Hanging onto silence: Three North Bay experts’ advice for keeping calm in a noisy world
While the pandemic has robbed us of many things, it also has given us a gift — more peace, more quiet and less man-made noise to clog our ears like so much debris strewn along the freeways of big cities.
Although the isolation and hush of the past 21 months has been difficult for many, one silver lining is that the wild kingdom has stepped in to fill the void, returning and raising their voices on the edges of urban spaces, even within them, where they had been drowned out for decades.
Bioacoustician Bernie Krause of Sonoma, who has recorded more than 15,000 terrestrial and marine species in his career, has long believed listening to this “animal orchestra” is the key to unlocking our own sense of calm, tranquility and contentment.
A hypersensitive kid with ADHD and easily distracted by even low-volume noise, Krause had an epiphany more than 50 years ago when he first recorded the soundscape of a stream flowing under Northern California redwoods, for an ecological album, “In a Wild Sanctuary.”
“Every acoustic element enhanced the vast illusion of space transmitted through my new headphones,” he wrote in the introduction to his latest book, “The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World.”
“I’ve spent the past half century capturing wild soundscapes in some of the most remote places on Earth. … In the process, I have drawn on those blissful moments to learn the value of serenity.”
Even before anyone had heard of COVID-19, Krause had started writing this book in order to teach people how to declutter, not just their desks and closets but the stress-inducing soundscape of their work and home environments.
As the pace of life has started to pick up and some workers across the country have returned to their offices this month, we gathered advice — from Krause’s book as well as from Susan Karle, a forest bathing guide in Boyes Hot Springs; and Barbara Schlumberger, a longtime practitioner of meditation in Santa Rosa — on how to keep calm and carry on in a world that won’t stop screeching, wailing, hammering, revving, leaf blowing, lawn mowing, talking and shouting.
Eliminating unhealthy sounds
In his short, 146-page book (Hachette Book Group, 2021), Krause helps the reader differentiate between harmful noise — earbuds turned up too high, snarling motorcycles, restaurant din and construction clatter — and the nurturing sounds of nature, from the gentle cooing of a mourning dove to waves crashing on the shore.
All sounds fall into one of three categories, according to Krause. There is the ancient geophony — natural sounds like rain, volcanos and firestorms not produced by living organisms. There is the biophony, the sounds produced by organisms that are not human. And there is the anthropophony, human-generated sound, which can be divided into intentional sounds like music and speech and more random sounds such as those from our many electro-mechanical devices.
To understand your own soundscape, step outside, without your cellphone, and truly listen, Krause says. Try to hear the song of a bird or the buzz of an insect within the background noise of airplanes and cars. Then try to record that sound, and you’ll get a good idea of how noisy your neighborhood is.
Try to describe all those sounds and how they make you feel, Krause says. Write down which sounds you liked, which you didn’t and why. That will help you see how to declutter your personal soundscape.
Krause also, in his book, delves into hearing loss, especially among the younger generation spending so much time on electronic devices. There’s also the debilitating din of uber-loud public events, such as the Blue Angels screaming past San Francisco’s skyscrapers or NASCAR drivers going full throttle at the Sonoma Raceway. Noise above 85 decibels is considered harmful, such as a chain saw (over 100 decibels) or a rock concert (120 decibels and more).
Why are natural soundscapes more soothing than man-made clamor? In “The Power of Tranquility,” Krause illustrates the reason with a spectrogram, a visual representation of sound frequencies over time, of a healthy natural habitat in Zimbabwe, where each animal has its own acoustic niche and pitch, as in a symphony score. He compares that to a spectrogram of a New York construction site, where all the sounds compete with each other, chaotically, at similar frequencies.
When you hear ambient noise that is shrill, Krause advises, step outside for a “sound walk” to clear out the cacophony. If you can’t avoid noise during the day, take a long walk early in the morning, when you can hear quiet and bird song, even in a big city.