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In search of silence

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
6 min read
A film photograph of a snowy, desolate landscape with trees and a couple of snow-covered buildings in the distance.
It's quiet in Finland. Credit: Baraniuk family.

Human civilisation is loud. And it has been getting louder for millennia. As our population has grown, we have expanded, and turbocharged, our towns and cities. We’ve invented commercial jets that crisscross the skies, propelled by roaring engines, and we’ve built giant ships that project vibrations deep into the ocean.

Scientists have monitored rising noise levels, though the change has often been gradual. Individuals, in their day-to-day lives have barely registered the shift. We can hardly imagine what the world sounded like before we knew it.

And yet, escaping cacophony has become the occasional respite of a few, the people who recognise how oppressive anthropogenic noise can be. Not everyone is bothered by it. But in a world of eternally rumbling roads and pneumatic drills, some folk defiantly seek silence.

When I was about eight years old, my family lived in a small village in Finland for the best part of a year. The Finnish countryside is, generally, pretty peaceful. It’s a sparsely populated country, a land of lakes, forests and grasslands.

But in the far north, where few people live, and where the winter sun sets and does not rise again for two months, it can be especially quiet.

I remember taking a trip with my parents and sister to the north of Finland once. I have a strong memory of standing in a snow-laden forest, silence all around. Maybe the occasional “fffshhhh” of some snow gently tumbling off a branch that it had pressed towards the ground, with the weight of itself, in the distance. Or the crump-crump of thick white matter under your shoe when you took a step. But otherwise, nothing. Desolation. The roads were empty. There was nobody around. It was weird and fantastic at the same time.

I’ve been to beautiful places around the world since then but none I would class as quiet as that. Often, I’ve wondered where I would go to experience that silence-scape again.

A snowy scene in Finland. Sparse grasses visible in the foreground, the flow of the sun touching the horizon in the distance.
Credit: Baraniuk family.

Humans haven’t just flooded the world with our noise, we’ve also reshaped biophony, the sounds made by other living things. Consider the birds that mimic phone ringtones. Plus, nature’s sounds have changed over time in ways that may not immediately be obvious to us. Inkcap Journal published a fascinating piece last year about a simulated “recording” of Somerset 2,184 years ago. Among the unfamiliar sounds was a flock of Dalmatian pelicans, birds that have since gone extinct in Britain.

In all the noise and change, the sound and fury, of more recent times, some people have become obsessed with hunting down Earth’s quietest places. An attempt to reconnect with something more primal, less noisy, less disrupted. A dream of something gone.

Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, experienced profound silence in a desert once, and then began to hear what sounded like tinnitus in his ears. There is a threshold for how quiet things can get before the noise of our own body takes over. He writes:

“In a silent place, or when hearing is damaged, auditory neurons in the brain stem increase the amplification of the signals from the auditory nerve to compensate for the lack of external sound. As an unwanted side effect, spontaneous activity in the auditory nerve fibres increases, leading to neural noise, which is perceived as a whistle, hiss, or hum. Maybe what I was hearing on the dunes was the idling noise of my brain while it searched in vain for sounds.”

We might like the idea of perfect silence but, clearly, our own physiology is having none of it.

Maybe silence is too much to ask for – quiet could be enough. Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, is a co-founder of Quiet Parks International (QPI). This non-profit organisation aims to accredit and protect public sites as quiet places where people can take a break from noise.

Among the locations suggested by QPI around the world are Grasslands National Park in Canada, Białowieża Forest in Poland and Taipingshan National Forest Recreation Area in Taiwan. I would also imagine that Antarctica, and certain cave systems around the world, would qualify as strikingly quiet spots.

Tall, bare-looking pine trees densely crowded together.
A timber plantation in Northern Ireland. Plenty of moss, and fungi in autumn, but eerily quiet. Credit: Chris Baraniuk.

I was slightly surprised to read that Hampstead Heath was named the first official urban quiet park in Europe last month. I visited that park many times when I lived in London and, while it’s wonderful, I’d say there are more soothing places in the capital than this. But never mind. If the award helps to preserve acoustic sanctuary on the Heath, it’s all to the good.

Where is the quietest place near to you? Here in Northern Ireland, where I live, the quiestest place is quite possibly in one of the ecologically and climatologically questionable timber plantations that dot the countryside. There’s little wildlife and the trees only rustle in strong wind. Plenty of landscapes elsewhere in the world once reverberated with the buzz of millions of insects, the calls of thousand of birds, now gone. Their absence is audible.

While human noise has polluted the world, it would be wrong to assume that nature is at its best when it is most serene. Many places filled with life are, as a result, very noisy. From sparring elephant seals to howler monkeys, or monumental waterfalls, the din of wild things and wild places is often how they announce their vitality.

Meanwhile, we go on idolising silence. The Guinness World Record for the quietest place on Earth, by the way, belongs to a sterile, human-made environment – an anechoic chamber owned by Microsoft.

Truly tranquil outdoor places in nature are different. A lake on a windless day. The depths of winter in a lonely place, as far north as the Arctic Circle. They contrast with the blaring, the clamouring, the clattering, of 21st Century life but also with the straight lines and right angles of the things people build. That makes them undeniably special. It's nature's version of quiet. And so long as it does not indicate a dearth of species that once populated a place, it is something we ought to treasure.

More real than any artificially silenced room. Stillness of the universe. A restorative calm. Peace.

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You are likely aware by now that this is a newsletter about how human culture can help rescue biodiversity. But wait… what do I mean by “biodiversity”? That’s actually a really good question, as this reference-packed piece by Clare Fieseler in Vox reveals.

It might seem obvious that having a huge variety of life on Earth is a good thing, but no-one really knows exactly what that means. Scientists aren’t 100% sure how all the planet’s species support one another, for instance, which makes deciding what to protect – and how – tricky at times.

Fieseler’s article lays bare the muddiness of “biodiversity” as a term, though she also makes suggestions as to how we might sharpen the scope of this concept.

For example, by taking a cue from Indigenous peoples who position humanity much more fundamentally within nature, as part of it, rather than separate from it. As regular readers may know, I’m a fan of this sort of thing. (Incidentally, among the other articles I enjoyed this week was this one in The Guardian, about people living on the Pacific islands of Vanuatu who are embracing traditional house designs. The locals have found that these dwellings are more storm-hardy than Western-style buildings. The hut-like structures require various materials that grow in the forest. Building them therefore necessitates maintenance of the forest and its many plants.)

"Biodiversity" as a concept is probably a blessing as well as a curse. In being somewhat vague, it captures the sense that we can barely fathom the huge variance that exists in nature.

Some species may well be more ecologically “valuable” than others, and science can yield insights on that, but I flinch at the thought that we might take this too literally. I can imagine a typically human scheme of ranking every species along some giant, rigid hierarchy of ecological benefits.

Some uncertainty, some mystery, some humility and stepping back, is good.

Maybe small interventions, led by communities, will benefit nature, if there are enough of them. I’ve mentioned the tiny forests movement before but here’s a report, from Anne-Marie Hoeve over at 5, which is worth a read. It discusses a Dublin-based tiny forest project. Being, as I am, based on the island of Ireland, it caught my eye!

The Washington Post has an interesting little video about weather depictions in classic paintings. I have to say, I’m not convinced these works should be taken as records of actual weather events – there’s probably a lot of artistic licence at work here. That aside, it did make me think about how artists can use weather to shape a scene and provoke particular responses.

Finally, a strange and moving short film on BBC iPlayer, narrated in English and Welsh by Cerys Matthews. (Doesn’t Welsh sound great, by the way?) It’s a sort of meditation on the wild, otherworldly lives of whales in the Antarctic. And a reminder that we share the planet with them.

“They feel one another's presence in the ocean through their songs. Their poetry is their sense, their sensibility.”
SoundEssay

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.