by Robert Earle Howells
O, The Oprah Magazine
March 1, 2012
Disturbed by the cacophony of his everyday life, one writer sets out to discover how sound affects us all.
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.
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. Maple leaves the size of dinner plates littered the forest floor. 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.
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.
* 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.