Saturday, April 11, 2009

Silence is Golden

I am in my studio watching the birds in the warm evening light. It’s been a pretty day but chilly, with a bit of a breeze out of the north. While winds from that direction keep the temperatures down, they keep the noise here down too.

Our house is about half-way up the side of a south-facing hill. About two tenths of a mile to our south is a fairly busy east-west running dirt road. Unless the wind is blowing down from the north (or northeast or northwest) it will actually carry noise from the road right up the hill to us. It’s as if we live in a huge satellite dish that funnels the noise right to our house.

I was dismayed after moving here to realize how much noise the property catches. Walk over the hill to our neighbor’s property and you hear only the loudest vehicles. One of the things I really wanted when we moved from the city was a break from all the noise. We lived on a busy street and even though our house sat back from the road 50 or 60 feet we could not sit on the front porch and have a conversation for all the traffic roaring by. I guess I became over-sensitive to it.

This brings me to a topic that is very important to me, and that is one of quiet/silence in our parks and wilderness areas. My friends don’t seem to notice noise like I do and so are not as affected by planes circling the lake when we’re kayaking, or the rumble of an expressway a half mile away from a nature trail. But those sorts of things drive me nuts and can really ruin an outdoor experience for me. We as a society have come to value a place primarily for its visual beauty and seem to have forgotten that we have other senses.

When I go to the woods or lake or fields I am seeking not just solitude and a pretty scene to gaze upon but a total escape from us, from the things made by man. To be able to hear a chickadee’s wings as it darts over my head, to hear the movements of small creatures in the duff, the creak of trees in the wind, the soft sounds of a rill running down a wooded slope after a heavy rain, are just as much a part of the experience of being outdoors as are a pretty sunset or the sight of an indigo bunting.

The great author/naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote in Reflections of the North Country, “Silence is one of the most important parts of a wilderness experience; without it the land is nothing more than rocks, trees and water.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. To really feel a part of a place, to be immersed in the spirit and the energy of your surroundings, you need to employ more than just your sight. Whether in your own backyard or on a trail in the U.P., the sound of an ATV or barking dog can be just as distracting as a cell tower or a clear-cut woodland. The difference with sound is that it is pervasive—I can look away from the cell tower and still enjoy a view, but I can’t block out an annoying sound without blocking out all sound.

The best place I have found to experience silence in the outdoors (what Olson considered the lack of man-made sounds) is in the Porcupine Mountains State Wilderness Area in the U.P. There are no roads through the park, just one that goes around its south border and one to Lake in the Clouds. Everywhere you want to go you have to walk. My partner Lori Taylor won an Artist-in-Residence there last fall and was given a cabin in the woods for two weeks. Lisa and I went up and camped, and spent a lot of time at the cabin, and I have never known such silence. Every once in a while there’d be the sound of a plane, or a loud motorcycle on a road somewhere, but otherwise it was like another world, one without mechanized man.

If you’ve never read Reflections of the North Country, you’re really missing out on what I believe is one of the most wonderful collections of essays ever written about wilderness, our place in it and our need for it. And if you’ve never been to the Porkies, as they’re affectionately called, well, you’re missing out on the crowning jewel of Michigan’s Park system and one of the most amazing places I’ve been so far. Give both a try.

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