Friday, September 6, 2013

From My Nature Journal: One Square Inch of Silence

I’ve been thinking of that ‘one square inch of silence’ concept cited recently in nature magazines. A man by the name of Gordon Hempton is seeking to popularize the notion and has written a book by that title, subtitled One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World. Hempton is going about chronicling what he claims are the few places remaining in the contiguous United States, on public lands, where one can go and have a better chance than not of listening for fifteen random minutes, during daylight hours, without hearing a single man-made sound.

One of his favorite places on his list (also perhaps one of the closest to his Seattle home) is in the rain forest in Olympic National Park. I actually remember that amazing sensation the one time we hiked there long ago with the kids: the ferns and soft mosses had the effect of deadening ambient sounds, much like the sound (or lack thereof) of standing in deep, freshly fallen snow. It is the sound of silence.

(near Sequoia N.P., California)
But it’s not silence that Hempton is after, it’s the absence of noise, specifically by his definition, any sound generated by people. He humorously tells of taking friends to his favorite spot in the Olympic for the express purpose of sharing the one-square-inch experience, hiking in, and not getting one of them to stop talking the whole trip! Funny! And if it’s not the people nearby, the next biggest perpetrator is, of course, air traffic, even in remote places like that.

So that’s the idea -- taking any arbitrary quarter-hour and having a better than 50-50 chance of hearing nothing but pure, natural, non-human-generated sound. If it’s public lands that are under consideration, I’d suggest the national forests rather than busy national parks. In fact, I think we could experience that noiseless reality with some regularity right here on the Ottawa National Forest where we are vacationing. Now may even be such a moment, as I sit here on the porch and ruminate about it.

(Pike N.F., Colorado)
But it’s interesting… What IS a man-made sound after all, technically? As I sit and listen I hear the lake lapping against the dock, a very pleasant natural sound. But completely natural? The water is such but the dock is man-made. I hear an agreeable light wind in the trees. But along with it I also hear the gentle flapping of the flag on the dock, pleasurable surely, even natural, but that sound would not exist if the flag did not exist. I hear the sound of the breeze grabbing the edge of the very journal page upon which I write, another man-made item. There’s the growling of my stomach (man-made noise for sure, and don’t I know it!), the bark of a dog down the lake (a domesticated animal, not natural), the scratch of my pen on the page. I guess we come close to a square inch of silence here, but not all the way.

If we could enjoy such times
of silence, they might even
become one of those ‘thin places’ 
where one could better hear
the still, small voice of God.

I keep listening. There’s a distant plunk. Is that an axe in a man’s hand or the echo of a fish jumping downshore? Now a tap-tap-tap: someone in a garage driving a nail or a woodpecker looking for a meal in a snag? Or maybe it’s that bluejay up in the hemlock, cracking open the peanut I left for him on the railing, a sound that would not have taken place without a man. There’s an aspirating noise. Is it a buck snort? Or a sneeze from one of the only two other people here on the bay today? A sharp crack: a distant gunshot or a branch falling in the woods? Now a soft croak – a far-flung squeaking car door or a nearby frog? A faint cry – children out on a paddleboat in the channel or the eaglet out there in the aerie tree begging for a meal?

Sounds like it’d be hard to even know if every sound one heard was strictly natural. Still, it’s a cool thought and an interesting effort to take the time to find these quiet places. If we could enjoy such times of silence, they might even become one of those ‘thin places’ where one could better hear the still, small voice of God.

The Bible says, “And Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).”  I guess if it’s God walking, it can’t be considered a man-made sound.

~~RGM, from an earlier  journal entry, 
adapted for blog September 4, 2013

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