Silence in Nature

The statement in this post focuses on clarifying the language (the thinking) used in considering the notions of silence and quiet especially in the context of efforts by those of us working to draw public attention to the current crisis in sound levels, sound density, and the exponentially increasing spread of unnatural (technological) sound generators.

To: quiet-list@igc.org,acoustic-ecology@sfu.ca
From: Ron Pellegrino
Subject: Re: Silence in Nature
Date: 4/23/99

In what follows I'm not arguing with the idea of walking in the wilderness as one of "the best sources of solitude and sanity." In fact, I'm a true believer and I practice the faith whenever possible. However making statements that the wilderness is "a place where all you can hear is Silence" is not only confusing, it's nonsense. Promulgating nonsense about sound and its perception will undermine the efforts of the quiet movement.

If you're fortunate you may find quiet in the wilderness but silence simply doesn't exist in life except as an abstract dictionary definition. Silence can't be heard; it is by definition the absence of sound. There are common meanings associated with the way we use the term silence. The verb silence means to stop whatever sound is in the forefront and that, in effect, makes you more sensitive to what's in the middle ground. Silence the middle ground and you become more sensitive to the background. Silence the background and you become more sensitive to the actual base level ground (internal body sounds and fundamental life sounds). Trying to find silence by placing yourself in an anechoic chamber will cut out all external sounds but you'll hear the blood coursing in your veins, your heart pounding away, and possibly the buzzing of your nervous system.

It's a good bet that if you want true silence you probably have to die for it. Now quiet is another matter entirely. The quieter it gets the more you hear. The key principle for this statement (the difference limen) has been around at least since 1860 when the German scientist Gustav Theodore Fechner (the father of experimental psychology) discussed it in his book on THE ELEMENTS OF PSYCHOPHYSICS. This nonintuitive and completely ignored principle is based on the psychological notion of the difference limen or just noticeable difference. The difference limen refers to our ability to distinguish between two nearly equal stimuli; the operative word is "nearly." The points at which we're able to distinguish different stimuli (difference limen) are called threshold levels. The quieter it gets the closer the threshold levels. Fechner determined that the relationship between those threshold levels is logarithmic. In other words, the difference in intensity between too very loud sounds will have to be much greater than the difference in intensity of two very soft sounds for a difference limen to be perceived. Another principle to consider is that there is an obvious ceiling at the top end of sound perception yet there seems to be no true bottom. Thanks to the wonders of synchronicity what follows between the ***** markings was taken from an email message I received today from Mrs. Jenny Kerr of Carrollton, GA, a psychology graduate student at State University of West Georgia:

*****
"I want to propose to you some food for thought which I have been exploring: Is there really such a thing as SILENCE? (Pardon my further enthusiastic expounding, for this topic excites me.)

I propose that there is not. The constant hum of the universe is omnipresent. It is the sound of atom bouncing against atom, which resonates within all of us. It is the "music of the spheres", the "OM", the NADA BRAHMA (which is also an excellent book on the subject). Physics has found that the cosmos is matter, constantly changing forms, but never vanishing. Through this process, and the essential compositional form of the vibrant universe, we see that "the world is sound" (WE are sound)...though this may not be completely audible to humans. This is perplexing to our western, rational, analytical society.

It is our dualistic mentality which has created the word "silence" as a means for identifying the space between the waves. Yet there is an odd phenomenon in which millions of people FEAR silence. We see this in the need of some to leave the television or radio on constantly. I see this often in therapy: when faced with several seconds of silence, clients will hurriedly rush to speak. I have never quite been able to comprehend this need, perhaps because I hear music (beneficial or damaging) in everything. Ultimately, we fear death. Silence is the absence of sound. We ARE sound. Therefore, fearing silence is reflective of a fear of our own nonexistence."
******

Unfortunately we seem to be in an evolutionary phase when people believe more of anything can only be had with more power. But the reverse is true with sound. So, if we're quiet we'll all hear more and hear more deeply. Education has a long row to hoe.

Ron Pellegrino

>=== Quiet-List message from David Staudacher ===

>From the Environmental News Network http://www.enn.com/multimedia

>T.A. Barron, author of To Walk in Wilderness, remembers one of the most
>profound moments of his month-long trip in the Colorado wilderness was when
>he realized he was surrounded by silence. He says silence is a part of
>nature that people have lost touch with and is an important source of sanity
>in our fast-paced lives.

>http://www.enn.com/multimedia/1999/04/042299/042299sile_2794.ram
> - A short (1:59) article in Real Audio format about silence in nature.

>Transcript:

>"An author recommends a walk in the wild and a moment of Silence to cure >the ailments of modern life. I"m Richard Hoops for EarthWatch Radio."

>Hoops: "If you"re feeling hassled by the ever-faster pace of life and if
>you"re tired of the multimedia assault on your senses, your best tonic might
>be a simple walk in the woods. Author T.A. Barron says nature is still the
>best source of solitude and sanity. Barron is the author of "To Walk in
>Wilderness", a book about a month-long hike in the Rocky Mountains of
>Colorado. He says one of the most transforming moments of his adventure was
>the realization that he had gotten away from noise."

>Barron: "I was sitting on a rock about mid-way through the month and I
>realized that as hard as I could listen, I couldn't hear anything except my
>own breathing and that wondrous sense of Silence that was all around me.
>And that was a very special realization because it's a hard thing in modern
>times to find a place where all you can hear is Silence."

>Hoops: "Barron says Silence is yet another part of nature with which peoplev >have lost touch."

>Barron: "Being quiet is one of those things that animals haven't forgotten
>how to do but people often have forgotten. I've often forgotten how to do it."

>Hoops: "Barron say everyone should take a few moments to find a quiet
>place. He says it doesn't have to be a vast Rocky Mountain wilderness. One
>of his favorite places while growing up was a spot beneath a tree where he
>could sit and think and get away from his troubles for awhile. He says even
>a backyard garden, a grove of trees, or a marsh, can provide at least a small
>break from the noise and a chance to reconnect with nature and your better
>self."

>"EarthWatch Radio is a service of the Sea Grant program and the Institute
>for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin."

>= = =

>Net Links

>http://www.tabarron.com/books/wildplaces/wild.html - "To Walk in Wilderness"

>http://wilderness.org/profiles/barronbio.htm - Wilderness Society profile of
>T. A. Barron

>http://www.nrdc.org/sitings/lookup/probarr.html - NRDC profile of Barron

>http://www.seagrant.wisc.edu/earthwatch - EarthWatch Radio

>http://www.seagrant.wisc.edu - Sea Grant program

>http://www.ies.wisc.edu - Institute for Environmental Studies at the
>University of Wisconsin

>email: rhoops@seagrant.wisc.edu - Richard Hoops


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