Silent Nights

Is Silence An Acquired Taste?

Dave Anderson | February 14, 2012

As snow descends, a quiet wintry night approaches. Photo Margaret Liszka.

Have you ever heard silence for a few hours?

The midwinter forest is an excellent place to start

The “Dark Skies” movement was created in opposition to pervasive, creeping nighttime light pollution that obscures constellations in urban areas. But what about noise pollution? To my knowledge, there’s no companion “Silence is Golden” organized campaign against pervasive unnatural sounds.

Each day, we hear background noise every minute. Listen: what do you hear right now? I’ll bet you can hear something. Pristine natural soundscapes are hard to find. We seem unaware of constant artificial background noise in our daily lives… that is, until you experience the utter absence of any sound at all.

The wee hours after midnight – when most people and equipment slumber – are the best time to experience silence. Yet even at home, I hear the hum of my refrigerator, a ticking clock, the whine of an airplane or rumbling truck tires or compression brakes on a lightly traveled highway bisecting a rural village half a mile down the valley.

The sound of absolutely nothing at all – except, perhaps, your heart beating in your ears – is a rare experience. Pure silence is unnerving at first, an acquired taste. Increasingly, I work a little more intentionally to find it. The midwinter woods are an excellent place to begin.

Conserved forestland far from inhabited homes and paved roads provides the best opportunity to find silence. Although chirping crickets are the punch line used to denote the absence of sound, winter silence is even deeper than its summer counterpart. The vast whiteness contributes to the absence of all sounds, even the trickle of water is encased by ice. During a snowfall to further muffle sound, a forest comprised of dense conifers can yield the librarian’s dream: Silence. The sound of softly falling snow is often the only sound at all.

For a more advanced study, try sleeping outdoors during a heavy snowstorm. The silence is akin to being in a cave. I know of a particularly cozy winter campsite provisioned with dry firewood and sheltered place to sleep. It’s a forested hideaway that beckons when heavy snow is in the forecast.

With a hot bed of campfire coals, a sumptuous dinner, and a dry, winter-rated sleeping bag inside a Gore-Tex bivouac sack, I lie stock still by the dying campfire listening to snow fall in a rare natural silence – a quiet almost deeper than imaginable. I will sleep even more deeply.

For those easily bored, spending a night alone in the woods during a snowstorm in dark winter woods may not be for you. But for those occasionally stressed-out and over-stimulated, it’s a nice antidote to the modern condition. After long months of frenetic spring, summer, and fall activities and the festive diversions of the December holidays, my winter den is a near-silent refuge.

Attuned to silence, an unexpected nearby sound – the call of a barred owl, bark of a fox or coyote’s wail – will make hair instantly rise on the back of my neck followed by the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. And with no electromagnetic buzz from a glowing clock or electronic gadgets, including my cellphone and I-pod, I confess to the impulse to talk to myself aloud. But pursuit of silence is the objective, an ancient form of self-discipline practiced by monks and religious ascetics.

By dawn, snow has piled an undrifted 18” deep outside my hidden fortress deep in the woods. By seven o’clock, while perking coffee and cooking breakfast, I note the distant whine of civilization: a snow-blower, rumbling snowplow, or steady drone of a standby electric generator. The comforts of modern living are undeterred by an old fashioned New Hampshire snowstorm. Yet after the rare experience of a comfortable silent night in the woods, I wonder if we’ve all lost the opportunity for introspection found in pure silence that our not-too-distant predecessors knew in these same locales not long ago.