Sound and Silence

Last week, I reported my thoughts as I looked out the window at bustling city scenes from a skyscraper in the middle of the night. 

Back home this week, I stepped onto the porch and into crisp night air back in northern Minnesota and experienced the exact opposite: absolute, complete silence. 

Earlier that day, an autumn gale pelted drizzle and falling leaves against the windows. Thunder rumbled in the distance. 

As the sun set, the sky cleared, the air stilled and by nightfall there was utter silence.

No insects. Too cold. No ducks. Apparently we're out of their migratory path. No geese, even in the distance. No swans. They've disappeared for the winter. The hoot owl didn't hoot again until morning. 

Cows, coyotes and crows apparently fell asleep, worn out by the day's wind.The grain driers a mile to the south were shut down. No combines droned in distance. The dozens of gravel trucks which have howled down the highway for the past month stopped for the weekend. Beet harvest was on hold. 

Enough leaves have fallen so I could see the flicker of the nearest neighbor's yard light through the woods one-half mile south. 

I have no yard light. I like to see the stars. That night, it was so quiet you could almost hear the Milky Way hum. Orion stood out, signaling winter. 

How many people out of the billions on our planet can step outside their door (provided they have a door to step out of) and be greeted by total silence? 

How many, stop to think of it, can even see the stars?

Very, very few. 

To enjoy such silence, city people not only have to go to a national park, but they have to hike in deep enough to get away from the hordes of fellow tourists who also seek silence once per year or so. 

When I hike up into mountain canyons in Arizona during the winter, just when I think I've found silence, a fighter squadron roars overhead on its way to the air base. The rumble of passenger jets is constant no matter how high you get up the side of a mountain.

Parks in the city, no matter how large, can never completely shut out the constant roar of tires on the pavement from the nearest traffic artery. 

One of the great scourges of modern civilization, I have decided, is the constant noise. By living in the middle of nowhere, I sometimes, late at night, escape it. 

Winston Churchill despised the internal combustion engine, which he said made the modern world unbearably noisy. What would the old man think of today's noise machines? 

There's enough noise in our world without us creating more. Yet, many people can't stand the sound of silence. To prevent even the possibility of silence, people turn on even noise makers!

What is it with all the televisions blaring in medical waiting rooms? Do people really hear the insipid, insulting daytime programming, is it just background noise? Are we really stupid enough to gobble up such junk?  

In hotels on the road, you clamber half-asleep to the breakfast bar in the lobby only to be jolted by CNN blasting the latest noise about some abduction in Alabama as if we're supposed to care. 

How can a person have a calm, meditative morning if the first thing you hear once out of bed is gibber jabber about all the bad things in the world? 

Do we really need to know this stuff? Are we obligated to care? 

Does the Weather Channel really need to be on all day in the oil change waiting room even when there is nothing of interest brewing within 1,500 miles? 

Of course, basic knowledge of the goings on in the world is a good thing. 

We wouldn't know how good we have it if we didn't realize every so often that most people in this world are much, much worse off. Hunger, war, pestilence and poverty should not be hidden from our view. 

But to deliberately and constantly pipe the pain of events we cannot control into our living rooms, kitchens, cars and workplaces seems insane. 

As I stood out on the soggy lawn absorbing the silence, a lone jet flew over, beginning its approach for a landing within a hundred miles or so. 

I wondered if I knew any of the passengers. Were they looking down, contemplating smattering of yard lights spread across the quiet landscape below? 

Or were they distracted by the flash of explosions from a movie fifteen inches in front of their nose, deafened by crashes, screams and gunshots rattling in their headphones?