O, The Oprah Magazine—The Quest for Quiet in a Noisy World

The Quest for Quiet in a Noisy World

by Robert Earle Howells

O, The Oprah Magazine

March 2012

O, the Oprah Magazine, March 2012  The quietest place in America is an
enclave of primeval beauty—massive
trees, mossy logs, and giant ferns. A
swift river flows nearby, and clouds
hang low. The Hoh Rain Forest in
Washington’s Olympic National Park
feels untouched by outside forces. And that, really, is what quiet
is—an experience of the world as it was before we introduced artificial
noise.

I recently journeyed to the Hoh to escape the barrage of
sound in my suburban world. My wife and I live in a reasonably
tranquil neighborhood in Southern California, yet we sometimes
resort to wearing earplugs inside our own home to take the edge off
the blare around us. The day before I left for Washington, I’d heard
leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, car alarms, reverse-gear
alarms, one neighbor’s television, another’s barking dog, numerous
buses, a couple of booming stereos, and a steady procession of jet
airplanes. In the Hoh, as I rested against a log on the leafy forest
floor, the cacophony back home became a faint memory, and the
quiet felt restorative and healing.

Acoustic Attacks
Several weeks earlier, I had begun to research the toll that noise
takes on the body and spirit. Noise pollution is “a modern plague,”
declared Louis Hagler, MD, and Lisa Goines in a 2007 Southern
Medical Journal paper that summarized dozens of scientific studies.
“Our society is beset by noise, which is intrusive, pervasive, and ubiquitous;
most important of all, it is unhealthy.”

Noise, I learned, needn’t be loud to do damage. “Even ear-safe sound
levels can cause nonauditory health effects,” according to Wolfgang
Babisch, PhD, a scientist with the German Federal Environmental
Agency. As Babisch explained in a January 2005 editorial in
Environmental Health Perspectives, noise affects sleep, fetal development,
and the psyche. He cited a study revealing that schoolchildren
exposed to high levels of aircraft noise suffer impairment in reading
and memory. Goines and Hagler found that the elderly and those
with depression are also particularly sensitive to noise pollution.

Given the general din of the modern world, the rest of us might
be tempted to rationalize noise—to dismiss it as something we can
simply get used to. But the research suggests that this is a risky approach.
We process noise subconsciously as a danger signal that triggers
a fight-or-flight response in our sympathetic nervous system. So
even if we manage to tune it out or sleep through it, noise works
insidiously, raising our blood pressure and heart rate, and causing
hormonal changes with potentially far-reaching consequences, including
anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headaches, sexual impotence,
mood swings, and neuroses.

Environmental noise has also been linked to tinnitus (a chronic
ringing in the ears that can lead to insomnia), irritability, and depression.
Noise has even been associated with a small increase in cardiovascular
disease. Totaling these effects, the World Health Organization
estimates that in Western Europe, at least a million healthy life years
are lost annually due to traffic-related noise alone.

There’s an aesthetic impact, too. National Park Service senior scientist
and sound specialist Kurt Fristrup, PhD, says the loss of quiet
is “literally a loss of awareness.” Quiet, he claims, is tragically disappearing,
and most of us aren’t noticing.

The Sound of Silence
Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who specializes in recordings
of nature, has focused his career on saving quiet. Several years
ago, Hempton took his decibel meter on a cross-country quest to
discover places of exceptional peace. He found none as tranquil as the Hoh Rain Forest, near his home in
Washington. Hempton cowrote a book about his
journey, called One Square Inch of Silence, after
a spot in the middle of the Hoh that he marked
with a stone on top of a log. Ever since, he has
been lobbying the federal government and the
National Park Service to make it, and the surrounding
wilderness, a sanctuary of silence.
“Protect that single square inch of land from
noise pollution,” he writes in the book, “and quiet
will prevail over a much larger area of the park.”

I reached Hempton by phone to get an update
on his campaign. No progress, he said. “There’s
not a single place on Earth designated off-limits
to noise pollution. Can you believe that?” However,
even though the Hoh wasn’t an official
sanctuary, he still considered it the quietest place
in the lower 48. “I’ve been around the world
three times,” he said. “The Hoh Valley is the least
intruded upon by noise. It’s the purest acoustic
environment.” I asked Hempton what that
meant. “Come find out for yourself,” he said.

So on a rainy day late last fall, Hempton and
I—outfitted for an overnight stay—started walking
east on the Hoh River Trail. Sitka spruce,
western hemlock, and red cedar trees as tall
as city buildings dominated the canopy. The sky
was a heavy gray gauze; this part of the Olympic
Peninsula gets at least 140 inches of rain a
year. Maples littered the forest floor with yellow
leaves the size of dinner plates. The ground
was a tangle of ferns and horizontal logs, the
larger ones sprouting saplings from their mossy
trunks. Birth, death, decay, renewal—everything
was happening all at once. In its grandeur, the
place felt holy, worthy of awe. And it sounded
quiet. Sort of.

It turns out that quiet rarely means silent;
Hempton considers it to be an absence of
human-generated noise. In this case that meant
a rainfall symphony—a tapping on fallen leaves,
a tinkling in a shallow stream, like tiny glass
chimes. High above I could hear grace notes
of a few songbirds and the chattering of squirrels.
And this was after I’d walked only a few
minutes from the trailhead. I suddenly understood
what Hempton meant by “pure acoustic
environment.”

When we reached One Square Inch of Silence
late in the afternoon (it’s a gentle, 3.2-mile hike),
I sat leaning against the cedar log beneath
Hempton’s marker stone and felt as if I had a
new set of ears—hypersensitive, acute, able to
parse wondrous textures of sound. I could distinguish
a dozen versions of falling water, half a
dozen different rustles of leaves. Soon I stopped
identifying sounds and simply let them wash
over me. Only darkness falling got me to move.

Back to Nature
Biologists recognize that for animals, quiet is
critical—prey need to hear the approach of predators,
predators need to be able to hear the
movement of their prey, and songbirds need to
be heard to attract mates and ensure their survival
as species.
People may be better equipped than animals
to survive the noise we generate, but the loss of
natural quiet would be a catastrophe for the
human soul. Although One Square Inch may be
the quietest place in the country, most of our national
parks offer opportunities to tune out noise.
And even if you can’t get too far from the din of
roads and major flight paths, you can still enjoy
the primordial sounds of nature. As Kurt Fristrup
told me, “If you want to go to a place that sounds
like it did a thousand years ago, stand near a
waterfall or some rapids on a river.”
Such places are worth seeking out. And worth
protecting. If enough souls become soothed by
the beauty of natural sounds, maybe we’ll collectively
turn down the volume.

[Sidebar]

Creating Quiet

A few steps you
can take to reduce the
noise around you.

Tell your local officials that
noise is a health issue, and
ask for noise ordinances to be
enforced. If your community
lacks regulations, Noise Free
America has many examples of
effective noise laws (noisefree
.org/resourceroom.php).

Double-pane windows can
seal out a significant amount of
outside noise, while carpeting
and wall hangings help quiet
your home from the inside.

Consider noise when
shopping for appliances such
as dishwashers, refrigerators,
and air conditioners; many
come with decibel ratings.
Consumer Reports is a good
independent source of ratings.

Set your car-locking
mechanism to lock silently,
without a chirp or horn beep.

Quieter lawn-care
alternatives include push or
battery-powered mowers,
and rakes, brooms, and leaf
netting in lieu of a leaf blower.

If you must, use an electric
leaf blower. It’s quieter than
gas models, and the cost can
be shared among neighbors.

Protect your hearing. Carry
foam earplugs in your purse so
that they’re handy when you
need them.

Seek quiet places, like our
national parks, and advocate
for their protection.

Sometimes the loudest
noise is the chatter of thoughts
inside our heads. Find a
meditation teacher. Meditation
can be an experience of true
quiet. —r.e.h.