Sound, Noise and Quiet—and Why it Matters
One morning before sunrise not long after we moved here, I was standing outside when I heard the faint crowing of a neighbor’s rooster, about a half-mile away. It wasn’t a generic, half-noticed morning sound; I’d met that rooster. He had a name, a personality and idiosyncratic quirks within the social structure of my neighbor’s chicken house. I smiled to realize how specific my connection was to this sound that traveled unobstructed across the valley floor. Over time other sounds revealed the specificity of their sources: the distinctive engine timbre of a neighbor’s car, another neighbor calling her dogs.
Noise and Sound
Our premodern ancestors—the forebears of all humans, not only those with a fraction of certifiable aboriginal blood—never knew noise; they heard sounds. It wasn’t because they lived in a world hushed in silence. They lived in a world where daily life had an auditory aspect, as it has throughout time. But noise and sound, as I think of them, are not the same experience.
Noise tends to be undifferentiated, often unnamable, sometimes unwelcome, existing on the periphery of our awareness rather than as the focus of our attention. It is unconsciously muted, filtered, muffled, shunted into that peripheral space so as not to interfere with the focus of our mental activity. Our modern life at the top of the food chain, in a relatively unthreatening environment, allows contemporary humans in much of the world the luxury of dulling our ears.
Sound, on the other hand, even when it originates from the same basic source as noise—the internal combustion engine, for example—is experienced as discreet (separate and distinguishable) against a background of quiet or other discernable sounds. Often, sound is namable, at least in a general sense. And in our auditory experience, it is directly and inherently connected to its source. We hear a single car as it travels in our direction on a dirt road—that is sound. We live with the continual dull roar from an interstate two miles away—that’s noise.
Why does the distinction matter?
The Rare Gift of Quiet
Living in the vast quiet of the San Luis Valley can teach us why it matters. In this kind of quiet, our personal and collective psychic space is able to expand, comfortably and naturally, into the fullness of geographic space. It fills the distance between here and the rocky ledges and peaks in one direction, and outward across the openness of the valley and upward into the sky.
In an exquisitely subtle way, our psychic space takes on the shape of the landscape; it slips into the spaces between branches in cottonwood trees, sinks gently into the infinitesimal vertical vaults among tall grasses; it flows unstopped, unimpeded, unbounded by human-made noise that in other places defines the edges of mine and someone else’s space.
In more populated places, with the noise of traffic, sirens, construction, voices, and the constant undifferentiated din of public commerce, our personal psychic space bumps into the overlapping acoustic boundaries of other peoples’ lives. In that world of noise—which is most of the populated planet, to whatever degree—we automatically learn to transform human-made sound into background noise. We learn to not listen to it.
And what is lost in that learning, I wonder. It’s obviously a common loss, an unacknowledged loss. We adapt and adjust and life goes on apparently unaffected; our psychic space takes on the ever-changing shape of our own activities and thoughts, overlaid upon a layer of subconsciously muffled noise. It’s not clear the specific ways we are subtly affected by this act of stifling the natural human capacity—the ancient survivalist need—for remaining continually open to and aware of sounds.
Touching Each Others’ Lives
But I want to turn the question around. Rather than asking what’s lost when we unconsciously pull the edges of our sound-space closer in, I want to ask: What is gained by the freedom to psychically stretch out and live, day after day, in the expanse of a collective sound-space covering miles and miles?
We are unusually privileged in this gift of pervasive, profound quiet. And of course, with privilege comes an inherent responsibility to do whatever we can to protect and maintain the quiet in this valley. But also, on a personal spiritual level, we are living with an unspoken mandate to contribute positively to this collective psychic space and shared sound-space, by each working to become as deeply, strongly, and continually peaceful as we can.
This is what we need to do anyway, anywhere, all the time. But here I can see that this way of being is essential—it is essential that we live with awareness of how we affect and contribute to our collective psychic field as well as the material and auditory realm. Through the act of consciously listening we become increasingly open, accepting fully that we live in overlapping, interpenetrating worlds. Even by simply not muting the sound of a passing car, we can live as if we cared personally about every other creature sharing this space with us, even if we will never meet some of the people or ever see most of the animals that share this space.
This gift and responsibility of quiet gives an added dimension to the gift and responsibility of community. We’re not walled off from each other by the unconscious act of tucking ourselves into our own acoustical bubbles, with all else assigned to the dulled edge of awareness. Our sound-space is one, which is the true nature of reality—and we can embrace that reality when we don’t overlay it with the defenses, filters and structures of the mind.
Which of course brings us to the crucial element in all this. Living here, sooner or later we necessarily realize (or we don’t), that we must become much quieter and more still inside in order to hear and feel and appreciate the magnitude of this external quiet in which we are blessed to live.