Andersen: Seeking the sounds of silence
Breaking trail last week on a backcountry ski tour was like skiing on feathers. The snow was light and airy, and the powder turns we had from a gently sloping ridge of Mount Sopris were aesthetically blissful. The snow parted for our skis with a faint hush as we swooped through gentle glades and arced curlicues down open meadows.
Afterward we stopped in the woods and listened, holding our breath to still ourselves. There was no sound other than the faint shush of snow drifting through the evergreens. Our ears were ringing with the quiet, and we smiled at each other with a knowing appreciation for an experience that is becoming all too rare.
Noise is driving this culture mad. Our collective mood is defined by the constant drone of highways, airplanes, cellphones, iPods, radios, TV and chatter. Take a moment to consider the last time you sought silence. Most of us never do.
My son Tait has just returned from an extended rockclimbing trip in Europe, where he gathered materials for an independent study for Prescott College in Arizona. The paper wrote itself as Tait realized how noisy the world has become. His search for silence in Europe proved a huge challenge that reminded him of growing up with an inner peace allowed by a quiet environment.
“Silence played a huge role in my childhood,” he wrote. “When the school bus dropped me off at the bottom of my half-mile driveway the only sounds I heard on the walk home were a faint gurgling of the river below, my feet crunching on the gravel road and the bus accelerating up the valley. Even in the middle of the day all I could hear was the river and an occasional bird call. It gave me freedom to think of anything, to act however I chose and, by doing so, to explore myself and grow.
“I’ve been on the hunt for it since coming to Europe and I’ve found it, albeit rarely. But the places where I’ve experienced it are locked in my memory as places of solace, places of rejuvenation, places of deep reflection.”
These are not the typical musings of a 20-year-old American male. Tait is a child of the Southwest, a region where silence profoundly defines a sense of place on which he was nurtured. Seeking places in Europe that had the same silent quality proved a daunting task that also became an invitation to adventure.
“My journey began in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland where the mountains showed such ruggedness that I was sure to find silence among them. However, I quickly realized that, although they were rugged, they lacked remoteness. Railroads, trams and helicopters allow easy access to most areas, and with them came the noise of humans.”
It was only near a thundering waterfall that human sounds were purged. On Elba Island the roar of the sea drowned out human noise.
“Sitting by the Mediterranean that day I completely relaxed for the first time since arriving in Europe,” he reflected.
Tait cited the rule of the Benedictine monks — “To be silent and listen” — as the essence of self. In search of it he visited the Duomo, a magnificent domed church in Florence. Instead of silence he found a chorus of whispers from other tourists that dimmed the mood of that sacred place.
Tait discovered that leaders of the major religions were inspired by silent contemplation. Today, only specialized retreats offer silence as a therapeutic experience.
“The pursuit of silence,” he wrote, “was nothing less than the foundational act of the universe. ‘Silence,’” he quotes a monk, “‘is for bumping into yourself.’”
Today, noise prohibits that sense of self-discovery. Silence is more elusive than ever. What Tait discovered is that silence always has been an essential ingredient to his life.
“The discoveries I’ve made have been mind opening and calming,” he wrote of his quest. “They give me added enthusiasm for protecting this silence that has played a crucial role in forming who I am so that it may continue to shape me and contribute to generations to come.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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