When I was a child of four or five, I suffered through many a sleepless night with chronic earaches. Startled awake by my cries of pain, my parents would rush into the bedroom I shared with my brother and sister to comfort me. Those were the days before on-call pediatricians, emergi-care clinics, and ear tube surgery. When an earache set in, it was usually the dead of night, and always a long and painful ordeal. My father, a three-pack-a-day smoker, would light a cigarette, kneel at my bedside, and after a long, slow drag, slowly blow cigarette smoke into my ear. This wives’ tale remedy likely did nothing to cure my earaches, but eventually, the pain would lessen and I would fall into a fitful sleep.
It’s been 40-odd years since the sleepless nights and my father’s cigarette smoke remedy, and I still have what would be considered sensitive ears. Occasionally, the city noise in nearby Omaha—leaf blowers, car alarms, police sirens—can send a knife-like pain deep into my ear canal, much like (I imagine) the stab of an icepick. Before I moved to the country in search of quiet, my neighbors’ white Lab and I would cower every Fourth of July when the fireworks began, she under her backyard deck, me in my basement, two bitches retreating, wincing from the relentless onslaught of the mind-numbing explosions.
Just like the Lab next door, noise stresses me out, shortens my nerves. Loud restaurants can even provoke panic attacks. The blaring music thought to create a “busy” atmosphere only serves to reverberate inside my head—and mind—so loudly, I’ve sometimes fled noisy restaurants in a hyperventilating panic, escaping to my car where I listen to the radio’s stationless static to calm my anxiety. I keep a Xanax close at hand for such occasions, drugging myself to cope with the noisy surroundings, searching for a sustained quiet, if only a temporary, drug-induced peace.
I eventually escaped the deafening city to the peace of country life. Literally deafening, as studies have shown that the average city dweller has a hearing loss equivalent to 10–20 years older than their actual age. Too often, we go through life medicated to cope with our surroundings—relentlessly trying to quiet the blaring world to a whisper. We raise the volume of our own self-imposed noise, the radio or TV, to drown out other, more jarring noise. I couldn’t count the times the BABOOM-BABOOM-BABOOM of car stereos, so loud my heartbeat alters its rhythm in submission, push me toward the ledge.
There was a time, long before the development of modern technology, before the onset of industrialization, when the only sounds heard outside of cities were from nature—the robin’s whistling song, the lone coyote’s howl, the rustle of wind through trees, the flow of water over rocky creek beds. These are some of the same sounds replayed on our sound machines—electric boxes created to drown out the unnatural world. Scientists have shown that nature’s acoustics can have a profound effect on our physical and emotional well-being, and as injurious as the sounds of technology and industry can be, these sounds from nature can be just as healing. Organic sounds of a running creek, raindrops, and birdsong have been shown to reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, alleviate depressive thoughts, and even decrease pain. Nature’s music soothes the nerves, quiets the mind.
On my own sound machine, the sound of “river” lulls me to sleep. The natural cadences of moving water are a primordial sound embedded deep in our subconscious. Even before birth, though our senses have yet to fully develop inside the womb, a fetus will react to sound. An unborn baby will respond to its mother’s voice, and a baby’s heartbeat can even slow in reaction to soothing sounds. In turn, loud noise outside the womb has been shown to cause hearing loss in gestating infants. The sound-sensitive unborn babies possess a startle response, abruptly moving their limbs in reaction to extreme noise levels. This startle response is innate and crucial to survival, enabling humans to go from deep sleep to quick fight or flight in a matter of seconds. Today, however, this noise-stress response has become knee-jerk with the everyday sounds of thumping stereos, truck engines, car horns, airplanes, sounds impossible to block out, impossible to simply ignore. Even everyday noises we are so accustomed to—the clothes dryer, vacuum, or garbage disposal—can cause many people, as they do me, great anxiety. As we subject ourselves to these unrelenting, repetitive, mind-numbing noises, we are exhausting our senses, wearing nerves raw, literally fracturing our own ecosystems.
I can still recall visiting my uncle Murphy when I was a child, my family of six crowded into his one-bedroom cottage in rural Arkansas. In the summertime, we slept on cots on the screened-in porch, listening to the chanting whip-poor-will’s song—whip-poor-WILL … whip-poor-WILL … whip-poor-WILL. In the heat of the summer, the sound of the cricket’s chirp lulled me to sleep—my grandmother said she could tell the temperature by the cricket’s chirp—the more frequent the chirp, the hotter the temperature. We were 25 miles from the nearest city and 50 miles from the nearest airport. Every day we would walk to the nearby stream-fed lake, and I would lie upon the rocks under the summer sun, listening to the sounds as the water flowed across the creek bed, down the stream, and over the low dam, falling into a smaller pond of shallow waters below. On our summer visits as we left the city, it would always take a day or two to acclimate to the quiet. It seemed as though my body was existing in a kind of heightened sensory mode in order to function in the city environment, and when dropped in the country three hours later, the change to the meandering pace and muted acoustics was too abrupt for my senses to adjust. My body’s rhythms—heartbeat, brainwaves, nervous system—were functioning in the anxious pace of the city, and the drive to the country was faster than my senses could accommodate. I needed a chance to slow, to reset. After a few days of acclimating to the hushed sounds of nature, a mix of relief and tranquility enveloped me in calm.
My heightened state of anxiety in the city was no anomaly. Research is showing that living in cities increases one’s risk of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Much of this research considers cognitive load; the brain can only handle so much stimulation before functioning is weakened. While incorporating greenspaces and adding parks and other “natural” environs into a city can help, the relentless noise follows us wherever we go, and too often, it’s of our own doing. Nature’s muted sounds are what we yearn for as we flee the city for the nearest park or campground. We pile our kids and dogs into RVs to set off for the wilderness, just to get away from the chaotic noise of the city, if only for a weekend. But if you were to visit any campground across the country, you will find that those yearning for a bit of peace in the country have taken along their iPads, Xboxes, Nintendo games, MP3 players, boom boxes, motorized scooters, four-wheelers, and even their dish satellites (placed at the fore or aft of the camper for optimal reception). The very quiet so many of us seek in nature has become impossible to find.
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to “conserve the scenery,” but not until well over 80 years later did the Park Service become concerned with preserving nature’s auditory environment. Unfortunately, little progress has been made. We have been so focused on preserving the visual attributes of nature that little time or attention has been paid to the importance—the necessity—of preserving nature’s acoustics. Though government laws reflect that “nature’s quiet” is a protected park resource, we continue to destroy it by taking our noise with us. The very things we are running from have become such a part of our existence, it seems we are incapable of turning them down or off. The Noise Control Act of 1972 was created to regulate noise pollution from loud aircraft, industry, and motor vehicles, but shouldn’t we also question the persistent beep-beep-beep of video games or the unceasing chirping of cell phones? We have become accustomed to racket, as my grandmother called it. These manufactured, these antinature sounds, have become a drug, the addicting effects just as real as heroin or meth, and what it does to our bodies and our minds, just as destructive.
Unfortunately, we are not only hurting ourselves with our self-induced noise, we are harming the larger ecosystem. Soundscape ecology is an emerging field concerned with the impact human-produced noise can have in natural environments, our noise footprint. Biologists are finding even our country’s protected areas are at risk. Researchers at Colorado State University found that human noises at least double the background sound levels at most protected areas across the country. As human activity in a landscape increases, the natural rhythms of wildlife’s sounds decrease, are even lost, replaced by human-produced noise. This noise pollution can frighten, confuse, and even harm animals, setting off a slippery slope of changes through the entire ecosystem. Robins shift the timing of their singing in urban environments to the night when it’s less noisy. If human noise scares away birds or other pollinators, plants will have difficulty reproducing. Seeds normally scattered by birds will remain untouched, and seed-eating rodents will increase. Biologists believe noise can also affect an animal’s physiology, raising heartrates and inducing stress. Wildlife behavior, such as breeding and predator-prey relationships, have been shown to be affected by noise.
Animals communicate by sound: the bluebird’s low-pitched mating song; the woodpecker’s drumming to attract a mate; the elk’s thunderous bugling for his herd; the raccoon’s stuttering chirps to find his siblings. Diurnal birds like hawks and eagles use their hearing to locate prey, and owls locate prey in the dark only by their sound. Loud man-made noises drown out wildlife’s voice, and the result could have devastating evolutionary consequences. Females may not hear a male’s mating call, so their pool of mates is reduced. Bats, which rely on echolocation, lose their ability to locate food in areas of sound interference. Noise could affect the way a bird song travels; the female could interpret this distorted vocalization as low quality and refuse the male’s song. The hushed wingbeats of a female mosquito that act as a mating call may not be heard by a male. All of these scenarios will result in reproductive losses; bird diversity and abundance is already declining around major (i.e., noisy) cities.
As sciences go, soundscape ecology is still in its infancy, but ecologists are raising important questions about public policies needed to better protect soundscapes in various settings, including national parks and even urban neighborhoods. There is no doubt, however, that the noise from human activity, loud and abrupt, as well as low and constant, is causing permanent damage to wildlife habitat. In essence, man-made noise is driving wildlife from their homes and, some believe, some species toward eventual extinction. Before her passing, my mother lived on the same patch of Arkansas land of my uncle, but the whip-poor-wills’ song had long since vanished.
Across the plains where I live in the Midwest, a new source of noise pollution is rising from the wind-swept fields. Wind turbines, an environmental darling, have begun to populate the undeveloped landscape with increasing regularity and growing numbers. These turbines crowd into open patches of rural land, sometimes numbering into the hundreds, invading once silent hills and valleys like futuristic robots marching in whirring time across open prairie. On any given day along any given stretch of interstate highway, you will surely pass a flatbed semitruck transporting the long, white-bladed monoliths bound for the countryside.
As the turbines began to take over our rural landscape, an interesting phenomenon developed: Some people living within a mile or so of the turbines reported feeling anxious and even ill. Some nearby residents complain the giant windmills sound like a helicopter taking off, depending on the weather. Still others complain not of a loud racket, but a low yet relentless hum. The vibrational noise created by the whirling turbines is now believed by some researchers to cause wind turbine syndrome—a condition that can include ear ringing, ear pressure, headaches, nausea, high blood pressure, panic attacks, and other ailments. Even the low-frequency noise of the turbines has been shown to cause feelings of stress and even fear that work to activate the brain’s limbic system, triggering the release of stress hormones. In essence, a person within close proximity to wind turbines is unknowingly being jackhammered by the low-frequency pulsations from turbines that are well within local regulations of setback distances (usually one-and-a-half times the height of turbines) and noise limits (typically under 60 decibels). Acousticians familiar with wind turbines believe the adverse impacts on both mental and physical health are much more pronounced at lower decibel levels than louder, what most would consider “noise.” Still others argue wind turbine syndrome is a psychosomatic illness invented by wind-energy opponents.
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Even though the argument is ongoing over whether the relentless, ever-present vibrational noise from wind turbines can lead to a host of physical and psychological ailments in humans, research has begun to demonstrate a direct link to the impact on wildlife. While the effect on the avian population from collisions is obvious, other not-so-obvious effects are being reported. Some grassland birds are showing habitat avoidance and abandonment near wind turbines, as well as reproductive losses. Mating prairie chickens are abandoning their leks near wind turbines. Greater sage grouse are being displaced, affecting their reproductive success and threatening their long-term survival, leading researchers in some areas to urge a halt to wind-energy development within close proximity to prairie birds’ leks. Other evidence is anecdotal, including die-offs of farm animals, high animal miscarriage rates, and chickens laying soft-shelled eggs within close proximity to large wind farms. It’s known that noise can impact animals’ appetite, growth, and sleep. Even the anecdotal evidence deserves further evidenced-based research, from those with no stake in the outcome. Perhaps one day soundscape ecologists will prove to us what wildlife already knows.
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Now that I live in the semi-quiet country, I forgo my alarm clock and awake to the sounds of the early morning robin’s song—cheerily-cheer up-cheer up, cheerily-cheer-up—outside my bedroom window. She or her offspring have made a nest nearby every spring for the last few years, but this year she must have made her home farther into the woodland trees, buffering her chicks against the echoes of housing development construction in a former cornfield two miles away. Turkeys that once nested nearby and foraged the cornfields and soybean fields have been displaced, wandering what’s left of the open fields. Still, the robin comes each morning to perch outside my window, alighting in the gutter’s elbow, singing me awake with her melodious song. The sound of the robin’s early morning song, even when it’s loud enough to wake me from my sleep, soothes my ears, not unlike my father’s cigarette smoke of long ago.
My small patch of land in the country has, at least for now, the quiet and solitude I seek. But perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the encroaching city steals away my sanity. In the summer nights, I find an open, treeless spot, spread out my blanket, and lay under the million stars and glowing moon I can plainly see with no city lights to pollute the view. The moon itself has no sound, the atmosphere so thin, almost nonexistent, that sound cannot travel—the perfect place, I think. I listen for car horns, sirens, and stereos, but all I can hear is an occasional muffled owl and the calm night breeze as it ruffles the woodland leaves. I hear nothing of the deafening world I have left behind.
I slowly begin to acclimate. Pulse calms. Muscles loosen. As I lay prone under the moon, I sense time passing, though hear no ticking of the clock. Apart from the sounds of nature, all I hear are my own lungs taking in and expelling the pure country air around me. The rhythmic murmurings of the countryside grow hypnotic: the distant scratchy bark of the short-eared owl; a howl from a lone coyote; dry leaves tumbling on the pulse of a breeze; the whispering rustle of dancing prairie grasses. I soon fall into sync with nature’s cadences, rising and falling tempos that lull me into a trance-like half sleep, as I listen to the rhythmic echoing silence of the moon.
From the ebook Healing Springs and Other Stories (affiliate link), a petite collection of nature and travel essays by Elizabeth Mack, excerpted by arrangement with the author.