The other day, I heard a few bits of a radio article on the increasing presence of loud noises in our everyday lives. The article was about the wide prevalence of hearing problems among Americans. What caught my ear was when the interviewee said that she was just walking near Times Square when she measured the decibel level to be between 80 and 90 (she said her phone can measure decibel levels). When I was 19, I worked on West 48th Street in New York City and would sometimes walk over to Times Square and eat my lunch on a sunny bench. Being a New Yorker, I guess I never noticed just how noisy it was – all that noise was simply the norm to my big city ears.
Fast forward nearly four decades, and my New York ears have become quite countrified. Having spent, and very consciously enjoyed, countless hours in wild places where the din of civilization is far away, loudness is no longer the norm for my ears. And when I am subjected to unwelcome loud noises, I am now very much aware of them – I guess this is one cost of living in a usually quiet place.
To gather a bit of fodder for this column, I decided to take a short jaunt into the park, with the specific intent of noticing what sounds come to my ears. I find a sunny spot on this chilly morning, under a clump of good sized oaks, to sit and just listen. Here are the sounds I’m hearing:
- the dried oak leaves rustling in a persistent breeze;
- a robin, off in the distance, to the east;
- a chickadee call, much closer than the robin;
- a woodpecker (or another bird) inconsistently pecking on a branch or tree trunk;
- a dog barking, way off in the distance, to the east;
- a motor vehicle accelerating – very distant sounding, not loud at all;
- a bird’s subtle melodious sound not too far away – not sure what it is, sounds like the thrush family.
After about four minutes, I am now hearing the sound of a jet, off to the west. Its sound is getting louder… and now it is fading, after around two and a half minutes. Just before it fades away, a second jet, this one much louder and off to the east, quickly takes the scene. About a minute and a half has gone by, and before this one fades, a third jet, almost overhead, louder still, intrudes on the scene… and now, just as the third one begins to fade, a fourth jet, off to the south and not as loud, reaches my ears. It lasts around a minute and a half and now… is gone.
With the last jet faded away entirely, the absence of jet noise is now palpable – the relative silence seems to bathe me in its peacefulness. For a moment, the breeze settles down, and the quiet is even more pronounced. There’s a soft percussive sound – my guess is it’s some of last night’s snow, crystallized into a small piece of ice and falling to the ground. And the bird sounds are still out there… a group of busy pygmy nuthatches, the squawk of a woodpecker, the wind moving through some dried grasses…
I am pleased that, in the 20 or so minutes that I’ve been sitting here – ooh, there’s a raven off to the south, a bird I haven’t heard yet today – the sounds of nature are certainly the dominant features of the soundscape around me. Few are anything other than subtle, and had I been sitting here 35 years ago with my New York ears doing the listening, I very well may have said it is completely silent. But, my ears have learned to listen, and calling it silence would be inaccurate! The sounds are all rather gentle, and soothing, and they are most certainly there.
There’s the call of a red-breasted nuthatch, way off to the south and barely audible. As the natural sounds take over again, I realize that, for me, the jets are a definite intrusion into the quiet solitude that I seek. But I suppose jet noise is a fact of living in our modern world – even if I’m here all by myself in a rather wild place that seems oh so far away from New York City. It’s been about 10 minutes since that last jet faded away, and nothing but natural sounds have reached my ears. I love that, in spite of the interruptions from overhead jets (one of which may have very well been on its way to New York), the sounds of Nature are all very much here for the listening in this mountain park – all I have to do is step outside, find a place to settle down, and listen.