Our noise is everywhere. Just try to sit for a moment in your house and experience a moment without some kind of artificial noise, whether it be passing traffic, the sound of your neighbor’s television or stereo or the now nearly ever-present buzzing of somebody’s ear buds.
But let’s say you want to head out beyond the sprawling reach of the homogenous exurban landscape, past even the glow of the Walmart on the edge of Small Town, Anywhere to what is left of the great American wilderness.
Any peace there?
Apparently not, according to the most recent research on our never-ending din. Indeed as the Washington Post recently reported, the noise of the human world is all too much with us, nearly everywhere:
That’s the trouble with noise pollution, continued Buxton, an acoustic ecologist at Colorado State University: “It really doesn’t have any boundaries. There’s no way of holding it in.”
This problem pervades wilderness areas across the United States, Buxton and her colleagues reported in the journal Science. Using a model based on sound measurements taken by the National Park Service, they found that human noises at least double the background sound levels at the majority of protected areas in the country.
This noise pollution doesn’t just disrupt hikers; it can also frighten, distract or harm animals that inhabit the wilderness, setting off changes that cascade through the entire ecosystem.
The results of human noise, like those of other kinds of pollution, can be toxic to living things in ways that we are just discovering. It’s not just larger animals that we startle but every creature from deer to insects to plant life. Like the loud talker ruining your favorite concert, we are disrupting the music of the wild:
And the effects of this racket can be far reaching, Buxton said. Animals rely heavily on their ability to hear minute natural noises — the movement of predators, the trickle of a stream. Noise pollution may cover up those sounds, putting wild creatures at risk. Noise from human activity is also frightening and distracting; it can change animals’ behavior with consequences for the entire ecosystem. A recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B found that noise pollution makes it more difficult for plants to reproduce because human sounds scares away the birds that help distribute seeds and increase the activity of seed-eating rodents.
Even life that lacks ears may be affected. Spiders don’t “hear” sound, but they can feel its vibrations, and research suggests that they act differently when bombarded with human noise. Likewise, plants have been found to extend their roots in the direction of acoustic vibrations from running water. Though a recent study found that garden peas can distinguish between real nature sounds and a recording, scientists don’t know whether plants may be confused by the rumble of a passing car.
How deeply has our noise penetrated wild spaces? A Guardian piece on the same study reports that, “In the areas defined as wilderness, which are meant to entirely to be ‘untrammeled by man,’ according to US law, 12 percent still experienced a doubling of background noise due to human activities. The problem of noise also seriously affected the habitat of endangered species, such as the San Marcos salamander and San Bernardino kangaroo rat.”
What could it be that we are so afraid of that we need keep running, continue playing our endless soundtrack of white noise?
Thus our sonic pollution is harming wildlife across the globe, stranding whales, driving away elephants, and making it harder and harder for our fellow humans to experience the joys of nature. We just can’t seem to shut up, log off, or unplug even at the risk of peril to the living world and our own psychic well-being.
This is not the result of malice on our part but rather because we have come to confuse our noise with nature. Even when we are not filling our heads with sound, we are jamming them full of psychic distractions of other sorts brought to us by our mobile devices with their endless stream of mostly meaningless chatter. It never stops and we like it that way because it keeps us running.
Or, more accurately, running away, from what we don’t know.
What could it be that we are so afraid of that we need keep running, continue playing our endless soundtrack of white noise? We used to think that we had to go to the wilderness to find God or test ourselves against nature, but those pursuits have largely gone the way of the mega church and adventure tourism. With nearly every space colonized, every moment occupied by the God of Distraction, perhaps that last real wilderness is the space of unmediated silence.
There, in the silent moment, we come face to face with emptiness, with the nothingness out of which we are forced to construct ourselves.
But if all we know is how to fill that moment with the relentless din or the easy download, something about this challenge undoes us. So we run away and cower in the glow of our screens, afraid to test our mettle in the unforgiving wilderness of silence.
But that fearsome space, it appears, has become an endangered species, a victim of our heedless rush toward the death of the real.