In Praise of Silence and the Sounds of Spring

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

Spring! ’Tis the season for walking, biking, paddling or just plain being outside. Even after a mild winter like the one just past, we’re still ready to stretch our limbs, breathe deeply and soak in the sunshine. Let’s all follow our best instincts and get outdoors. This year, though, you might try a new way: spend some of that time in silence.

I love companionship and good conversation, I’m fond of music and I try to stay in touch. But when I’m out on a walk or a bike ride I cherish the quiet—actually my own quiet, because the world around me is anything but silent. Birds are singing everywhere, squirrels chattering, insects buzzing or chirring, frogs peeping and croaking—life is full to overflowing with sound. There is so much to hear, it’s a shame to spend my time listening to anything other than what nature is offering.

It’s not easy to be silent. We’re a gregarious species; we thrive on communication. A friend of mine who leads hikes around here told me once that he would ask his fellow hikers to be silent for a while, as their talking scared away the wildlife. He said it was hard for them to maintain silence for the 10 minutes that he asked of them. “Is it OK to talk now?” they would whisper after only a few minutes had gone by.

Not only does our talking drive away birds and other animals as we walk through fields and forests, it also takes our attention away from our surroundings. This goes beyond failing to hear nature’s sounds; we also see less and are generally less aware. I suspect we’re hard-wired to pay closest attention to talk because doing so improved our evolutionary odds. Our social nature meant that we depended on each other for our own and our offspring’s survival and reproduction. When we talked we created deeper social bonds, warned of danger, pointed toward food and shelter, drew people together for safety or sustenance. In the process, though, we gave up something: As we attend to talk, we tend to neglect other information coming from the world around us.

I’ve noticed that when I’m driving while involved in a conversation I’m more likely to miss a turn or make some other (I hope) minor mistake. And when I’m walking and talking in the woods, I see where I’m going but I’m not necessarily conscious of much around the periphery of my vision—and that, often, is where the interesting action is. When I’m silent, on the other hand, my brain seems more able to take in a whole range of visual signals from many different directions, as well as the myriad sounds that I encounter as I walk. I can focus more fully on a particular sight, sound, smell or other sensation, such as the contours of the ground as my feet come in contact with it. On my solitary bike rides the experience is similar, even with the conflict between the road sounds and those coming from nearby woods and meadows. My silence makes a difference in how I perceive the world.

If this intrigues you, give it a try. Start by turning off your cell phone. Leave your iPod at home. If you’re walking with a friend or partner, agree ahead of time that you won’t talk for 10 minutes—see how it feels to commune with each other without words while sharing the experience of all that’s around you. Maybe next time you can do it for 15 or 20 minutes. Notice what you see and hear. If you hear an interesting bird song, try to commit it to memory rather than talking about it; when you get home, you can look in the field guide or go online to find out what species you heard.

There are times when conversation or music is just the right thing. But taking the time to be silent can add a rich layer of experience to your outdoor time. Knowing when and how to do each of these can enrich our lives. I invite you to discover the pleasures of silence.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and a member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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