Earlier today I was hiking a back trail, high above the Ballantree Trail in West Vancouver. I was high enough up that I almost couldn’t hear the traffic on the Upper Levels highway below. I was reminded of the nearly constant wall of noise and sound that surrounds us at every moment in our days. It’s very sad that genuine quiet is almost impossible to find, and I’m reminded of being told, about thirty years ago, that there is no longer any spot on earth where you won’t eventually see the contrail from an airliner overhead.
That need for quiet, for natural sounds, is one of the big reasons why people choose to move out of the city and into the country. The sound of cars and stereos and leaf-blowers hurts all of us, heightens our stress, and whether consciously or unconsciously makes our lives sadder and less fulfilling. You can’t have peace of mind when you’re surrounded by noise.
That endless wash of noise is a large reason for the number of people who wear earbuds or headphones almost all of the time. They’re trying to get away from the racket, but are really just masking one set of sounds with another one that’s on the phone or iPod. Trying to escape urban noise is a positive thing, but they wind up isolating themselves from the world around them, and more importantly from the people around them. If three hundred people on the SeaBus are all wearing headphones it’s a sign of a pretty significant problem.
(That’s not to say that I don’t like listening to music on the stereo, or even high level amplified music at a concert. The physical experience of a deep bass and the psychic shiver from shrill high tones are an integral part of the rock and roll experience. Power tools and equipment are noisy too, but when you’re using them to create something beautiful you don’t mind that. Also I always wear ear protection.)
This is one of the important reasons why I want us to live in a rural, somewhat isolated, setting. I want to be, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, on a side road, off the side of a side road. What’s French for “Officer Obie?”
I’ve lived beside highways, and truck routes, and behind slaughterhouses. As I write this I’m listening to slightly drunk neighbours chattering away down the street, growing louder with every glass of wine. I’m tired of listening to other people’s conversations at home, in stores, in restaurants, in parks, and everywhere else that I go.
(A special note about cel phones. As annoying as the ringers are, no matter where that you go, including on forest trails, the real irritatants are the people who won’t hold their phone to their ear, and instead turn on the speaker so that they can shout back and forth with the person on the other end. At least if you can only hear one side of the conversation you can give your imagination a workout. If you’re forced to follow both sides you quickly realize that you just don’t care. Someone needs to explain to these people that the reason why people on TV hold their phones like this isn’t because it’s a good way to use them, or even that it gives better sound quality, it’s because the TV cameras want to pick up both side of the conversation and turning on the speaker is the cheapest way to do that.)
So, a farm on a quiet back road somewhere in Normandy, where can hear the birds and the wind and the thunder rolling in from far over the hills. Maybe even the soughing of the trees. (A word that I learned in high-school which is still a favourite) or the lowing of our cattle, or the brrrping of the chickens.* We already are blessed by the snoring of the dog.
I’m realistic. Living in the country also means trucks and tractors and manure spreaders, and all kinds of heavy equipment that keeps a farming community going. And there are always our own sounds – appliances, hair dryers, water pumps, coffee grinders – but at least we can contain them. What we really want is a whole lot less of the sounds of machinery and motors, and lot more of the sounds of nature and wood and plants around us.
We need a peaceful environment to pamper our peaceful lives.
* In Kentucky one of our neighbours rented a house in the bottom of the holler below a guy who raised fighting cocks. (Yes, that’s still popular down there.) One rooster crowing can be novel and entertaining. Fifty is just plain overwhelming and annoying.