Sunday, 13 July 2008

Silence, Quiet and Solitude

By J in JaM

Twenty or so years ago, while visiting friends in Los Angeles. I noticed that they had a TV set in most of the rooms of their home. The TV's were all on and tuned to the same channel. When you walked from room to room you always had company. The current TV show was with you and it excluded intrusions from the outside.

In the even more ancient past, when I worked in a research lab at the University of California in Berkeley, I spent some time in an Anechoic chamber. This vault-like chamber blocks out all vibration, all echo. It is totally sound proof. After sitting in one for a few minutes, all you can hear is yourself: your heart thumping, blood rushing around in arteries, breathing noises and maybe your clothes rustling and stretching as you breath. This “true silence” feels very unnatural. I didn't like being in there.

Our lovely house in California in the 1980's was on a ridge in Marin County overlooking San Francisco Bay. The freeway was along the edge of the bay about 3 miles from our home and we could always hear the traffic. A constant that ebbed and flowed with the rush hours and holidays. Almost all the sounds in Marin were man made, part of our culture.

While living in California, M and I had a wonderful holiday exploring remote and seldom visited Owl Canyon in Utah. This narrow canyon filled with prehistoric anasazi ruins has been removed from human culture for about 800 years. The narrow blue sky above Owl Canyon is crossed by con trails from commercial aircraft that can't be seen but can be heard along with the canyon wrens that live here. A thread of faint but continuous sound connects this solitude to modern culture.

Urban sounds exclude almost everything except us. We love our reflection but can we still hear the tiger rustling in the grass?

Where we now live in Australia, there are no large aircraft flight paths near us. Once a day or so, a light plane or helicopter flies over coming or going to remote mining camps. You can hear them long before seeing them and then they slowly fade with increasing distance. The few cars and motorcycles that pass on road are much the same. Most of the time we hear a gentle mix of human sounds mixed with nature's voice: birds, insects, the wind and small animals, a neighbor's dog or rooster perhaps. In the wet season, insects are loud by night or day, but during the dry winter nights, sometimes the silence is almost total... as the Milky Way dazzles in the silent, black heavens.

First image is my memory of Owl Canyon, digital painting.
Second photo of Anasazi pot shard.

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