Bushong: The Alchemy of Silence

Protecting silence is essential in a chaotic world.

by Jack Bushong | 10/27/22 4:05am

As night falls, silence engulfs the land. Not the facade of silence in cities which is belied by the low rumble of engines and the almost imperceptible buzz of electricity, nor even the quasi-silence of nature permeated by crickets and streams and rustling leaves, but pure silence: The complete absence of noise so profound it stalls the Earth’s rotation, so pristine it restores the soul — so silent you can almost hear it. Silence birthed of glassy waters and curtains of moss and painted twilight. Silence that divulges the land’s esoteric secrets, if only for a moment. Silence that seems incorruptible. 

The one thing more sublime than silence is that which gives it a voice: A loon’s lament to a moonless night, its quavering notes from across the lake ushering in the first timid stars. The silence is tangible. It is real. As the echoes fade and the shattered silence reassembles itself, it settles in even deeper than before. 

Too little is spoken of the alchemy of silence. A foreign sensation washes over you, both frightening and invigorating, and your inherent response is resistance. That is, until you allow the floodgates of your internal protest to swing open and the force of silence to gush in. You become vulnerable, and in this vulnerability, the silence strips away all your regrets and stress and unresolved disputes until what remains is your raw self. Denuded of all facades, you have nowhere to hide from the silence and must allow it to work its restorative magic on your soul.

The world is deaf to silence when we are most in need of it. Silence is so essential to our well-being that disregarding it would be a humanitarian injustice, yet proposing to conserve silence still sounds nonsensical. How can you protect an aesthetic concept? There is no baseline decibel at which silence is reached. As a subjective experience, silence cannot be quantified or legislated over because the meaning of silence is unique to each individual. But perhaps this is fitting. We need not give everything in the world order. Silence is better characterized by how it feels and what it teaches than by a Merriam-Webster definition. The same is true of wilderness; the authenticity of wilderness is measured by its capacity for silence and starry nights, not by how far it is from the nearest road or how much annual visitation it receives. 

Silence is fragile. Once driven away it is wary to return. Even in most U.S. protected areas, human noise disrupts the natural soundscape. If the majority of protected areas do not conserve silence as well as natural grandeur, perhaps we must revisit our notion of what “protected” stands for. The argument for silence is analogous to that for light pollution; if one visits a wilderness area but cannot see the constellations on a cloudless night, is it truly protected?  

Intrinsic values aside, we need silence for our well-being. Anthropogenic noise not only affects sleep quality and blood pressure but engenders an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer. Spending time in a quiet space can remedy this: a study in “Brain Structure & Function” indicates that just two hours of daily silence results in the production of new brain cells. Silence is the natural antidote to the mind’s clamor. Yet even in a place such as Hanover, whose proximity to the White Mountains affords myriad opportunities for silence, few people capitalize on the liberal endowment of quiet spaces. It is easy to shun solitude. The noise of everyday life has become a bulwark against the truths revealed to us in silence. Even at night, the only reliable source of quiet in our industrialized world, we turn on a fan to fill the void or watch videos until our minds tire. It is as though we hesitate to embrace silence for fear of what we might find. As philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 

Stillness is everywhere: in cities, local parks and even backyards. It is an imperfect form of silence, but in the absence of a more natural environment, it may be adequate to fulfill one’s spiritual needs. The phenomenon we concern ourselves with protecting — that which is most imperiled — is pure silence, the type only found in wilderness bereft of aural intrusion. Such a place is untrammeled enough that it still harbors its ancient pristine nature in silence, the kind that steals words from even the most zealous poet. One method of preserving silence is limiting helicopter and plane flyovers near wilderness areas. A more comprehensive approach is being pursued by the nonprofit Quiet Parks International which strives to set aside remaining quiet spaces. The organization recently established the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park in Ecuador, belonging to the indigenous Cofán people, but there is still much to accomplish. Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton notes that of the 12 “Last Great Quiet Spaces” in the United States, none are protected. Silence and solitude are perhaps the two greatest virtues of wilderness. We must preserve these virtues for the sake of knowing they still exist even if we never have the privilege to experience them. Without silence, the world’s chaos becomes intolerable.

The loon’s voice has long been swallowed by the night, an apparition as fleeting as silence itself. A gentle breeze now picks up, just as I have begun to listen. The last of the silence lingers reluctantly above me as water laps the cold granite underfoot and foliage starts to rustle. I shield the silence from the ravenous wind, imploring it to remain for a few seconds longer, but it has already absconded into the darkness toward tranquil forests and caverns unknown.

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