A few reflections on living with silence. I’m sitting here in front of my computer, my husband has the hockey game on in another room, which in our open plan apartment might as well be right in front of me, and I have my phone right by me in case of an urgent beep from twitter, instagram or facebook. Or a bing from The New York Times or some advertiser I’ve unsubscribed from three times already, with critical information I need this very second. There’s traffic outside and because of where we live in Vancouver, if the front door is open on a fine day, we hear airplanes coming and going from the local airport. I’ve often noticed that even if I am in the country, walking in a forest or along a river, surrounded by birdsong, I am still never far from noise; a kind of background rumble of the modern world. Someone once described it to me as being on the holodeck. Even though you are in a seemingly in a quiet forest or glade, you can always hear the engines of the Enterprise working away somewhere nearby.
We live in a kind of ‘noise’ where connectedness seems critical at every moment, without realizing that this compelling need to be in touch is entirely specious. No one could be got at like that when I was a child. You had to phone someone, if they were ‘on the telephone’ or go over and see them in person. Or you could write a letter. That was in touch as it got. You could go days without hearing from anyone, and honestly, it was very peaceful.
Lane Winslow lives in a world I still remember, and anyone my age who lived outside an urban center will remember. It was a world where silence, that is to say, freedom from human racket, was still possible. I haven’t even allowed poor Lane a gramophone, or a radio yet, so anxious am I to preserve this remembered silence. I could lie on the wharf, now long gone, and listen to the wonderful green hollow lapping of the water through the cracks between the boards. I would not, as I do now, have to determinedly push away the sound of motorboats, planes, and trucks in order to hear the sound of just nature. It was just there, by the lake, in the garden on an afternoon, on my long exploring walks through the woods.
I never had to question the existence of silence. Human sounds were the interlopers, the exceptions. If a car was coming up the hill into the community, we heard it, and wondered where it was going. When the car stopped, the world reverted to silence, not just to less noise. Now, looking back, I see such long forgotten silence as one of the greatest losses in the world I live in. I remember it as being soothing on a hot afternoon, or terrifying on a thunderous night. I felt a personal relationship with the earth itself. I’m sure that in some mountain fastness, far from anywhere, or in the middle of a great sweep of desert, somewhere on the globe, silence is still to be found, but for most of us, it is a patrimony that is lost forever.
So, I’m sorry Lane. I know you love Beethoven, and would like to know what the weather forecast is, but for the time being I will not be supplying you with anything noisier than a coffee percolator. You’re lucky I’ve let you keep that phone!