Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Silence: A Vanishing Resource

I didn’t grow up in a particularly quiet environment, but it wasn’t a particularly noisy one either. Just a normal, suburban street in Mountain View, California, not too far from the main drag of El Camino Real and safe enough to play ball in or roller skate on or ride along hands-free on my bicycle. I never gave much thought to decibel levels or ambient noise until I experienced the absence of it. That probably happened when I started camping out, but it really happened when I became a park ranger and took up residence in a national park.

That first deep winter night alone in my cabin at Pinnacles National Monument was eerily still. No cars. No airplanes. No television or radio. At first, the slightest rustle in the bushes was a startling event. A midnight squabble between two raccoons was frightening....until I got used to it. Used to the natural rhythms and soft sounds out there beyond my door. It was never complete silence but it was a natural one.

For the next fifteen years, with some minor exceptions, I was blessed with quietude. Especially when I moved to the canyon country in 1974. At Canyonlands National Park, there was silence during the day as well as the night. Sitting alone in Lost Canyon, I would be suddenly surprised by the wing beats of a raven overhead. I could hear a leaf gently falling from a cottonwood tree. Water dripping from a sandstone seep. And when I really concentrated, it seemed as if I could pick up on the constant drone of things growing. The sound of life itself. Sometimes it was a little intimidating to feel the weight of so much raw wilderness pressing against me. But I grew to love it. I got spoiled by the silence.

At Point Reyes National Seashore, the thick fog would roll in and cloak everything in its pillowy grip, muffling sounds from the sea and shoreline. Only the rutting cry of the tule elk in autumn could break through that blanket.

As my career became more urban and I moved in and out of places like Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas I quickly realized what I had lost. Barking dogs and boom boxes became the bane of my existence. Elevator music in super markets. Chain saws on a Saturday afternoon. White noise from the freeways. And, worst of all, blaring radios in campgrounds. I could not, at first, understand why someone would come out to a campground to ostensibly experience the great outdoors, and then turn their radio up full blast.

I finally realized that, for most people, silence is not golden. It is scary. The absence of noise to a person raised on television, traffic, and telephones can be seriously disorienting. We spend so much time with some kind of constant cacophony as a soundtrack to our lives that when it suddenly ceases, a little bit of that primordial fear can set in.

But I got used to that deep and abiding silence. And I miss it everyday. And like a mole, I keep the lights dim and pad around the house in the early morning and revel in a world not quite yet awake. And when I get back into those stony canyons, I can still appreciate those little pockets of silence that punctuate an otherwise hectic life. The silence is getting harder to find and in some places is in full retreat. But for those who seek it out, it can be a resource as good as gold.

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