Sunday, July 6, 2008

The difference between quiet and silence

I have a thing about noise. Human-generated, mechanical, intrusive noise can make me nuts. But that doesn't mean I like silence. What I want is quiet. As I write this, I am sitting in my house with windows and doors open, listening to the sounds of the woods around me. I hear a wood thrush, a robin, an Eastern wood pewee, rose-breasted grosbeaks, some sort of woodpecker drumming, and leaves rustling in a morning breeze. If I stepped outside, I would also hear a distant hum of wheels on Interstate 91. And in a few minutes the fridge will kick back on, and even this laptop makes some sounds in addition to my keyboard clicks. Now there's a jet flying over, way up high.

When we moved into this house three years ago, we very seldom could hear the traffic. The highway is more than a mile away, and there were thick woods between us and it. But the landowner across the road stripped out his timber, and now the noise comes right up the hill. When the wind is from the north, or when the pavement is wet, it can be loud enough that I have trouble sleeping.

Right now my sheep are pastured in a very quiet place on top of Cass Hill in Westmoreland. They are about a mile from the nearest public road, and surrounded by dense woods. Last evening I sat there after setting up a new paddock and listened to them eating, and rustling through the tall grass and weeds as they sought out prime vegetation. When they moved away from me, I started to be able to hear the wild sounds -- not all that different from what I hear at home, but without the background thrum of traffic and with a few of the birds of denser woodlands that were driven away by my neighbor's rapacious harvest of his land.

All was quiet. But it was far from silent. Silence is the absence of sound; quiet is the absence of noise.

In recent months, I have been recovering from a heart attack. Over and over, health professionals tell me that reduction of stress is going to be critical to my recovery. In my cardiac rehabilitation classes, we have had sessions where we were supposed to sit quietly, concentrate on our breathing, and relax deeply. I found it nearly impossible to do. Does anyone else remember the signs we used to see along the streets: "Quiet: Hospital Zone"? Until this spring, I hadn't spent much time in hospitals -- I went to great lengths to avoid darkening their doors, as a matter of fact. Hospitals are some of the noisiest places!

Large institutional buildings create noise even if they aren't full of people. Florescent lights buzz; ventilation systems woosh and whir; plumbing churns, gurgles, clangs, and thumps. My cardiac rehab class was in the basement of a community hospital, and our classroom was off the corridor that leads to the employee cafeteria. So there were loud conversations outside as people came and went for their coffee or meal breaks. The laundry was also nearby, so great carts of sheets and towels were wheeled by. And the elevators were directly across the hall, so there was the constant ding and sound of the doors opening. And just for good measure, every now and then, the PA system would go off:

"BING! Dr. Smith, 5832 -- Dr. Smith, 5832."

I found it next to impossible to relax with all that noise. But up on Cass Hill, I could focus on my breath and feel the day's tension melt away as I did so. Even though the sounds were erratic and some were as loud -- and perhaps louder -- than the ones that I heard at the hospital, for some reasons, they didn't intrude as much. Is it just because they weren't human-generated (although one could argue that I am responsible for any noise my sheep make) or mechanical? I think so.

Natural quiet is nearly impossible to come by these days. I have been consciously seeking it out for a number of years now, and when I can get a few minutes of it I relish it. And now, I have a valid medical reason to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Bill,
    I was thinking along the same lines last night. It was the perfect end to an enjoyable day. I walked the dogs out to the sheep pasture to check the salt & mineral feeders. The only thing I could hear was the occasional bird in the pasture or ewe calling it's lamb. No traffic, no people, just the dogs, the sheep and me. I could never go back to living in the city.