February 2006

Where, oh where, are the sounds of silence?

By Gail Binkly

Researchers who study such things say it’s nearly impossible these days to find anyplace in the continental United States where one can experience 15 minutes of silence, uninterrupted by jets flying over, ATVs roaring through the woods or someone’s stereo thumping away.

Head to the forest, climb a mountain, take a walk in a park — unless you’re going to Antarctica, you probably won’t find quiet. It’s a quality that has nearly vanished from our overcrowded, over-stimulated world.

I’ve always found it peculiar that people seem so fond of noise — not just harmonious sounds, of course, such as a symphony or the Beatles — but noise, harsh, unmelodic, distracting and cacophonous. The world is awash in it, so apparently the majority of humans don’t mind it at all.

Take barking dogs, for instance. Few people would argue that the barking of dogs is pleasant. No one lulls a baby to sleep by barking at it; no one purchases CDs of barking dogs to play as soothing background music. I would list barking as equivalent to the honking of a car horn in terms of its annoying quality. Both noises, after all, are harsh, sharp alarm sounds that instinctively cause our hearts to race, our adrenaline to flow.

Yet the sound of yattering canines is everywhere. Bored pooches bark all day and all night from yards throughout any city in America. “Nice” neighborhood, poor neighborhood, it doesn’t matter — you’re lucky to walk two blocks without hearing some hound fly into full-throated fury, even at night. Personally, I’d almost as soon live next to a meth lab as to someone with a pack of yapper dogs. (Fortunately, I don’t have to live next to either, but I sure feel sorry for people who do.)

Any usefulness canines ever had as “watch dogs” has long been negated by the fact that barking is omnipresent, and no one pays any attention to it. If staving off burglars, rapists and the Boston Strangler is anyone’s main purpose in owning a dog, I’d say that person would be better off with a home security system that doesn’t have a 99.9 percent false-alarm rate.

(Yes, I realize dogs have great value as pets. They’re funny, loving, loyal, and entertaining. This isn’t a complaint about dogs’ personalities, just the noise they are allowed to make, especially at night.)

Barking, though, is far from the only annoying noise in modern life. You also have the phenomenon of Hormonal Decibel Production, in which the creation of loud sounds is considered a sort of mating call, an advertisement of sexual prowess. Men in particular seem to believe that their manly equipment will be magically enhanced if they sit astride a motorcycle and REV IT VERY LOUDLY while waiting at a stop light. VROOM, VROOM! I’m extremely virile! is the message. Can’t you tell by my large motor?

Driving around with a car stereo thumping so loudly it rattles nearby windows and bursts nearby eardrums is also considered a sign of sexual attractiveness, a siren call to libidinous members of the opposite gender (or maybe the same — who knows?).

If sleep deprivation is a form of torture, then American citizens inflict torture on their neighbors all the time. There are chat rooms on the Internet filled with frantic postings from people asking what type of noise-canceling headphones work best or whether there is a kind of earplugs that can be worn while sleeping on one’s side. (The answers: none, and no.)

The sad fact is, there really is no escape from noise, no counter-measure that the noise-sensitive can take to defend themselves.

Move to the country, you say? How many thousand acres would you have to own, exactly, to insulate yourself from the din? Everyone who lives in the country has at least five dogs, all yarfing at every passing car. You’ve also got your neighbors blasting away at road signs in the middle of the night, farmers running their equipment at 4 a.m. (at least that’s a useful noise, one that actually accomplishes something), semis roaring along highways and byways, oil wells thumping, pipelines humming, roosters crowing — it’s endless.

Even going out to dinner doesn’t guarantee you a few moments of quiet. Slip into most restaurants on a Saturday evening and you’re met by a wall of sound. European techno-pop with a monotonous, driving beat is pounding over the speakers, while diners shout to make themselves heard above the racket.

Step into the local grocery store and Whitney Houston is howling about loving herself best of all. And at many gas pumps you can’t even fill up your vehicle without music blaring at you from outdoor speakers.

It makes one long for the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, when children walked to school accompanied by the sound of their footsteps and the melodious calls of meadowlarks and thrushes. Few of us get to hear such bird songs on a daily basis any more, unless we listen to them on a web site.

Silence truly is golden. It’s an aid to contemplation and concentration, and a comfort to jangled nerves. But it’s so ephemeral, few people will fight to preserve it. We just grit our teeth, smile bravely, and put on our noise-canceling headphones.

Gail Binkly writes from Cortez.