Traveling into Silence

A journey into two of the quietest places on earth. /

“Silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it.” ― Thomas Merton

“My soul, wait thou in silence for God only; for my expectation is from him.” — Psalm 62:5, ASV

The forest was hushed, but the silence I found wasn’t quite what I expected. I went out on the Hoh River Trail at Olympic National Park looking to find silence. I had been wanting to visit ever since I moved to Washington, and when I read about the One Square Inch project in the local news, I began making plans. The founder, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, claims that a sliver of space in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park is “very possibly the quietest place in the United States,” unmarred by any human noises.

A movement in the last 10 to 15 years has moved soundscapes to the forefront, aiming to protect spaces from human noises such as freeways, industry and airplane flight paths. While we associate national parks with striking visual landscapes, the US National Park Service has a mandate to protect soundscapes as well. According to its management policies: “The Service will restore to the natural condition wherever possible those park soundscapes that have become degraded by unnatural sounds (noise), and will protect natural soundscapes from unacceptable impacts.”

Like most who seek silence, I was hoping to find a natural condition less degraded by noise. While I’ve never audibly heard God’s voice, there are times when it seems he is speaking and times when it seems like he is silent. We associate God’s silence with feeling alone and empty, but as began my hike I thought about the irony that historically, physical silence has been a spiritual discipline for people hoping to hear something from God. What about sitting in silence contributes to spiritual growth? Is it that it is restorative to eliminate the noise that fills so many our urban lives? Or is it the discomfort we feel when silences get a little bit too long, challenging our notions of what it means to “hear from God”?

Noise can describe visual distortion in a photograph, lack of a clear signal, irrelevant data. It also can describe disquieting thoughts. That kind of noise seems much louder in the silence.

So what was it I was looking for? Emptiness? A lack of noise? A lack of sound altogether? There’s more to it than the merely audible.

Before hiking out to Hempton’s quietest square inch, I sought silence of another sort in my own neighborhood. Just down the road, the computer device company Logitech creates and tests audio equipment like speakers and headsets. At the heart of the facility is its anechoic chamber, a room designed to eliminate all acoustic reflections. Acoustic engineer Matt Green told me that Logitech’s chamber reads at zero decibels. It’s nearly the most silent place on earth, though that record technically belongs to Microsoft’s anechoic chamber in Redmond, Washington, which was recorded at -20.35 decibels—almost as quiet as the sound of air molecules in motion at room temperature. Not that we’d be able to hear the difference—zero decibels is, by definition, the limit of human hearing.

Many people who visit anechoic chambers describe the experience as somewhat magical. Chris Watson, a wildlife sound recordist, described his experience: “There was a hissing in my ears and a low pulsing that I can only guess was the sound of my blood circulating.”

Green led me into the chamber through thick four-foot-deep doors. They were lined, like the walls, with foam triangular wedges. When I passed through the door, I understood why it is called a chamber—there was a gap between the building and the walls intended to prevent any vibrations from the main building. I stepped onto the wire mesh floor that absorbed each step like a taut trampoline, surprised that I could see through the floor down into more cushy wedges.

After he explained the specs of the room, he left me alone to feel the magic. As a sat in silence, I strained to see if I could hear my heartbeat. No luck. I could hear what almost sounded like blood moving through my veins—or was it? I listened to every slow breath I took. The loudest thing in the room was my own ears faintly ringing, as if attempting to pick up some frequency when there was none discernable. Tinnitis, I reckoned.

The silence felt like it was pressing in, which doesn’t make sense, really. The absence of sound waves reaching my ear should feel empty, unburdened, right? An absence of pressure on the cochlea. Nevertheless, the silence was heavy.

A strange reverence washed over me. The technology was impressive, but it didn’t make sense that I should feel so in awe. But I was. I didn’t just think it was cool. I felt it. If I swayed slightly, I could feel my head spin just ever so slightly. When in conversation, the sound stopped short of the mouth.

In retrospect, I suppose the magic is actually the human ear—until you lack something that is commonplace (sound), you forget what is actually amazing about it.

The absence of something certainly didn’t feel like nothing. In fact, it made me more aware of what was there. Most notably, myself.

In the arts, silences are used to force contemplation or add dramatic tension. Sometimes that tension never resolves, as in American composer John Cage’s famous 4’33”. In the piece, the musicians take the stage and sit at their instrument without playing a single note for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. While the audience may feel cheated out of hearing a song, they inadvertently contribute ambient noise in the form of whispers and other movements that make up the bulk of the piece. (Cage wrote the piece after visiting an anechoic chamber, awed that the sounds of his own body were audible in such a silent space.)

But it’s not only experimental classical music that makes great use of silence. “Great rock and roll pauses” are at the center of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, where one of the main characters becomes obsessed with the silent moments in “Bernadette” by the Four Tops, Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady,” “Young Americans” by David Bowie, and other songs.

Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, writes in This Is Your Brain on Music: “One way of flouting expectation is to add unexpected silences, even very brief ones. The brain seems to find pleasure in adjusting itself to remain synchronized with the musical beat.”

Sometimes the tension of silence is resolved dramatically. I contemplated the 400 years of silence in the Bible—the period when God seemingly stopped speaking through prophets, ended when the Word became flesh.

Expectation punctuated by silence.

The silences I heard in the Hoh Rainforest were like pauses between beats. The beats were sometimes natural, but often human noises, as well. I was a little let down by the hype of Hempton’s “sanctuary for silence.”

According to the National Park Service’s Soundscape and Night Sky Division, it’s not even the quietest place in the park system. For that, I’d have to travel to Maui’s Haleakala Crater, which can reach as quiet as 10 decibels.

Bill Rohde, a park volunteer and former district ranger at the visitor center, scoffed when I asked about the trail to the One Square Inch location. “There’s 1,500 square miles of silence in this park,” he said. Sure, there are other hikers, but find a less-traveled trail, hike further in, or just enjoy the quiet moments you have alone on the path before another hiker comes along, he advised. There is some jet noise from the US military training, too, but it’s not constant.

Rohde wasn’t too concerned about either the jet noise or the crowds. It’s not so busy as to be unenjoyable, he promised. Silence is there if you’re looking for it.

Feeling a little disillusioned, I entered the trail with my family and was immediately reminded that nature is not always nice. The trail’s natural sounds were not all restorative and transcending. It was yellow jacket season and the first half mile of the Upper Hoh Trail featured their low hum, which rose to a persistent buzz as the insects caught scent and circled around us, hanging onto our packs, tickling our clothes, dancing around our ears. When I wanted to stop to take in a view, the wasps kept me walking at a brisk pace, my senses highly alert to their presence and potential for sting.

The trees in the rainforest, though, are like none I’ve ever seen before—my Portland-area eyes are accustomed to younger forests. Seemingly enchanted with wildness and life in every crevice, the forest spoke of an era before logging.

One of the largest temperate rainforests in the US, the Hoh Rainforest receives 12 to 14 feet of rain each year. Trees reach toward the heavens that the feed them, covering almost every inch of open sky. At one point, I realized that I could feel a light mist—a foggy, wetness hung in the air—but only a handful of droplets pierced through the tree canopy to meet my skin.

While tall and noble, trees in the rainforest have shallow roots, not needing to grow deep to soak up readily available water. Winter storms topple them easily. Adorned in moss on every inch, some fallen trees melted into forest carpet. These “nurse logs,” the decaying of which is hastened by moss, provide fertile ground for seedlings.

I wondered if the sound was absorbed into the cushy, verdant layers of plant life much like sound disappeared into the foam walls of the anechoic chamber. I could see why Hempton had singled out this place. I hadn’t thought it would be so, but this was much quieter than the wide open sky and dusty buttes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota near my childhood home. T.R. National Park is a less visited site with certainly less human noise on the trail, and yet the night soundscape is filled with croaking, chirping, and buzzing; unseen life shuffling through the silver sage and juniper bushes, cottonwood trees rustling in the wind, maybe even the eerie howling of coyotes.

The Hoh wasn’t complete silence, of course. It was dramatically unlike the stark anechoic chamber. But it seemed that sound only happened if it was near you. Birds chirped, joining the buzz of the yellow jackets and insect staccatos. An occasional leaf fluttered. We were hiking quite near the river, and I couldn’t even hear it until the trees thinned and the trail drew right next to it. And, sure, the parks volunteer was right. People marched by, nodding hello, but then all would go more or less quiet save for a few birds and the thud of my sneakers against the trail.

Ironically, the loudest thing in my search for silence was me. It was so in the silent chamber, too. My breath—the one thing separating me from complete silence. Somehow it became clear to me that, yes, I was there in the silences, but so was God. His breath was there, as loud as my breath, his work as near as perceptible as my loud footfalls trudging forward on the trail.

Is it that God stops speaking or that we forget to hear the silences for what they are: dramatic pauses in a grand story by a sovereign and very much present storyteller?

In the moment of a pause, the brain still fires neurons. Neurologist David Kraemer has found that when a person is listening to a familiar song, which suddenly stops, his brain’s auditory cortex remains active. Kraemer explained in Nautilus: “What you’re ‘hearing’ is not being generated by the outside world. … You’re retrieving a memory.”

So, then, could the spiritual discipline of silence help remind us what notes come next in the song? When it seems like God is silent, if we already know the song, we imagine and expect what comes next “finding pleasure in adjusting … to remain synchronized with the musical beat.”

As I sat in relative silence, I adjusted my expectation of God’s voice. I am reminded that even his silence is his part of his speaking. My breath is part of his breathing, part of his song. As I looked out at the Hoh River, I listened as his voice rang out in buzzing yellow jackets, warbling birds, spruce seedlings sprouting from decaying logs, fog rolling into the forest bringing water and life—all of this is evidence that he is most certainly with us and also loudly speaking in the quietest places.

Rebecca Randall is science editor for The Behemoth and Christianity Today.

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Issue 55 / August 18, 2016
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