Deep in the barren Sonora Desert of Southwestern U.S, three days away from the last person I saw, I was hiking alone, in search of quiet. The desert has always been the one place that spiritual seekers, saints, and sinners have gone in search of quiet.
Sonoran Desert, Prima, Arizona. Photo by Ken Bosma via Flickr CCLExcept that, in reality, the desert was not quiet. Its incessant winds whistled by my ears and rumbled up through my feet. Dead and dying grasses tumbled and rolled by. Snakes slithered, lizards clicked, and hares scurried across the sand. The winds sang beneath the wings of hovering vultures and under the claws of lingering thoughts.
There, hiking alone through the desert, reveling in my own silence, late in the afternoon on a tranquil summer’s day, I suddenly came upon a rattlesnake, which startled me with its rattle, louder than any rock concert I had ever been to. I stopped, the snake did not strike, we stared at each other, and then we both quietly went our separate ways.
Sound and silence can come in unanticipated places and at unpredictable times.
On the night of September 11, 2001, I was living just north of San Francisco, 3000 miles from the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. I remember being outside on that clear evening and looking up at the sky and, for the first time in my life, the sky was quiet. The U.S. had grounded all air traffic: there were no moving white dots, no airplanes overhead, and no frequent roar of airplane engines. I remember how eerily quiet that night was.
Where I live now in a far-off province in Northern Luzon in the Philippines, I am below no airline flight paths. About once a month, at about one in the morning, if I’m outside and I’m looking up, I will see one small white dot going north to Taiwan or Japan or Korea, and, for less than minute, I will hear the distant sound of an airplane engine.
Recently, I visited remote Coron Island, north of Palawan in the Philippines. Coron is a limestone rock island, isolated and beautifully lush. Jutting out of the ocean, accessible only by boat, it has only a few small fishing communities, lots of fish, but almost no beaches. Most significantly, it has no fresh water, and thus, it has few people and few animals. It is the only place I have ever been in the Philippines that doesn’t have chickens, and therefore no sound of chickens cackling and cawing. It is a remarkably refreshing place because sometimes we get so used to a sound that we fail to notice it, until it’s not there.
Coron Island, Philippines. Photo by Wim Hertog via Flickr CCL
Sound is an interesting sense, one we too often take for granted and don’t notice. Who would think of traveling blindfolded, and yet how many people travel while wearing headphones?
High up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, at almost 12,000 feet, is Kearsarge Pass, where the hot, dry air of the desert to the east rises to meet the cool, clean air of the mountains to the west. The winds blow constantly and clearly. There, at the top of Kearsarge Pass, I met a young man with headphones and an IPod, listening to blasting music. With modern technology, we can bring our own sounds with us wherever we are. Hours from the trailhead, miles from civilization, at one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, he was listening to recorded sounds instead of to the mind-cleansing sounds of the high Sierra winds.
It is so hard to find quiet in our world.
Mountaintops are often thought to be quiet, but they are loudly windy, especially where there is also the sound of your own heart beating, your muscles crying, and your own labored breathing.
Mountain streams are surprising noisy, with fast-flowing water roaring over rocks, into waterfalls and rapids, into pools of fish, with kingfishers chattering and swooping up and down the stream. Farther downstream, wide, slow-moving rivers, especially on hot, cloudless, lazy, summer days can be almost quiet.
Swamps and wetlands can be quiet too, if you ignore the buzzing of the flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, the whirring of the cicadas, the chirping of the crickets, and the flocks of cackling blackbirds by day, and the packs of echoing bats by night.
Beside a small, shallow pond where I lived in Northern California, the toads and frogs were so loud at dusk and dawn, I could not hear my own telephone conversations, and sometimes, not even my own thoughts.
A boat, whether sail or power, whether wood or fiberglass, still creaks and moans, and waves splash continuously against it.
An ocean, even on a deserted beach at low tide, is not quiet.
I am told that snorkeling and scuba diving underwater provides as near a quiet experience as there is, if only I wasn’t so loudly worried about drowning.
Perhaps the Arctic or the Antarctic in winter would be quiet, but, for me, my mind and my body would be constantly screaming, “I’m freeeezing!”
A Redwood forest shrouded in fog in winter is the quietest place I’ve ever been. And yet, with blue jays cawing, squirrels scampering, and water dripping off leaves, it’s still not quiet.
In comparison to its surroundings, an inner-city park can seem amazingly quiet.
Perhaps the hardest sound to escape is that voice inside my own head. The voice saying the things I’m doing, or will be doing, or want to be doing, or should be doing. Or what I should have said, those nagging regrets of omission and commission, in conversations or arguments. Sadly, one of the quietest places in the world can be any place after an argument between friends or family. Sometimes, being with someone can be more silent than being alone.
Old deaf Beethoven, who knew quiet, often said that he didn’t miss the sound of his own music (he knew what his music sounded like); what he missed most was the unpredictable, random, surprising sounds of nature.
It’s been said that even in the most perfect silence, there will still be the sound of ants walking, plants growing, and flowers blooming. Movement creates sound; silence needs stillness.
Being a modern go-getter, an often hard-driven type A- or B+ personality, I may get bored with too much quiet. Still, I will continue to search for that place of profound silence, of supreme quiet.
I will keep listening . . .
B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and an improving photographer. He lives and works in the Philippines, and travels and explores throughout Southeast Asia. B.J. served in the U.S. Peace Corps, and taught English and writing in high schools and universities in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. He teaches English and writing, and is available for writing and teaching positions. Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.