More on that illusive thing called Silence

I’ve commented several times about my search of silence and how it is difficult to find. I’ve known for a while that I’m not the only one in the world who feels this way. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of articles and books about silence and I think I’m coming to a conclusion that I’m not really looking for pure silence.


A few months ago, I read a great article in Orion about the Kathleen Dean Moore’s trip to Olympia National Park with Gordon Hempton. The article discusses their walk to a section of the park where it is possible to sit for 15 minutes without hearing any noises made by humans. Even in this remote spot, they can’t find silence. She writes:

And what do I hear? A tiny lisp-a bushtit maybe. Tick, tap, pock of waterdrops, different sounds for every surface they strike. I hear a drop of water pop when it hits a maple leaf forty feet way. There is the faraway rustle of the river. Time passes, unmeasured. Then the quiet is filled with the clatter of a bald eagle, a sound like stones shaken in a tin pot. Sitting on his heels in the damp moss, Gordon grins, but doesn’t speak.

In her article, Moore briefly discusses Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence project. I’ve started reading the book and I’m enjoying it.

A few years ago, perhaps as many as five years ago, I read an article on silence that struck me so much I found it in a pdf format and keep a copy of it to this day. Shortly after reading the first few pages of the book, I remembered that article and went searching for it. The pdf I have is titled “How We’ve Lost Silence — and why we need it back” and was written by Richard Mahler. It is dated 2000.

In the ever winding road of interconnections, I was shocked to find that the first paragraph is about Gordon Hempton and his project to find places in the US where you can sit for 15 minutes and not hear man made noise. When the article was written there were 12 places he’d documented in the US.

On a daily basis, I find that I am looking for silence. All this reading has made me wonder if I really am looking for silence or just the absence of human noise. Even our own bodies make sounds — we breath, our joints crack and pop (mine do at least), when we swallow a drink of water there is a sound…But these sounds are not offensive. I’ve got to admit that the sounds described at OSI do not seem intrusive. They seem actually pleasant. So maybe I’m not looking for silence, so much as the absence of noise.

Earlier this week, I took a departure from my usual schedule and had lunch at my desk. It was a nice day and I had the book with me, so after eating I went out side and crossed the busy street to a concrete quad that sits between two condo buildings. There is a lot of construction going on in the area, so I took my iPod and put on a recording of ocean surf. For a half an hour I read the book and listened to the ocean — there was nothing silent about it, especially when someone laid on the horn at the nearby intersection. And yet, it was amazingly peaceful. I enjoyed my lunch time far more than usual, and when I went back to the office, I was better prepared to work the rest of the day.

I’m going to do that more often.

4 thoughts on “More on that illusive thing called Silence

  1. Finding the silence within which to focus on what you want is really hard with so many aural distractions. Working from home I am lucky not to have the noise of work colleagues, however, the noiselessness can be just as obtrusive. A tap drip, a sniff, the sound of wind, or just the noise our ears create when there is no masking noise can be deafening. And they are constant and distractingly random.

    I’ve heard of a concept called sonic dissonance (I can’t find reference on a quick google – so maybe someone else might know more). As I understand it, sonic dissonance says that we require a certain amount of background noise against which to hear clearly. This became really important with CD’s, where the sound quality was becoming so good that the human ear got fatigued listening to it. So they now introduce an algorithm to replicate the imperfections that we used to hear on vinyl / cassette, and which make listening to music less tiring.

    So, to overcome the noise of silence, I introduce some noise at home to help me focus: radio, music, or just some white noise from the untuned TV. It seems to help me. Which either proves the case for sonic dissonance or for the men in white coats to come pay me a visit?


    1. Simon, as always, your perspective proves interesting. I’ve found that there are times when I need a little white-noise to overcome dead silence as well, but as of late, I’m finding that there is so much distracting noise (particularly in the office) that it’s difficult to focus.

      Over the weekend, we went to the beach. I love the beach in the off season. It struck me (again) that even though it was far from silent, I was interpreting it as such because there were no human made sounds to be heard.


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