the job has become more and more difficult as urban racket has infiltrated wildlands.
Krause, a musician who used to play for the renowned folk group the Weavers, travels the world recording whispering pines, howling wolves and other sounds of nature for his company Wild Sanctuary.
"When I first started recording, in 1968, it would take me 15 hours to get one hour of usable material" devoid of voices, machinery or technology noise, he says. Now it takes him 2,000 hours, "and that's pretty much everywhere I go."
"An entire natural soundscape that was so wonderful just a few years ago is beginning to fall apart and disappear," says Krause. "Sure, it's depressing. It should be depressing to everyone."
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