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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.

Inside, make your home and work space quieter with rugs and soft, sound-absorbent material. That cuts cut down on reverberation and creates a peaceful feeling.

“The more you do to tone down the reverberation, the more intimate your area will feel,” Krause writes. “The high blood pressure and sense of anxiety you sometimes feel should be greatly reduced by that simple act.”

And you don’t have to travel to the Brazilian rainforest to find tranquility.

Krause’s favorite places to visit are Alaska and the quiet deserts of New Mexico. But there are at least a dozen quiet, remote places within a 90-minute drive of his home in Sonoma, he points out.

The book closes with anecdotes from friends around the world, who were excited by all the wild sounds they noticed during the early days of the pandemic. Like the haze that vanished over cities in satellite photos, the toxic soundscape also dissipated, much to everyone’s delight.

“Natural soundscapes are embedded deep in our DNA,” Krause said, explaining their calming effect. “It’s part of our ancient roots when we lived much more closely connected to natural world experience and relied on it as a source of our culture, well-being and spirituality.

“As we’ve grown apart from that world, we’ve lost our bearings and have become estranged from our own sources of life,” he added. “That alienation is evident in the pathologies we express through our behavior, now, and the noise we surround ourselves with fails to mask the infirmities.”

At press time, Krause was installing “The Great Animal Orchestra” at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The immersive audiovisual experience, created by Krause in conjunction with United Visual Artists, will be on exhibit from Nov. 20 through May 22, 2022 (pem.org/exhibitions).

For more information on Krause’s recording projects, go to wildsanctuary.com.

An invitation to slow down

For the past eight years, Susan Karle of Boyes Hot Springs has served as a certified forest guide leading “forest bathing” walks. Started in Japan in the early 1980s, this practice of shinrin-yoku helps you slow down, open your senses and enter the present moment, with no thoughts of the past or the future.

“When I’m leading a walk, I mention that it’s a radical act in our fast-paced modern world,” Karle said. “It can feel uncomfortable, because going fast keeps us out of touch with certain parts of ourselves.”

During the pandemic, she led a small group, Forest Friends, once a month into nature, where they could let go of their stress and anxiety by touching rocks, sitting with trees and feeling the sun on their cheeks.

“The pandemic intensified people’s issues because they were isolated,” she said. “And our basic need for safety was rocked.”

Recently retired from psychotherapy work, Karle plans to continue her nature work as a guide certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

“I was part of the very first training that took place at Sugarloaf (Ridge State Park), where it all started,” she said. “Then it moved out across the country and now there are international trainings.”

The forest bathing walks don’t cover a lot of distance, perhaps a mile or less, so they are accessible to people of all abilities. After the recent fires in the North Bay, Karle led walks to help people heal from the trauma.

“It helps re-balance the nervous system and get some sense of safety again,” she said of forest bathing. “The hyper-vigilance goes away, and people can go into a more healthy state of being.”

Like psychotherapist Rick Hanson, author of “Hardwiring Happiness,” Karle believes that once you pause and reach a calming state, new pathways in the brain are created that can help you return to that state.

During the pandemic, Karle started a daily practice of sitting in her backyard by her oak tree every morning. Once a week, she would go to a park for a deeper experience of nature.

“It’s been really healing, and it’s helped my nervous system,” she said. “When things get stressful, I drop into deeper breathing.”

During her forest bathing walks, she invites people to make a deeper connection to nature. She asks them to close their eyes and listen to the farthest natural sound they hear, and the closest. Then she asks them to listen to their own breath and mix it with the other sounds, becoming part of “the symphony of sounds.”

This kind of experience, she said, is accessible to all, even if you are in your own backyard or looking out your window. It’s easy to take a pause with a short walk around your neighborhood.

“On the walk, find a place — maybe a tree — and just sit there with the tree for seven or 15 minutes,” she said. “They say after 15 minutes, the creatures in that vicinity will start to feel your presence as part of their landscape.”

Once immersed in that world, people often feel they belong to something larger than themselves.

“People will say, ‘I feel like I’ve come home, to the bigger home, in nature,’” she said. “You’re not alone. You belong to something bigger that helps inform and support you.”

After a winter break, Karle will start her monthly Forest Friends program in the spring. To find out more details, emal her at susanklmft@gmail.com.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park also offers nature programs throughout the year, including forest-bathing walks (sugarloafpark.org).

Quiet as essential

Barbara Schlumberger of Santa Rosa started to meditate at age 25 while living in Guam with her ex-husband, an orthopedic surgeon.

“I knew, back in Guam, that I was going to meditate or I was going to be a mess,” she said. “I was so far from my support system, I had anxiety and I couldn’t sleep.”

Nowadays, quiet is as essential for her as air and water. And after 50 years, she now meditates for half an hour a day, usually in the morning in front of a meditation altar that sets her intention.

The retired psychotherapist said most people tend to avoid quiet because that’s when “all your stuff comes up, and then you have to deal with it.”

To help her heal from her childhood trauma, Schlumberger joined a spiritual group called the Ridhwan School, which focuses on meditation and psychological work.

“Nothing can land if there’s trauma there,” she explained. “By clearing out your own pain, you can feel true empathy. It moves through you and doesn’t get stuck. … That’s very healing.”

For people who felt they changed during the pandemic and want to hold on to the quiet and peace they discovered in isolation, Schlumberger encourages finding a support system.

“People to talk to is so important,” she said, supportive people who can be a bulwark against the pressures of the outside world. And if you already feel overwhelmed, find a place where you can have serenity.

Like Krause and Karle, Schlumberger suggests daily walks or some other gentle exercise outside.

“I had to get out every single day of the pandemic and walk and also ride my bike,” she said. “I’m also a gardener, so I’m always out.”

As an extrovert, Schlumberger often finds it’s easy to fall back on her social self, but she tries to resist. To nurture her inner peace, she listens to the podcast of a Buddhist nun from Australia, Samaneri Jayasara, who reads devotional texts from various spiritual paths.

“Some people are born with contentment, but it’s usually something that needs to be fostered,” she said. “Now it feels like there’s no time when I’m not meditating. There’s an inner peace.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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