Photo: alicepopkorn

Silence is vanishing. What does this mean for our mental and spiritual wellness?

Fewer than twelve places left in America where silence pervades. Nowhere in Europe.

Those are some pretty intense statistics. Before you say, “I can go out to my backyard and get some silence,” in a recent Newsweek article, audio ecologist Gordon Hempton defines silence as “the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural.” And we’re talking about having this absence over many square miles here, people.

Hempton believes we are facing the very real possibility of “silence extinction.” And when you start to bring up all those open spaces in the US – like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada – remember planes. Or:

…The snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone, helicopters flying over Hawaii volcanoes, and air tours over the Grand Canyon.

Yeah, not too many places you can get away from our transportation machines. But does it really matter if we are left with no silence?

The Noiseless Experience

Photo: Pardesi*

What’s the point of silence anyway? Often, we don’t even realize what silence means until we have a chance to feel it for a good while. There are some – I’d venture to say more than a few of the younger generation, in particular – who have never truly experienced more than a moment here or there of silence in their entire life.

To be in silence gives the chance simply to re-ground into the self. For me, wired to be a bit high-strung, silence provides “de-stringing” action that brings down those stress hormones, so damaging to our overall health. Very few people can truly unwind while surrounded with noise, even if it’s the everyday noises we’ve gotten used to – the cars zooming on the freeway near our house, the construction we pass everyday on the way to and from work, even the low buzz of street lamps outside our bedroom windows.

The power of silence is even found in areas we believe cannot be healed; as Hempton points out, “recent studies have shown that nature experience can be as effective as medication in the treatment of autism.”

This is the scary thing about losing silent places: our experience of travel will change. One thing I look forward to most about adventuring to a new place is finding a golden space of noiseless action; sure, there is always the rustling of animals, and nature sprouting, but nothing man-made. It just feels different to the body, instantly, to be in this type of space.

Or, as Hempton notes:

To be in a naturally silent place is as essential today as it was to our distant ancestors…we are given the opportunity not only to heal but discover something incredible—the presence of life, interwoven! When I listen to a naturally silent place and hear nature at its most natural, it is no longer merely sound; it is music. And like all music, good or bad, it affects us deeply.

How can we help? Rerouting aircrafts is the major answer that Hempton offers. Individually, we can refuse to participate in tours that fly over sacred, silent areas, such as national parks. Drive to designated areas in these parks, and then hike your way away from the noise. Surrender some of these spaces to the animals and creatures that inhabit the area.

And leave that iPod at home.

Do you think trying to maintain silent places is important? Share your thoughts below.