Hempton, the founder of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, reports that there are now no more than a dozen places in the United States where you can listen to nature uninterrupted for 20 minutes – and no such places at all are left in Europe.
Broadcast journalists use two terms to refer to background sound. “Nat” (for natural) sound encompasses to everything from birdsong to a train rumbling by. These are the background or extraneous “noises” that audio storytellers use to help us understand the stories we are hearing.
Then there is ambient sound, which is the sound even an empty room makes. If you record audio or video, you always try to capture a minute or two of “nothing.” You may need snippets in editing to add pauses between a speaker’s comments, because complete silence sounds jarring after the ear has been trained to hear that “room noise.”
Sadly, however, the crush of people and the demands of unrelenting growth are robbing of us our ability to connect to the world through the sounds that nature makes. And this matters because not only does it tell us what human beings are doing to the planet, but it should remind us of the toll it takes on us as well. Research confirms that even the appealing sound of a train rumbling by causes stress hormones to flow and our blood pressure to rise.
Yoga asks us to learn to listen to our own breath. By centering us on that most personal but universal natural sound, we can quiet our mind and refresh the body. In the TED Talk video below, sound expert Julian Treasure explores the four ways sound affects us – physiologically, psychologically, cognitively, behaviorally.
In the Fifties, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote “Gift from the Sea,” about what she learned by turning off the radio during her solitary vacation in a seaside cottage. Silence made her examine herself and her roles in the world as a wife and mother because she could no longer use sound as a distraction.
In this inspiring half-hour presentation, Scottish percussionist and composer Evelyn Glennie teaches us to listen – despite or perhaps because she is deaf.
Silence may matter more to me these days because MDOT has set up a temporary road-building factory less than a mile from my home. I love living in the woods where the noisiest season is when the tree frogs come out – until now, when the boom-boom-boom from the highway construction intrudes. While I am happy to see our crumbling highways fixed and glad to see a few folks with a paycheck, at least for a while, that noise reminds me our biggest challenge may be to find a way to build an economy that gives everyone a decent standard of living without destroying the planet in the process.