I visited one of my favorite blogs last night, written by another photographer whose photography and writing I admire, Guy Tal. Guy's blog is always worth a visit. His commentary often reflects many of my own thoughts and today I will focus on a particular aspect of his recent post that caught my attention: silence.
How often do we experience true silence, at least in the respect of the absence of man made sound? I would venture that this happens very, very rarely for most. In fact, I have observed that most people become distinctly uncomfortable in the absence of some kind of man made background noise. Do you leave the television on even when you are not watching it? Do you have to at least have the radio playing, even when driving? This seems to be the normal state of affairs for most. Humans are deeply social creatures and the presence of some form of man made noise seems to offer a form of comfort for many.
Another aspect of this is the constant din of more subtle man made sounds that pervade our lives, mostly unawares. As I write these words, I am sitting on my deck this Sunday morning, enjoying a light breeze as I finish my second cup of coffee, listening to a woodpecker announce his presence in one of our wild cherry trees and the wind chimes occasionally doling out a deep, mellow note. The cicadas are starting to send out their insistent love calls, a sure sign of another hot July afternoon in the offing. This idyllic moment has an underlying current, however. I can hear the distant roar of a powerboat on the Great South Bay, an alarm activating at a neighbors house as they start their car, the low, steady thrum of many wheels speeding along the Sunrise Highway, a brief burst of a siren and finally, the horn and low rumble of a passing train. These sounds fill a space that is so constantly present that most of us don't even realize it is there – until it isn't.
One of the great gifts of a back country trek is the absence of these constant, man induced sounds. This is especially so during a solo journey, when I've gone whole days without seeing or speaking to another person. I have observed three distinct reactions to persons who venture out to these 'silent' places. Some do not notice. They remain busy enough with the details of their respective activities that they miss the change. Others become distinctly unnerved by the silence. They must have a radio or something, anything, filling up that empty space. These people will never be at ease out of a man made environment. The third reaction is one of blessed relief – as if an invisible weight has been lifted. As you may have guessed, I am very definitely in the latter group. I will actually start to stress out in a major way if I can't get away from the constant, underlying din occasionally, even if just for a few moments.
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Fortunately, while my backcountry time has been much reduced lately, there are other options. The best one exists as much as a factor of timing as location: the predawn. The simple fact that most people are sound asleep at this early hour reduces the activities that generate much of the noise. Add to that a little bit of distance and silent bliss can result. The best, easily accessible local place for this is Fire Island. A short fifteen minute drive followed by a mile or so of walking and one can find themselves in a silent reverie. Here, the 'noise' consists only of crashing waves and wind, and depending on the weather, sometimes even those sounds are absent. The only other entry might be the occasional cry of a gull.
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Here, at last, the hidden distractions can melt away and the mind can relax, availing itself to the more subtle presence of the natural world. Sitting for a little while alone on a bit of driftwood watching the slowly brightening glow of the eastern horizon, there is something that breathes life deeply back within. Everything seems to open up. I feel the dampness of the sand beneath my feet, smell the brine of the ocean with its complex mix of life and death where land meets sea. The mind and the senses can once again reach out. The result is a renewed connection with the ground beneath my feet, the air that I breathe, the expanse of the sky above, an all too brief respite from the din that drives the real world away.