An Uncomfortable Silence
In a documentary I recently saw, an Inuit child was happily romping around inside her family’s igloo. The interior temperature was just a tad above 32 degrees. She was naked.
Human beings can adapt to just about any climate or circumstance. So I guess it should be no surprise that I have adapted myself to modern noises and the flood of sensory input that assaults me every waking hour of the day.
I must have adapted to the noise because the silence of the Rocky Mountains always startles me. Which is kind of backwards, don’t you think? Shouldn’t silence be the norm and grinding machine noises the exception?
Each year when we visit Colorado we drive high into the mountains of a National Forest. As our car winds upward along the switchbacks, the houses in the valley shrink in size and importance. Viewed against the larger landscape, what is a house? What is all this fuss we make about keeping them repaired and clean? How can this tiny speck in the distance have enslaved me to its mortgage and maintenance?
Then our car makes a turn and I can’t even see the houses. We fall silent and all you can hear is the crunch of the tires on the dirt and rock road. The sharp, clumping sound of a car door closing is the last sign of the mechanized world we’ve left behind. After that all the noises are "natural," which is a term I'm using to refer to sounds made by living creatures or the earth. Our conversations. Our laughs and exclamations. The birds and other animals. The wind in the trees. The sound of our footsteps.
At some point we stop and everyone listens. If the wind is still and the birds cooperate, there is a clean, clear silence that is as pure as mountain water. You feel like you are wrapped in it, this silence. The ether throbs with quiet and I can feel it in my ears.
"Listen," I say every year. "This is what silence sounds like. We never really hear it at home.”
I love the silence but it is foreign to me. It is not my norm. It is exotic. Something you enjoy on vacation.
Sometimes I wonder how much silence I could tolerate. How long could I sit in the mountains with no music, no television, no news, no words to read? How long would I be content with my own thoughts or conversation limited to those with me?
How long would it take for my sensory input thermostat to recalibrate itself?
But I don’t have the time to find those answers. I have a family and a job and a house and insurance and bills and pets. I’m so tied to the modern world that I can’t imagine how to untie myself.
And with all those things tickling the back of my mind, after an hour or two I begin to get antsy. I wonder if I have an important email waiting for me. The girls feel the need to leave as well. They want to get down the mountain to find wireless and check their Facebook pages. Jeanene says something about getting dinner ready.
It’s funny how we all feel the pull back to the car. No one says anything but everyone knows, just like you know when a visit with a friend is over and you should get up and leave. This time we hear the car doors close from inside the car and it sounds normal. Seatbelts click. The engine sound destroys the silence. The car crunches over the dusty road down the mountain. The houses grow in size and importance. Ah yes, this is what my mortgage is for.
I’m left looking back at the mountain, feeling a strange grief. I’ve never had what I’m longing for, so I can’t really claim to have lost anything.
And honestly. Truly. Really. I’m serious now. Don’t we all know that I never will have it?
It was gone before I was even born.
Image by Lali Masriara. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Gordon Atkinson.