Today is Thanksgiving in Canada–so it feels like a good day to be thankful for the silence of the Canadian forest.
The Sound of No Hands Clapping. (by Paul Harris)
I’m sitting in a little cabin on Gavin Lake, a small lake in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.
Here is no telephone, no TV, no radio, no Internet. It’s 7:00 a.m., a grey dawn breaking. One window faces the lake, which has the typical early morning mirrored surface before the day’s breezes arise. Pine and spruce surround the lake, with a sprinkling of aspen and cottonwood, yellow in their fall colors. Mist rises from the lake.
I can hear the fridge working, and the crackle of a cedar log in the wood stove. I step out on the porch, and all is silence. Or as close to silence as you can get. I hear the splash of a trout jumping for its morning meal, the odd bird in the distance. The silence is deafening, and beautiful.
I eat my breakfast in silence; drink my morning coﬀee in silence. I’m not used to this. I’ve been to meditation retreats in the past where silence was enforced for the ﬁrst part of the day. We’re such chattering animals that it really seemed weird, and a bit wonderful, to sit with maybe 30 others, the only sounds those of cutlery rattling, chewing, and the odd cough.
This is a diﬀerent kind of silence, as there’s no one here to chatter to other than myself, no one’s silence but my own. At home I normally have the radio on in the morning, CBC, and though the CBC is not a bad station, the contrast with no radio, no one blaring the weather, news, and sports at me, I wonder now why I do it. Perhaps when I get home I’ll try not doing it. I don’t need that stuﬀ. Weather maybe, if I’m travelling. I’m not particularly interested in sports, and the news, well, maybe reading a couple of newspapers, browsing a few web sites, once a week or so will suﬃce, if I think I can’t live without news. I believe that if World War III starts, I’ll hear about it anyway, somehow or other.
It’s hard to write about silence without being corny. I’m no Thoreau.
Nature is mostly silent, though we rarely hear that silence, as even when we stop to appreciate it, our chattering mouths and chattering minds take over if we’re in the company of others. In most cases, neither predator nor prey wishes to announce its presence by making noise. There are occasional noises, birds chirping, a wolf howling, and I myself believe that if a tree falls in the forest it does make a noise, regardless of whether or not there’s a human to hear it. Believing that a human being has to be there to hear it, or there is no noise, is very human-centric. Noise is vibration. Other trees feel the noise, animals and birds hear it. It doesn’t take a human to be present. If a tree falls in the vacuum of outer space, there is no noise. Otherwise, there is noise.
When I speak of silence, I speak of relative silence. The forest can be completely silent, but the trees can sometimes be talkative. A good example, familiar to anyone who knows the boreal and northern forest, is the Trembling Aspen, Populus tremuloides. These pleasant white-barked small trees have leaf stems that are ﬂattened rather than round, and thus each leaf ﬂutters in even a small breeze. In the fall, when the leaves become dry, the rustling in a gentle breeze or wind is a pleasant background accompaniment.
Naturally, some noises are present depending on location, such as waves on a seashore, a running brook or river. But mainly, nature is silent, or at least, very quiet.
We’ve evolved a society where noise is almost an imperative. Many cannot even walk along the street for a short while without playing music into their ears. These people do not even hear the natural noises of the city. I believe that in some ways our addiction to noise is making us insane. Just like addiction to alcohol or drugs, some may have an addictive personality regarding noise, and just like addiction to alcohol or drugs, the more noise one consumes, the more it may render it harder to practice silence now and again.
I love music. I’ve both played it and listened to it a lot. The human development of complex music, which ever evolves, is a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t wish to live in a world without music. Our music in the western world grows increasingly complex. When the dominant 7th chord was ﬁrst played in an orchestral piece in baroque times, the audience perceived it as discordant. We now take 7th chords and far more discordant chords for granted. However, the counterpoint of music is silence. Like yin and yang, one cannot exist without the other. With all due respect to Stevie Ray Vaughn, some of the most excellent blues musicians play slow, uncomplicated blues. It’s far harder to make slow blues sound good than rapid-ﬁre notes one after the other. Jazz musicians know about the silence between the notes, and playing oﬀ the beat.
I don’t have any great conclusions to draw from this, or any advice for anyone, except that perhaps consciously indulging in a “noise fast” occasionally might be a very beneﬁcial thing. One day a week, or perhaps even one morning a week, might calm the mind and raise the spirit.
Gavin Lake, BC, October 2015