Over a weekend in March 2022, I spent a night at Los Poblanos – a boutique hotel on a sustainable farm in New Mexico. Climbing out of my airport shuttle onto the ornate hotel courtyard, I noticed something unique about how a man was pruning a small cottonwood tree. Stretching my hand out to block the sun I noticed something odd as I watched him work; there was no revving of a chainsaw motor, no shouting to the workers below him, and no crunch of a wood chipper. Slowly and methodically he trimmed the tree, branch by branch, with a small silent hand saw.
Breaking my gaze from the climbing gardener I moved my attention to my bags and the white stone path ushering me to the lobby and then to my room. After settling in and finding a sunny spot on the grass I sat and listened: bird songs, quiet conversation, barn doors swinging shut – but still no grinding machinery. The hotel management clearly knew that loud unpleasant noises were not conducive to the relaxing environment they hoped to curate, and because of this they placed a higher priority on a concept that humans, on a larger scale, have generally overlooked in their day-to-day lives, quiet.
What Is Noise Pollution?
As humanity advances, noise pollution becomes an ever more pressing issue. As defined by national geographic, “noise pollution is considered to be any unwanted or disturbing sound that affects the health and well-being of humans and other organisms”. Measured in decibels (dB), sound can range from 10 dB to 120 dB – the sound of your own breath, to the sound of a thunderclap. Luckily, for most people thunderstorms aren’t cracking 100+ dB outside your window constantly; that being said, there are plenty of unnatural sounds wreaking havoc on our ears and general health, each and every day.
A car horn pounding through the night weighs in at 110 dB, and a vacuum cleaner about 75 dB. Large sports crowds or rock concerts commonly put out somewhere between 120-130 dB. To put that in perspective you can consider that the human pain threshold for sound is 140 dB, “At 140 decibels the human vocal cord begins to vibrate. At 141 decibels nausea begins to set in. Fireworks run about 150 dB, sustaining that level of noise will blur human vision and vibrate human lungs.” Rockets forcing giant hunks of metal to space measure almost 200 dB, enough to rupture 50% of the human eardrum.
Take a second to consider the noise around you now – even if it seems quiet, is it really? Participating in the same exercise, I sat on my front porch as the sun rose and expected silence. Over fifteen minutes, as the sun rays pierced the steam rolling of my coffee, I heard multiple jets taking off from the Spokane Airport, a man revving his truck attempting to knock the morning off the engine, and an ambulance racing down mainstreet. Listening closer I heard a unique chittering as squirrels raced in spirals up the old Magnolia tree in front of me. Humans have become ear-blind to the unnatural noises that refuse to cease. A study done by Ebiwari Wokekoro on The Public Awareness of the Impacts of Noise Pollution on Human Health concluded that noise pollution has adverse impacts on human health. It showed that “the negative impacts on health are headache, sleeplessness, psychological disorders, lack of concentration at work and others such as hearing loss, learning difficulties, stroke, hypertension, and reduced quality of life.” With these in mind, we can redirect our attention to what our noise creation means for the rest of the planet and its non-human inhabitants.
Below the ocean surface, dark depths and vast travel distances have determined how marine animals move through their aquatic biomes. For instance, Blue Whales use echolocation as their primary mode of communication and navigation. By moving air between sinuses in their head they produce an exceptional variety of sounds with various meanings and uses.
The key to success for echolocation and whales is the unique soundscape of oceans and the opportunity for sound to travel much faster and further through water. “Sound travels about 1500 meters per second in seawater. That’s approximately 15 soccer fields end-to-end in one second. Sound travels much more slowly through air, about 340 meters per second, only three soccer fields a second.” This makes echolocation an extremely effective way of transporting sound; however, it also means anthropogenic sounds fly through the water at dangerous rates as well.
According to an article published in Time Magazine, “shipping alone has contributed an estimated 32-fold increase of low-frequency noise along major shipping routes in the past 50 years, driving marine animals away from vital breeding and feeding grounds.” Noise pollution like this can damage whales’ hearing, cause internal bleeding, and in extreme cases result in death. Equally as important, prolonged exposure can cause behavioral changes that interfere with the health and livelihood of marine life.
Terrestrial life also gets hit hard by the continual, persistent tendency of humans to create noise wherever they are. A study done by the Nature journal, Sensory Pollutants Alter Bird Phenology and Fitness Across a Continent, took a bird’s eye view of noise pollution. Their results showed that, “birds living in forested environments tend to be more sensitive to noise than birds in open environments. Noise pollution delayed nesting for birds whose songs are at a lower frequency and thus more difficult to hear through low-frequency human noise.” By no accord of their own, aviary inhabitants of Earth are subject to detrimental noise that impacts them on a fundamental level, just one example of invasive noise shattering the peaceful environments of wildlife all over the globe.
One Square Inch of Silence
Pure natural silence is a true rarity on Earth. There are claims of the quietest places on the planet – Haleakala National Park in Hawai‘i or deep in Olympic National Forest – that travelers can truly savor silent ecstasy. A notable quote from Kurt Fistrup (a scientist at the National Park Service) reads, “there is something remarkable when you realize that a bird is four hundred meters away, or you realize a frog is a half-mile away. It’s a very powerful and dramatic experience when you realize the vastness of your capacity to hear and how silent it has been. I think [silence] is an endangered resource.” His remark presents sound, and specifically silence, as a resource rather than simply something we can sense. His perspective gives soundscapes and the way they operate a whole new meaning.
Fistrup’s statement came in response to someone questioning his thought that the noise of aircrafts in the wilderness reduces a person’s, and animals, hearing range. He went on to say that anthropogenic sound intrusions into our natural landscapes decrease our auditory horizon, further removing us from nature, from our roots.
Gordon Hempton, founder of the One Square Inch of Silence, believes the small red rock he placed on a bed of moss surrounded by towering pines marks one of the quieter places in the United States, perhaps even the quietest. As Hempton explains in his book aptly named, One Square Inch of Silence, “Olympic National Park was chosen for the One Square Inch because it has a diverse natural soundscape combined with periods of natural quiet”. Over many years Hempton has fought to keep this tiny area silent, reasoning that, “if an interruption such as a plane overhead can have an impact for miles, then one unadulterated silent inch of nature should be able to do the same.”
To ensure he stays true to his mission Hempton often revisits the red rock at the One Square Inch and monitors for possible man-made noise intrusions. If one occurs he begins contacting those involved by mail asking them to voluntarily avoid that area. He also includes a CD “that gives examples of the listening experiences that their corrective actions will help save”. The CD ends with an abrupt noise intrusion to give people a little taste of their own medicine. He even goes public with the intrusions posting them on his website to identify the culprits for all to see.
What Can You Do on Your Quest to Aid Quiet
We as humans and stewards of the planet we call home need to consider the invisible pollution impacting every facet of our life. Now, not everyone needs to be as extreme as Gordon Hempton, but we can still make changes in our everyday lives that can have a positive impact on the soundscapes we take for granted….The sounds we miss on a daily basis will astound you.
At the end of Hempton’s book he describes various ways we as members of the natural world can work towards a quieter future…
- Seek solitude from time to time and eliminate the need for talking, simply listen to your surroundings and to the noise of life.
- Travel like an animal, take your time to stop every once in a while and survey your environment. Stop and smell the roses. Stop and hear the mountains. Stop and feel the trees.
- If you do choose to travel with a companion or two keep your voice low, the woods are quiet enough to accommodate a whisper.
But these are just a start, and taking concrete steps towards a quieter world may not be as hard as it seems. Over time, Hempton’s One Square Inch project evolved into Quiet Parks International (QPI), a nonprofit organization “committed to saving quiet for the benefit of all life.” On their website, you can volunteer as a sound recordist to identify, test, and analyze quiet destinations all over the world. You can also donate to procure and deploy sound measurement equipment for site validation and deploy field recordist teams. Here, you may also educate yourself on the importance of mitigating human-made noise pollution.
As a final note in his book Hempton presents his greatest tip for tip-toeing your way into a new appreciation and practice of quiet. He says:
“To truly appreciate the need to save natural silence, you must first experience it. Though now much harder to find, natural silence is no less powerful today than in John Muir’s time. I invite you to make a silent pilgrimage to the One Square Inch of Silence, but if you are unable to visit Olympic National Park, then I suggest you begin your own quest for quiet by seeking silence closer to home”
His endnote is a call to action for all, a silent battle cry to wage a silent war against the ever growing pollutant we call noise. So get outside, calm your mind and find the quiet, find what many people have long forgotten and long deserved and I will leave you with one question…if a tree falls in the forest but there is too much noise to hear it, does it still make a sound?
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Want to learn more?
About — Quiet Parks International
One Square Inch – One Square Inch
How fast does sound travel? – Discovery of Sound in the Sea
Whales, dolphins, and sound – DAWE
Public Awareness of the Impacts of Noise Pollution on Human Health – World Journal of Research and Review
How loud is a decibel? – Noise Monitoring Services
Noise Pollution – National Geographic
Los Poblanos – Los Poblanos