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People & Culture

What does silence sound like?

  • Jul 27, 2012
  • 404 words
  • 2 minutes
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As a kid I loved Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song, “The Sound of Silence.”

Somewhere in the decades between the 1970s and today we’ve forgotten what silence sounds like. Although we might think we “tune out” the jarring din and chaotic noises that assault our senses on all sides today, scientists tell us a different story. They attribute much of our stress levels to mindless haste and noise. They warn that some birds and other wild urban creatures avoid downtown areas of mega cities. And some animals are turning into night creatures to avoid noise.

Silence has a great deal to teach us in the 21st century. Our culture fills in all silence as if it’s an unwanted guest. Yet silence brings peace and a sense of well-being.

In the Yukon/Alaskan wilderness, silence reigns supreme. And I love that! Yet at times, everything in me wants to fill it — as if silence is empty, a negative force.

The Japanese have a word for the “empty” silence or space between words or activities or structures. They call it “ma.” There’s no English equivalent.

It’s the space between buildings — ma. And it’s vital! Those who try to fill that space threaten natural balances.

Music too has rests — empty spaces or “holes” in the music. It’s not wasted time, but absolutely critical for a piece to develop character and flowing rhythm. I love dancing, and in dance, “periods” fulfill the same role.

It’s the same way with silence.

That’s one reason I’m paddling north for a summer of silent solitude. When I listen to (and for) the silence — the vital “ma” — life comes alive and has new meaning. It reveals its beauty.

This summer I’m spending hours each day not saying anything. (Simon and Garfunkel warned against, “…talking without speaking, hearing without listening.”) I’m listening for nature’s many symphonic layers: loons squawking, wind swishing through trees, water bubbling behind my canoe, the honey bee that just zoomed past my ear.

Listening for the “sounds of silence” is turning into the highlight of my 1,500-km solo canoe trip.

Listen. Ssshhhh! Can you hear the silence?

Allen Macartney is completing a solo trip on the Yukon River to retrace the route of prospectors in the days of the Klondike gold rush. Read more of his blog posts and learn about his Royal Canadian Geographical Society-funded expedition.


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