The elusive sounds of silence

It’s truly a pleasure to enjoy an early morning quiet cup of coffee and a book, only gradually allowing the coming day to express its mundane demands one at a time. Sometimes there will be a bit of birdsong, the drowse of some insects, or the rustle of a breeze lightly disturbing the tall grasses at the edge of the yard. A squirrel might chitter in a distant tree, even while the words I am reading sound silently in my imagination.

The footsteps of the postman divert me momentarily. We exchange a polite word or two in low voices.

None of these sounds truly disturb. They merely decorate the quiet like subtle contrasting colours within a landscape.

But most of the world seems to be at war with peace and quiet. Sound surrounds us on all sides, and it can attack with no warning.

This morning I was barely seated, book in hand in a comfortable, outdoor chair, when BRRRROWWW! A neighbour had somehow determined that weeds needed to be “eaten.” Well! Truly, a few errant stems of grass along a yard’s edge or bordering a sidewalk are an outrage, especially first thing in the morning.

Moments later someone’s car alarm was activated near the soccer field (a venue where shouting seems to be a requirement for attendance). Its insistent hooting may have repelled some miscreant, although most likely the alarm was triggered inadvertently. The owner shut it down within twenty seconds or so, but only after raising my heart rate to an erratic rattle.

Several minutes later a neighbour down the street turned on his truck stereo to thumping, raucous, semi-celebratory rock ‘n roll. I’m sure he intended no harm. When I troubled to walk down the street to protest where the truck stood, practically quivering with all its bumping bass, he seemed bewildered, then disappointed that someone else might find the music “too loud,” although it penetrated the whole neighbourhood.

Clearly, a silent world is out of the question. We need to communicate and use language to do so. We need to move, ourselves and things, and motorized transport has enhanced our lives enormously. But accompanying this motion we find the hum of tires on pavement, the racket of badly muffled motors, the crashing of freight cars, the repetitive beeping of reversing trucks, and the roar and whuck, whuck, whuck of various aircraft. An ambulance wails its way up Kalum Hill. Sitting in the pub, we sometimes find that the human babble paradoxically makes conversation nearly impossible. All this noise bulls its way into our daily lives, exacting a cost we rarely acknowledge.

New York and similar-sized cities feature an astonishing white noise as sonic background to everything, twenty-four hours a day, an ongoing hum of human activity that extends from every horizon into one’s head, punctuated only by nearby ringtones or sirens.

At one time song was an adjunct to worship. Now we have elevator music and interminable satellite radio. No wonder people retreat behind noise-cancelling headphones, or that automobile ads stress the quiet of their product’s interior.

Of course, no one would wish for deafness, a terrible debility. But every so often, for just a moment or two, it can seem as if it would be a blessing.

Ah, I know, it’s easy to complain, complain, complain. I’ll shut up now.

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