Once upon a time, a person could seek out silence and find it. But nowadays, silence has become a rare and elusive thing. Without humans protecting it, the quiet appears and disappears like an endangered species. That which used to dominate the earth for miles at a time and days on end is on the run.
The last time silence turned up in my life was in a chain drugstore. I was standing in a brightly lit, 8,000-square-foot room of strangers when suddenly the cash registers stopped humming, the fluorescent lights ceased buzzing, and the refrigerators whirred to a halt. After a few random exclamations in the dark, an elderly woman could be heard in the next aisle informing everyone in a calm voice that this was a planned blackout by the utility company.
The mystery solved, the store fell silent. Most of us shared the moment without speaking, and those who spoke dropped their voices to near whispers. Without even communicating, it seemed that some universal, mostly dormant part of human nature came back to life in all of us.
Quiet is a commons. It feels good. And instinctively, no one wanted to ruin it. The entire place, it seemed, was heaving a communal sigh of relief.
In contrast, on the day when I go searching for quiet and visit the cemetery where my mother is buried, a gardener driving a motorized lawn mower rips around trying to set what appears to be a new world's record for box turns at high speeds.
A hike to the mountains gets invaded by the thumping of a helicopter. Vows at an outdoor wedding are drowned out by a jet's overhead roar. A picnic in the park is crashed by tree trimmers.
Weekday mornings in the neighborhood, after all the commuters have left for work, used to be a predictable haven for solitude. But suburban gardening has taken on the sounds of a full-fledged massacre. Landscape crews roar in with power edgers, mowers, hedgers, weed whackers, and the dreaded leaf blowers. In trimming up lawns that no one sits on, bushes no one eats, and sidewalks that mostly dogs walk on, they have made more noise in one morning than a person living 200 years ago may have heard in an entire lifetime.
Noise has taken over the space once dominated by quiet. Our motorized, highly useful, timesaving tools have destroyed it. And, despite the fact that there are numbers and data to support lowering our societal noise levels, the world is far from taking serious steps to get it back. Researchers classify 20 percent of the population as "supersensitive" to noise and 25 percent as "imperturbable." The rest of us, I suspect, are just annoyed by the increasingly loud drone of existence.
For years, the case against noise centered around hearing loss. Mounting evidence, however, suggests that intrusive, irritating sounds are linked to higher blood pressure, lower productivity, and higher serum-cholesterol levels.
Studies have also shown that in the presence of continuous noise, people are less caring, communicative, and reflective. Extreme noise has been found to give the listener a sense of helplessness and powerlessness. Hospital noise has been shown to slow healing. Basically, noise causes so many horrible things that it's a wonder there aren't warning labels tacked to the sides of vacuum cleaners.
These reactions occur because humans evolved in quieter environments, where loud sounds were rare and often signaled danger. There was a time when the sound of something as loud as a jet meant that an avalanche was about to bury the village. When the extended whine of something as high pitched as a two-stroke engine meant that the clan was under savage attack.
Canadian scientist R. Murray Schafer believes that we ignore or passively adjust to what he has identified as the "soundscape" rather than notice it and pay attention to our reactions to it. But by shutting out sound, he asserts, we shut out other perceptions as well. Perceptions about our feelings and our health. It's what you might call the "numbing down" of the population.
Hence it was easy for all of us, after our experience in the drugstore, to fire up the engines of our cars and drive home through traffic, beneath the jets and past the sirens, thumping stereos, and jack hammering road crews. Home we went to our coffee grinders and food processors and Interplak toothbrushes.
Noise has become a fact of life, and few of us would know where to begin to turn down the volume in our lives.
Next week I have planned a getaway for myself and a friend to the mountains of the Southwest. We are staying, appropriately enough, in a place called Solitude, which I do not convince myself for one minute is any guarantee of anything at all. It only takes a construction project, a music system run by teen-agers, a rug shampooer, or a bevy of landscapers to reduce solitude to a word.
But still, I'm willing to risk a flight, several hundred dollars, and valuable time off work for the chance that I will find myself suspended in that ancient and precious space where the absence of bombardments peels away my layers of resistance, one by one. Where I can reclaim my God-given right to hear the Earth, to hear myself think, to find peace in the quiet.
Corinne Asturias is managing editor of Metro, one of Northern California's largest alternative newspapers. She is currently writing a book about the impact of noise on humans and their environments.