“I try to listen to the still, small voice within but I can’t hear it above the din.”
—Eliza Ward, from Little Audrey’ s Story
I've been thinking about quiet lately. I'm looking for a home to buy, and the search makes it clear that quiet has become the domain of the well-to-do. A driving tour of affordable homes in my area (if anything in California can be called that) soon has me singing the old Jackson Browne tune “I’m gonna rent myself a house in the shade of the freeway”—or on a busy street, or with a baseball field or gymnasium over the back fence. You want a quiet neighborhood? Tack on a few hundred thousand dollars.
Why do people build houses next to freeways—and freeways next to houses? Is nothing sacred? Do we not understand how deeply noise harms us? We’re a visually dominant culture, and by ignoring our soundscape we give it tremendous power over us. What would happen if we listened to our acoustic ecosystems more often?
“Rivers, rocks, and trees have always been talking to us, but weve forgotten how to listen.”
—Michael Roads, Talking with Nature (Kramer, 1987)
When we long for quiet, what we seek isn’t really an absence of sound. In truth, our primal bodies yearn for a rich, varying texture of sounds—the surroundings we recall from our ancestral wildlands.
Through decades of careful listening, recording, and analysis, bio-acoustic specialist Bernard L. Krause, Ph.D., has observed intricate sonic relationships among insects, birds, mammals, and amphibians in the wild. He writes that their interwoven sounds create a complex vital beauty...that the best of sonic artists in Western culture have yet to achieve. He also notes that every intact natural habitat has its own unique voice; each area can be identified by its sounds.
Krause writes that in the wild, each creature occupies its own sonic niche. Rarely does one animal or species block the calls of another, yet if one creature stops vocalizing, another immediately joins the chorus to keep that audio bio-spectrum intact. Over time, the acoustic richness and range of vocalizations appears to increase. He writes that we’ll soon be able to use acoustic analysis to determine the age and biological health of certain habitats.
As human settlements and sounds take over wild areas, many acoustic ecologists fear that species will die off because they can’t hear each other’s mating calls or claim their sonic territory. We may think that the earth still has vast areas of wilderness, but the soundscape is now imprinted by human technologies virtually everywhere on the globe. Professional nature sound recorders find it increasingly difficult to record for more than a few minutes without interruption by noise from airplanes, logging equipment, motorboats, or vehicles.
We aren’t just adding noise to the soundscape; were also removing beneficial sounds. While a habitat’s age and health is reflected in its rich sound tapestry, lack of biodiversity has its own soundprint: the overwhelming silence of monocultural timber plantations created by lumber companies.
“Quiet isn’t acoustic mildness, it’s sharing space, each voice having its fair place, none blotting others out. Quiet is more than a pleasant luxury. It’s the commons of freedom.”
—from Quiet Is Freedom by Kenneth Maue
In human settlements, the nature of background sound has changed dramatically over the centuries. Physicist Ursula Franklin, Ph.D., University of Toronto, is one of many scientists concerned about the loss of quiet, which, she believes, is accompanied by loss of freedom. She describes silence—and particularly collective silence—as an enabling environment, in which the unprogrammed, unplanned, and unforeseeable can arise. As silence is removed from common availability, this fertile ground is at risk.
Franklin sees technological trends decreasing the available space, without and within, for the unplannable—the core of our individual and collective sanity. And she’s not just concerned about the unintended noises of machines. Even more alarming is programmed music in buildings and plazas, designed to manipulate our moods and spending habits.
What can we do? Franklin urges us to assert our right not to be assaulted by sound, especially when its purpose is profit. She calls us to civic education, rage, and action. She advocates quiet rooms in buildings and quiet minutes at the beginning and end of all committee meetings. She invites us to enjoy the quiet together.
“Even during a conversation, become conscious of the gaps between words, the brief silent intervals between sentences. As you do that, the dimension of stillness grows within you.”
—Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (New World Library, 1999)
Quakers understand the importance of stillness. In the seventeenth century, they rejected the Church of England’s rituals and ostentation, choosing instead to worship God in silence. Silence, they said, was necessary to hear God’s voice. In that collective silence a message sometimes arises, and it is spoken. Then a return to silence.
Two friends and I were sitting on my patio one summer evening, talking about that Quaker silence. We marveled at the thought of sitting quietly with others, not trying to meditate, not trying to be inspired, just being. We talked of other spiritual traditions that hold silence as sacred. Then, without planning it, we just fell silent.
We breathed in those precious moments, eyes closed, eyes open, sinking into our chairs, feeling the evening birdsong in our bones, smelling the moist, cooling air. At some point, we all looked at each other and smiled. Did we plan that? Did I miss something? No, it just happened. We talked about what it had felt like: freeing, relaxing, sweet. And then we just went silent again.
If noise levels in your own habitat are bothersome, try these decibel-lowering fixes.
• Place half-inch-thick pads of rubber or cork under the legs or corners of heavy appliances to stop vibrations from transferring to the floor.
• Move appliances at least two inches from the wall.
• Put stereo speakers on stands or rubber mats.
Cracks and crevices
• Seal small openings, including cracks in walls or doors and around electrical entrances, vents, steam or water pipes, and air conditioners.
• Remove the faceplates from electrical outlets and switches and caulk the spaces between the box and the wall.
• Remove baseboards and caulk between the walls and the floors.
• Install a storm door.
• Replace hollow-core doors with solid doors.
• Place weather stripping around all doors, even interior ones.
• Use flexible rubber threshold seals on exterior doors.
• Invest in double-glazed windows.
• Caulk existing windows.
• Install storm windows with heavy glass and good weatherstripping.
• Place shutters inside the window.
• Line the cavities that hold the dishwasher, refrigerator, and trash compactor with sound-absorbing materials.
• Insulate attic and walls.
• Add mass to walls with a second layer of drywall. Place the second layer as a “floating wall” apart from the first to create an air-space baffle.
• Plant trees and hedges. At the very least, they block noise sources from view.
• Install a wall or fence with a solid, continuous surface. It should be tall enough to hide roadways.
• Replace electric or motorized leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and hedge trimmers with rakes, push mowers, and clippers.
Reprinted with permission from The Wabi-Sabi House by Robyn Griggs Lawrence (Clarkson Potter, 2004).
Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. In addition to her design practice, she teaches in the EcoDwelling program at New College of California and is the author of Healing Environments (Celestial Arts, 1994).