In Pursuit of Silence

Mt. Tsurugi, Island of Shikoku, Japan
Mt. Tsurugi, Island of Shikoku, Japan


Experts say that 45,000 fatal heart attacks per year may be attributable to noise-related cardiovascular strain. George Prochnik, In Pursuit of Silence

 Full-throated motorcycles, growling, revving; blum, blum, blum, blum, ricochets of boom, boom, boom; vroooom, aggressively charging into the night, roaring to top speed; every sultry August night in Antibes on Boulevard Maréchal Juin, the road alongside our hotel (advertised as “on the beach”), second floor “water view,” three nights, pre-paid, 1984, reverberating to this day as the noisiest place we’ve ever been.

A few years before that holiday, the US Surgeon General said that calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise pollution has tripled since those sleepless nights in Antibe. The World Health Organization (WHO) rates noise as the third-most hazardous pollution, after air and water. In Canada, jurisdiction over noise is distributed among municipal, provincial and federal authorities and government departments such as health, environment and labour—as a result, there’s no coherent plan to address it. With the coronavirus mutating mutely around the world comes an amplified awareness of noise, and its converse—silence.

Writing this post made us realize how the pursuit of silence sways to our proclivity for travelling to quietness: countries less visited, cities less boisterous, hiking trails less travelled, restaurants less loud…places like this from Rolf Jacobsen’s poem “The Silence That Follows:”

The silence that lives in the grass
on the underside of each blade
and in the blue space between the stones.

“Empty vessels make the most noise,” mom used to say when us kids became rambunctious during the long, prairie winters in rural Saskatchewan. She also had a variation on “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Since childhood, the echo of a distant train the only sound to intrude upon the dark night, silence has held a spell over me. (Not in being silent but in the beauty of silence.)

The poet Patrick Lane images my daily walk on the country road for grades one to four at North Invergordon School.

The geese on the skyline/riding cold wind
the falling of leaves. The yellow plunge of/softness breaking silence.
the cold spear of the wind piercing me
The river drifts us/deeper into silence.

Books on silence, poetry about silence, quotes on silence and travels to silent places (don’t you know it from this blog): a predilection for quiet is in my DNA.

Silence. In his book Longing for Less, Kyle Chayka describes the essence of the word, noting the sibilance of the initial s and the c’s soft ending creating its own susurration that starts and stops with the word “like a breeze that passes through and leaves a contrasting stillness behind, noticeable only after the fact.”

Susan Sontag considered silence a form of speech, “an element in a dialogue.”

“Hadn’t my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?” wondered Yasunari Kawabata.

Aldous Huxley said, “When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music. And if the music should also fail? Well, there was always silence to fall back on. For always, always and everywhere, the rest is silence.”

In the film In Pursuit of silence (based on the book of the same title by George Prochnik), the director Patrick Shen explores the impact of noise on our lives and the increasingly elusive notion of silence. In his meditative documentary, there’s no camera movement. Still images emulate the experience of silence. Even national parks, which we think of as silent, are no longer an acoustic retreat. He shows what they are doing on soundscape research, recording sounds and introducing policies to preserve and restore quiet. The film with the premiere of “4’33,” by the composer John Cage who challenged the world with his seminal silent composition, proclaiming that silence could be, and should be, considered music. But its debut at Woodstock in 1952 was not silent. During the four minutes and thirty-three seconds, there was the accidental sound of wind gusting, raindrops pattering and people coughing, shuffling, sighing, snickering, walking out, booing, laughing.

During a concert in 2017 the musician Frank Ocean wore a T-shirt displaying the words from a tweet by user@avogaydro: WHY BE RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC OR TRANSPHOBIC WHEN U COULD JUST BE QUIET? Available to order, if you dare.

Can we ever experience pure silence?

Absolute silence is a metaphor rather than a literal possibility, as experiments in anechoic chambers have demonstrated.

What harm is caused by the cacophony of cars exacerbated by souped-up boom cars, screaming sirens, the backup beeping of transport trucks, diesel-snorting buses, jet-plane roars (taking off is 120 decibels), blade-slapping helicopters, whistle-blowing wheel-clacking trains, Skytrains (Vancouver’s measured 106 decibels—louder than a pneumatic hammer), wailing fire engines (from eleven feet away 96 decibels a century ago, 123 decibels today), straight-pipe motorcycles, dirt bikes, jet skis (“amplified mosquitoes”), Ski-Doos, creepy “Turkey-in-the Straw” jingling from ice-cream trucks, chugging cruise ships, transport ships and power boats; by jackhammers, drills, chainsaws, power saws, ventilators, compressors, streetsweepers, mowers, leaf-blowers and wind turbines; by cellphones, car alarms, concerts, movie theatres (133.9 decibels), drones and data centres?

The WHO says a sustained noise higher than 85 decibels over eight hours (55 decibels at night) potentially leads to adverse effects on our health. Our adrenal glands pump stress hormones, our blood pressure rises (responding to clatter as low as 33 decibels—slightly louder than a purring cat), our heart rates spike, our digestion slows. We’re more sensitive to mid-frequency sounds—certain voices, squealing brakes, shrieking infants—and perceive these sounds to be louder than they really are.

Experts say your body does not adapt to noise. Large-scale studies show that if the din keeps up—over days, months, years—noise exposure increases your risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and heart attacks, as well as strokes, diabetes, dementia, and depression.

Cities around the world have noise ordinances, as they have since the time of the ancient Greeks. The city of Sybaris introduced the first noise ordinance, banishing blacksmiths, carpenters and other noisy arts—along with roosters—from their city limits in the eighth century BC. Is there a correlation between the origins of meditation and yoga in India, one of the noisiest countries on the planet?

Organizations to reduce noise have formed. ROAR (Residents Opposed to Airport Racket), HORN (Halt Outrageous Railroad Noise), BLAST (Ban Leaf Blowers and Save Our Town), CALM (Clean Alternative Landscaping Methods), HEAVEN (Healthier Environment Through Abatement of Vehicle Emission and Noise), CRASH (County Residents Against Speedway Havoc) and Pipedown (the campaign for freedom from piped music). Personally, I like END (Environmental Noise Directive), the EU’s program that requires cities to develop noise maps every five years and create action plans to tackle the loudest spots. Dr. Hugh Davies, a UBC professor here in Vancouver, recommends that Canada adopt noise mapping. Given that Magellan and I are advocating for our neighbourhood to become a 30 km/hr zone, we’re happy that Dr. Davies also stresses the benefits of better road design and lower speed limits in reducing noise pollution.

“There’s something different here. What is it?” I asked Magellan on our first day in Oslo as we walked the streets near our hotel. Quiet. In its centre, Oslo has phased out on-street parking, banned cars on many avenues and incentivized pedestrian and cycling. It’s the calmest city we’ve ever visited.

Here’s another cool idea, from the 60s from R. Murray Schafer. A Canadian composer who pioneered acoustic ecology, he advocated “soundwalks,” where you tune in and tally the soundscape in your neighbourhood. More effective than ordinances, soundwalks, he says, make people more aware of the noise pollution in their surroundings.

The travel writer Pico Iyer says stillness brings uncertainty. And vice versa. (Perhaps that is why we crave the comfort of background hum.) “It’s great to be speechless,” he assured us in his online three-part series this June. Did you know it takes 25 minutes for our bodies to recover after a phone call? He begins each day with 20 minutes of uninterrupted silence. In getting to know a city, on his first day he spends three hours nighthawking (walking late at night) its streets (often to recover form jetlag) and a few hours afterwards in stillness, using his inner search engine to record his observations. He recommends an “Internet Sabbath” once a week to unjangle yourself from distractions and nurture serenity and fulfilment. The essence of his advice was this:

Take care of the mind and you take care of the world.

Have you found yourself more sonologically aware during COVID?

All over the planet, records from seismic stations show that “high-frequency noise caused by industrial plants, traffic and other activities fell as much as 50% as country after country imposed restrictions that grounded planes, emptied roads and brought down the shutters on shops and businesses.”

At the beginning of COVID in Vancouver, the absolute calm of an early morning walk to our local grocery store was breath-taking, so quiet I could sense a neighbour nodding as we distanced on the sidewalk.

There was less talking.

On Barcelona’s public transport, commuters were urged to be silent to stop the spread of coronavirus. Jose L. Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado who studies disease transmission says, “Every route of viral transmission would go down if we talked less, or talked less loudly, in public spaces.”

Perhaps the most profound silence is found in art. In the spare and luminous paintings of Agnes Martin. In the intimate still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. (I’m talking about stillness, the hush/Of a porcelain center bowl, a tear vase, a jug.) In the somber emotions of introspection and isolation of Edward Hopper. In the fog haunting the sea in a Turner canvas “composed almost completely of silence,/because it’s there, the oldest art,/and that’s what Turner painted, silence.”

Let us end with the wisdom of the poets. “Quiet as the skin on a custard,” Sharon Thesen Oyama. “Pink Shade”“As always, silence will have the last word.” Charles Wright. “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” Alfred Brendel. And Jane Hirshfield. Here is her poem, “My Silence.”


Bosker, Bianca. “Why Everything is Getting Louder.” The Atlantic. November 2019.

Chayka, Kyle. The Longing for Less. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Chen, Joanne. “How to Block Out the Sounds of Summer.” The New York Times. July 25, 2021. Timely—published today!

Livermore, Sharon. “Ocean noise quiets during the COVID-19 pandemic.“  IFAW. December 28, 2020.

Prochnik, George. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

MacDonald, Gayle. “The Quest for Quiet.” The Globe & Mail. January 25, 2020.

UPDATE January 2022: Maitland, Sara. A Book of Silence. London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Manning, Maurice. “Turner.” The New Yorker. February 15 & 22, 2021.  You can read the entire poem and hear it read by the author here.

Op-Ed. “Why the silence on all that noise?” The Globe and Mail, July 20, 2021.

Right to Quiet

Whyte, David. “Waking Up: David Whyte on the Power of Poetry and Silence as Portal to /2021/04/30/david-

Zeidler, Sarah. “Good vibrations: Waking up to noise pollution’s threats, Canada’s cities and transit agencies look for a better way. The Globe & Mail. December 3, 2018.

10 Responses

  1. My hyperacusis is much increased the last year and a bit. I’m going to review this essay over time as a way to think about the seeking of peace and quiet. Thank you.

  2. What an excellent, informative and thought provoking essay Gloria; wow.
    I am intrigued by our experiences in life through the sense of hearing..

    I think Sheryl and I stayed in that same room in Antibes. At the time I was so “impressed” by the experience that I wrote a piece on it. “Antibes has more Harleys on Beach Road than on Main Street Nanaimo” won me the wrath of one of my island cousins…

    Eight hour days in the field in an open tractor from twelve years old = significant hearing loss (right ear mostly from watching the ‘one-way’ over my left shoulder thereby aiming my right ear at the “muffler”. (?); ) plus fairly severe tinnitus..for which any help is restricted to psychological interference as far as I know. You don’t know the real value of a sense until you lose, even some of it..

    We always wanted a fountain in our gardens; mostly for the anticipated soothing “white noise” and resulting “peacefulness”. Last summer they were on sale at our favourite plant nursery, ‘Arts’ in Langley..We bought TWO.. one bubbler / gurgler for out in the flower beds and one wall mounted pisser beside the back door . The installation of the wall-mounted one gave me a significant hernia at one of the robotic surgery incisions , for which I have additional repair surgery pending! The ‘peace inducing splashing sounds’ have turned out to be anything but..Whenever they are “on” I automatically think it must be raining outside AGAIN… not peace inducing for prairie bred lower mainlanders…You have to be careful what you wish for..

    One man’s music can be another man’s noise..
    Peace is where you find it..


  3. Late to reply, my apologies but then maybe it’s understandable.
    Love your moms words of wisdom 👍👍

    From the Tremeloes (Silence is Golden)

    “The sound of One Hand Clapping”. A vision to behold.

    My favourite is that “Learning in much improved through Listening” this is from too many meetings.

    Daily my ears remind me of past indulgences, tinnitus is a constant companion now, years of mechanical repair, pneumatic tools, roaring engines from Dyno Testing engines for hours at a time. Then we have Drag Racing, music and then target shooting all adds to the toll.
    My tardiness in reply, is due to attending a course to acquire a RPAL license from the government, this allows me to obtain and use firearm pistols in Canada.
    Obviously I have not had enough and need to fill that void, now with ear plugs and topped with ear muffs.
    Please remember to protect your hearing, once damaged, it is gone and does not come back, ever. Very important to teach those younger than us, about this fact.

    “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound”

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