In June 2008, I escaped the confines of city life and flew west to visit my brother in Flagstaff, Arizona. I love the town, and had visited a few times, but never had the opportunity to enjoy the wealth of outdoors activities available there. During my week long stay there, I took advantage of the long, warm days and headed out on the trails.
During one of my hikes, I noticed something: It was quiet. I’m not talking about the kind of quiet you hear when there are no people talking and no cars buzzing. This was something quite different. It was simultaneously disconcerting and enlightening, so much so that it took me days to process my thoughts on what I had experienced.
Below is an excerpt from my journal, dated June 22, 2008, several days after returning to New Jersey from Arizona:
As I walked down the trail, alone for the frist time in what may be years, a little bit of panic began to sneak into my brain. Im not entirely sure why, but I suspect it has to do with where my life has taken me in the last several years. I live very close to New York City, and with tha tcomes a lot of activity, the hustle and bustle and constant noise of daily life in a city slowly eating away at my psyche. It is something you never really notice until you truly remove yourself from it. I hadn’t noticed until this moment, halfway uup a hill, resting my overworked but under used lungs, that there are two very distinct, very different forms of silence.
There is hard silence, the kind you’ll find early on a Sunday morning in an East Coast city or suburb. Most people are still asleep in their beds, and only animals and the wind are active. Until you stop and listen. You have to quiet yourself down, slow your breathing, relax your muscles, and let your ears adjust. Then it makes itself known, slowly rising: hard silence. Listen closely. A bird chirps. Leaves rustle in the trees. A motor rises in the distance. A door slams. A car horn blows. Air trapped under the tires of a car on some distant roadway explodes rapidly. A jetliner glides overhead. A chipmunk scatters and scampers through dry, crinkled leaves.
True, it is quiet; quieter than, say, rush hour on Monday morning at the Holland Tunnel. It is Hard Silence.
There is also soft silence. Until my hike in the tall Ponderosa Pines and Aspens, I had never heard soft silence. When my body had quieted down, I heard it distinctly. Imagine yourself in a sensory deprivation chamber. Begin with no noise, no sound whatsoever. Your ears begin to ring. The vibrations of your eardrums echo into your head until they too become nothing. You now know what it must feel like to be deaf.
Now, add only slight sounds, all of them muffled as if millions of pillows surround you. Wind wends its way slowly through the needles of the upper boughs of the pines, gently, as though not to disturb the tree’s stately slumber. Really no other sound intrudes upon this scene, until what must be a small airplane comes dangerously close to buzzing your head. Terrified, you duck and cover, praying that the propellers only do you minor bodily harm. Time passes, and when nothing happens and the buzzing has mysteriously subsided, you look up, searching the immediate vicinity for low-flying aircraft and listening for the inevitable snapping of tree branches and rending of metal.
Nothing. Not a sound.
But without warning, the buzzing returns with even more power than before, and heading straight for you. This time your defenses are up and you’re ready to spring into action as the offending aircraft prepares another attack. Then, the culprit appears: A large, rather ugly green and black horsefly. As your pulse returns to normal, you make sure that no one has seen your pitiful display of cowardice. Of course, there is no one there. No one is around for quite some distance.
It is almost palpable. Even the sun’s rays as they break through the trees seem softer here, and you can almost hear the light waves crashing into the ground. There is little wildlife, no humans, and no machines. The fallen pine needles and meadow grass dampen any extraneous sound that may emanate from afar, so that it’s just you and the wind causing a ruckus in the soft silence of an Arizona forest.
Sure, it’s not the greatest prose ever written. I’m not even sure I got my feelings across well. All you really have to do is go somewhere like that, where there’s real soft silence, then come back to the hard stuff, and you’ll know. You can feel silence.