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Silence, Sound, Noise

About 15 miles from home, I could feel the change. More intensity, stress rising slightly. Calmness evaporating. As traffic increased, so did erratic drivers. Impatient people, phones in hand, hurriedly heading home, encumbered by schedules. More people. More noise. More, more, more.

I was returning home from North Missouri after spending a few days mostly, entirely alone. A place where I could occasionally hear the droning of a truck on the highway a couple miles north, a tractor or UTV on a farm road, but mostly just silence and sounds of the land, or the shotguns of distant waterfowlers. Days at the marsh are the best. A simple life for as long as I can be away from home. Eat, sleep, hunt, chores, relax, repeat. Conversation with friends. A card game or two or three.

Mornings begin early. A duck hunter’s clock has replaced my natural rhythm. Rising from my comfy, warm bed is tough, but it’s time to start the day. Coffee, add a layer of clothing, stick my head outside for a listen - ducks, geese, owls, coyotes, a beaver gnawing. A racoon scurries away from the light of the open door of my shack. A mouse darting between protective cover.

I peek at my phone to check the weather. My first and only appointment of the day will be 30 minutes before sunrise. By then, I will have dressed, eaten breakfast, and travelled through the darkness into the middle of a wetland that lays in the middle of other wetlands that lays in the middle of farm fields. I will have watched stars, the moon, meteors, and silhouettes of critters while standing atop my boat, poling silently through the dark water. A gray pink begins to show on the eastern horizon of this sanctuary I share with a few others.

I grew up in a city. I learned to hear or not hear the noise, learned to listen through the noise. Now I live on the edge, in the country, sorta, but not really. Too close to a city to the north and a growing wannabe town to the south, each gobbling up land as fast as they can. Sitting in a tree stand near my home, sounds reveal the character of my neighborhood, about 60 houses scattered on mostly on 10-acre tracts, more or less. As the morning unfolds, I can hear a mouse in the leaves, a barred owl, the yip of a coyote or the yap of a fox. Undeveloped land nearby gives our home some protection from encroachment, but its changing fast.

If the breeze is easterly, it transports noise from the highway a mile away. Drivers hitting chatter strips, the occasional sound of trucks jake braking. As the morning progresses, the symphony of traffic slowly reaches a crescendo, stealing away, then consuming the tranquility. The song of a nearby cardinal announces (or maybe protests) the day.

A pickup truck starts and pulls out from the driveway probably two miles away. A muffler so loud I’m sure I could locate with little effort where the truck is parked and the driver sleeps. I hear it head down the road, stopping, turning, and heading toward town, eventually disappearing into the ever-rising background noise. The first flight of the day leaves the airport. Jets are quieter but they’re still loud. Occasionally, a medical helicopter approaches, the noisiest aircraft in the sky, I can hear it coming for miles. It passes raucously, annoyingly overhead; our property is apparently on the flight path. Squirrels bark. A group of geese move between neighborhood ponds proclaiming their pleasure with the morning outlook.

I hear a beep, beep, beep as a school bus backs up to turn around. Cars head out driveways as neighbors head to work. If it’s Wednesday, the trash truck rumbles down the gravel roads. A dog barking incessantly. The braying of a neighbor’s donkeys. A crowing rooster, the coop is open for business. Thankfully no one has a peacock yet.

And somewhere through my tinnitus and the unearthly cacophony, miraculously I can still hear a deer walking through the leaves. But some mornings my calm has been scraped away and I leave my tree stand irritated, edgy, and a little cranky. Living near town has its advantages, but the tradeoff is large, and unfortunately, I deliver my own share of injury; the leaf blower, weed whacker, lawn mower, tractor, tiller, log splitter, and chainsaw add to the assault. I try to be quick with my work and selective on the time of day, but sometimes you just gotta do it when you gotta do it. But when I fire up the machines, I feel some shame, and silently apologize.

Even when you try to escape the noise, some folks insist on bringing it with them. Many years ago, my wife and I were a couple days into a back county canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. And there, on a small island, sat a buffoon at his campsite, music blasting from his boom-box across and throughout the lake and wilderness. Or there was the time we camped at a popular Missouri state park. Camping among people, I expect noise, it’s part of the experience. But when a nearby camper began playing Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon at a ridiculous volume as dusk fell over the river and a few dozen campers, well, it was a bit much. Admittedly, we love the album and the music in the falling darkness was moody, but it was not the experience we and others were wanting.

Noise is bad for your health. It affects your hearing, keeps you awake, affects cognitive abilities and learning, and can negatively affect your physical wellbeing in other ways. Noise is bad for nature. Birds must sing louder and at a higher frequency. Studies show noise affects bird behavior relative to establishing territories, finding mates, nesting, danger alerts, and inducing stress affecting everything from habitat selection to bio-physical processes.

Finding places to escape noise is getting harder. I suppose I could rent time in the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota. The chamber measures background noise in negative decibels. A room so quiet it’s difficult for anyone to stay inside very long – too much silence is clearly not healthy. But my definition of quiet, however, is not soundless. It just lacks the noise of people. My personal reference point for quiet is a forested place near Clam Lake, Wisconsin. It was a cold winter day, temperatures in the teens. Two feet of fluffy snow. Sky was blue, a light wind swirled, and the only sounds I could hear were a few birds, a family of otters, and the whispering of nearby pine trees. In some way, I measure all other days against that memory of a day walking alone in the cold and deep snow.

I returned to the North Missouri marsh this past January for a short visit. The drive up was a reversal of the earlier return trip. During the final 30 miles, my transformation was nearly complete, and by mid-morning I was ready to consume and absorb what can only be found in cathedrals built by nature. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the steady, constant, yet muted sounds of birds on the marsh. For several glorious hours I sat with the ducks, a few thousand white-fronted and Canada geese, and a hundred trumpeter swans. And when they all rose simultaneously, thunderously to reposition and move about, the sound was tremendous, but there was no noise. Only the chorale of feathered friends, and a reminder of the healing power of nature. Give me silence. Give me sound. Spare me the noise.

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