Shh

A few years ago we moved into our current house, in a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by wooded hills dotted with houses. In those first days, when Alex woke me up as usual for her morning walk around 6am, I was amazed and delighted to hear a dramatic dawn chorus of neighborhood songbirds. It was like nothing I’d ever heard, loud and irresistibly cheerful. At 6am you wouldn’t expect to hear much else, and yet the chorus competed with another sound. At first I guessed it must be a neighbor three or four blocks away testing a jet engine mounted on a rig in their backyard. At 6am. Soon I came to recognize it as the unceasing whoosh of combustion engines, rolling rubber, and steel slicing through air: the freeway, more than half a mile away. That sound is omnipresent on the otherwise sleepy residential street in front of my house. Perhaps the hills-on-three-sides shape of the neighborhood acts as a waveguide, channeling the noise and making it more prominent than it ought to be. In any event, having once noticed it, I now cannot escape it. About the only time it’s really quiet seems to be around 3:30am on Sunday mornings. (Alex is old and her schedule is less regular than it once was.)

My life has always been noisy. I grew up in an apartment in Queens right under an approach route for LaGuardia Airport. Most days of the week I spend two or more hours commuting in a poorly soundproofed economy car. And of course I am almost continuously sitting at high-powered computers and the constant drone of their cooling fans.

One day I decided to try to find a quiet spot. A really quiet spot, where I could hear no trucks rumbling by, no gas station air compressors, no high school football team; no crashing surf or gurgling brook; preferably not even any wind, or the rush of my own blood in my ears (as when they’re underwater or stuffed with earplugs). I didn’t want to not hear anything; I wanted to hear nothing. I wanted to listen to silence. Obviously no place in or near the Bay Area would suffice, so I located Pine Mountain Lake airport on the San Francisco sectional chart. Of all the places within easy flying distance, Pine Mountain Lake appeared to be the most remote and the most likely to be quiet (once I shut down the Cessna’s engine). My friend Steve came along for the trip. We crammed our bikes into the back of the plane just in case we had to put a little distance between us and the airport in order to find silence. But even on the mountainous roads of Pine Mountain Lake, the whoosh of cars and clatter of trucks are inescapable.

If I were more intrepid and more persistent in this quest I’m sure I would eventually have found something to satisfy me — in the desert, perhaps, or out on a calm sea. But this goal languishes way, way down my priority list. I was glad to see recently that others are more dedicated to the cause, and have been more successful, to wit: One Square Inch of Silence.

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