BY MADONNA HAMEL
The hikers and campers are back, with that stunned look on their faces that says: it’s so…BIG and empty….and….quiet, like, REALLY quiet. Then I go into my ‘silence’ spiel. I tell them how the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, author of the ground-breaking book “One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet”, is on a mission to remind us of the importance of silence. The earth is trying to tell us things, if only we listen, he says. Then I reveal that his research found him in Grasslands National Park, yes, the very park you are about to drive into, (after you have your latte and buy a book to settle into, after a day’s hike in the great, wide, open park.) While recording sounds of nature he discovered that the Grasslands happens to be “the quietest place in North America, so far.”
A culture of risk takers and adrenaline junkies might not consider being the quietest place on the continent that big a deal. Maybe even boring. But for all of us, at one point in our lives, silence is essential to sanity. It is only in silence that we can hear ‘the still, small voice’ inside us, the only genuine voice of our authentic being. Nature is trying to tell us something, but not as the second party in a conversation, but as self-addressing self. The biggest mistake, the error (that is the source for the word ‘err’ and ‘sin’, the judgment we made way back in the days of the Greek philosophers and then again by dualistic religions and elite intellectuals), was to see ourselves as separate from the plants and animals of the world, as if we were not another animal among them.
In creative writing and English classes pitting ‘man against nature’ was always a viable option for dramatic tension. We were told every story has a conflict. This epoch we live in, say some scientists and environmentalists, is the first where human behaviour has had such an impact on the fate of the earth, that many are calling it the ‘Anthropocene’, or the age of humans. Even though we’ve only been around one-hundredth of one per cent of the Earth’s timeline, our impact on the planet has been exponential. Animals have been undergoing fifty times the stress felt before we showed up in their habitats. This is the first epoch in the history of the planet where humans are driving its direction. That we can do so without considering our effect on other critters stems, I believe, from a belief that we don’t belong to nature but are in competition with it.
Before this epoch, there were the Holocene and the Pleistocene eras, measured by rock strata and peat bogs and other detritus not man-made. But the idea behind the Anthropocene is, if not entirely geologically acceptable, to point out that we, as humans, are acting like bullies or princesses at a party. Until we arrived on the scene, there was no scene. We ARE the party. So let’s get this thing started, according to our specifications, natch. This is Anthro’s Scene now, so move over. And the first thing we tend to do just to make sure everyone knows the party has arrived is MAKE SOME NOISE!
While the Anthroscene is mostly about the strata of detritus we leave in our wake, I tend to think of the Anthropo Scene as the upheavals and disturbances we make, and the shaken up world we leave in our wake. While the shrill and eerie sound of angry foxes and peacocks will rouse anyone from a serene sleep into a frightened fit of jitters, no animal or bird thinks, hey, you know what would really rock this place? A couple of mics and an amplifier! As a musician, I’ve been in more small rooms and clubs filled with speakers twice my size and reverb-loving sound men than I care to remember. And I’ve given up singing in more jam sessions than I’ve had hot dinners- because everyone plays at once and my voice does not stand a chance, even if I did have Janis Joplin belting powers. It takes a true and confident artist to understand the equal power of the spaces between the notes, to possess the ability to draw the crowd closer with a soft purr or growl, to respect silence as much as sound. A wall of sound is a wall of confusion, is like being hammered at constantly by a perennially dissatisfied boss and that boss is ourselves, is a cover-up for lack of self-knowledge.
When a band or a person hacks away at your silence with ham-fisted instrumentation or argumentation for the sake of argumentation, any chance at getting to know the inner self is lost. When I become one of the Noisy Ones I am actually running from myself, from a worry or disappointment I chose not to face. The other morning it hit home that the bullies and princesses among us do not esteem our true selves as much as promote our constructed selves. Our bad behaviours are as much a result of perfectionism as ego run wild. Last week I woke with the words:“perfectionism is noisy.” I had been talking to a friend the night before about my own failure to listen to a colleague’s ideas because she was trying to explain how to fix something that “wasn’t broke!”. I was trying hard to listen but inside I was screaming at the audacity of offering me unwanted advice. My friend reminded me one of his favourite expressions: “Progress not perfection. If you try to be perfect you set yourself up for a day of insanity. At least you kept your mouth shut. That’s a step in the right direction.”
When you try to do things perfectly and inevitably fail, the noise that follows in your head is deafening. Too many voices compete to tell you what you did wrong. And then it doesn’t matter that you live in the quietest place in North America. You could just as easily be in the heart of Manhattan, with all the honking and hollering going on. But, thankfully, I write this on the edge of a wild place whose growing popularity for weary travellers is it’s great and rare gift of Silence.