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The battle to save our quiet places from noises| Environment

The battle to save our quiet places from noises| Environment

The more scarce that silence becomes, the more valuable it becomes: QPI founder Gordon Hempton.

LLast month, I spent a morning exploring Hampstead Heath, London’s largest green space, with Nicholas Allan, a sound engineer. The Heath is a haven for many. It covers almost 800 acres, including meadows, woodland, hollows, springs, hills, and ponds. It is large enough and important to have its own 12-person constabulary. They uphold the 47 park bylaws, which include strict restrictions on drone flying or car driving. Locals who know me take their dogs on walks through old forests and along gravelly paths. The park is so busy in summer that it vibrates festival-like when the sun shines. The rest of the year, it remains quiet.

Allan was given the Heath Urban Quiet Park designation in July. He was acting on behalf Quiet Parks InternationalQPI, or Quiet for All, is a Los Angeles non-profit dedicated to preserving quiet for the good of all. QPI’s purpose is to identify places around the world where there is no human-made noise, at least for a short time. These areas are in danger of disappearing as humans become louder, the organisation claims, even though they are essential to our well-being and the health of nature. Some of these locations, such as the Zabalo River, Ecuador, where quiet may linger for several hours consecutively, are already in the wilderness. Others, however, are found in urban centres. QPI describes Heath as a refuge in the city. It has proven to be able to fully immerse itself within the natural environment.

Allan is QPIs man from London (he lives close enough to Bristol), but I still have trouble finding my way around the park, he said. We had entered Heath through a south gate and were walking up a hill, but not in any particular direction. Although it was difficult to identify exactly where each sound was coming, we were surrounded with city noise when we first met. Allan described it as a diffuse, hum. It’s a glowing blanket that just lays there with no discernible direction. I would describe it less poetically as a shitload of sound. The noise was so dimmed that we could distinguish individual notes within the short intervals of near-silence. We could see a helicopter, a passing conversation between dog walker, and the cries from young schoolchildren dressed in red, all playing in a green clearing. It was easier to talk and to think. We could still see the city but couldn’t hear it. Allan stated that it is only when you are in a quiet place that you can see what was there before.

Nowadays, quiet is hard to find. We are constantly surrounded with noise, including the hum of motorbikes, the rush of traffic, and the dings from email and smartphones. Listen now. Wherever you are, what sound do you hear? The whirring sound of a washing machine, tip-tapping laptop keys, my children’s loud crashing, shouting, the clicks of a new mouse, the machine-sawing at a neighbor’s yard, and the brief rise and fall roars from cars passing by our front door.

The more scarce that silence becomes, the more valuable it becomes: QPI founder Gordon Hempton.
Gordon Hempton, QPI founder, says silence is more scarce than silence and therefore more valuable.Cameron Karsten/The Observer. Photograph.

These sounds can be annoying and detrimental to our long-term health. Research has shown that those who live near busy roads are more likely than others to have high cortisol levels and to develop heart disease and hypertension. A 2012 study found that 40 million Americans suffer from hearing loss due to excessive noise exposure. According to the World Health Organization noise is one of most serious environmental threats to human health. According to a 2018 report, 1.6 million years of human life have been lost in Europe due to noise pollution. This can also lead to other health problems such as sleep disturbances, lack of focus, and a gradual decrease in quality of life.

If the noises didn’t get louder, this would be less alarming. Before the pandemic, the aviation sector was experiencing a boom. In 2019, 4.5 Billion passengers flew with the airline industry, an increase of 1.5 billion from 1999. Production of cars continues at a rapid pace. Shipping traffic is also on the rise. The Metropolitan police received 41.212 noise complaints in 2020, even though they don’t deal with noise complaints. While we are able to recognize loud sounds such as the motorbike noise or the yelp of a young child as disturbing, the cumulative effects of these incidents in isolation don’t always add up. Worse, and often unnoticeable, is the constant din that echoes throughout our lives, which can lead to unsuspectingly poor health.

Allan and me continued walking on the Heath, up over the crest a hill, then down a path that curled to the right, which led to an area of wooded. Allan pointed to the direction. He said that if you looked at a beautiful landscape and saw it was dotted with litter, it would be diminished. The sonic landscape is a similar issue to me. He said that it is now difficult to find a litter-free zone in the UK. You can look at maps of elevation, roads, and flyways to pinpoint potential spots. But, often, when you do find a point that is far enough away from a road and doesn’t have too much overhead traffic, you will find that there are some. Otherdisturbance, like a tractor ploughing. He sighed, which I understood to mean, “How will we ever escape it?” Allan is confused about why we complain about litter on a hillside but do very little, or sometimes nothing, when that hillside is surrounded and dominated by A-roads, railway lines, and other infrastructures, which obstruct the landscape. To me, that feels like a loss.

He agreed to work on the Heath. Allan spent four days in the park, monitoring decibel levels. For the QPI test to pass, noise levels must not exceed 40 decibels for at least one hour. This is similar to the hum of a library. This level can be broken eight times, but noises above 60 decibels cannot exceed the volume of an electric toothbrush. Allan stated that this is a guideline and that you should always go with your gut. Allan thinks that the rustling leaves should not be considered disruptive, even if it is above decibel limits. Sometimes, a recording might include a dog barking, an aeroplane flying low overhead, or parakeets squawking from trees, which can send decibel levels skyrocketing. He was able mostly to record still for the required time periods, and the Heath was awarded this award.

Many of us drive, but many others do not.Fly, listen to music, and fly. We also drill, saw, and hammer in noisy cities. However, we seem to be able to understand that too much noise can be harmful for our health. To escape, some resort to mindfulness practices, meditation, sensory deprivation tanks, and silent retreats that have made quiet a consumable product. A London vicar told me recently that he attends silent retreats three times per year to find stillness. I was struck by the thought that if a vicar is so surrounded by noise, why don’t we all seek refuge?

Sounds of silence: a recording device used by Gordon Hempton.
Gordon Hempton used a recording device called Sounds of Silence to record his music.Cameron Karsten/The Observer. Photograph.

QPI’s mission is to bring quiet to all. This is a nod towards the fact that some wellness practices can be expensive or exclusive and that everyone should have access to quiet as an essential element of being alive.

Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who lives in Seattle, founded QPI. We chat over Zoom, and Hempton is walking a trail near Olympic National Park. This vast wilderness in the Pacific Northwest is where we are speaking. I ask him about silence’s commodification. He tells me, clearly, that the more rare it becomes, the greater its value. Hempton was able to record hours without interruption in Olympic National Park a decade ago. He warned landowners that the noise was coming even though he was still able to record hours of silence in Olympic National Park. We were met with the most common response: “Why do we need to save something which will never be endangered?” He said. They couldn’t imagine how they could ever have a problem with noise pollution. Hempton discovered that he could only record 15 mins of silence in the park, before being interrupted by human-made noise.

This is bad news, as wildlife relies on silence to communicate. It is also bad news to us. Studies have shown that quiet can reduce anxiety and stress, lower heart rate, blood pressure, improve mood, cognitive abilities, concentration, and increase prosocial behaviours like generosity and trust. Although it is beneficial to experience silence for long periods of time, a 2006 study showed that even a short session can be helpful.

My wife and me moved from central London to a quieter place on the Chiltern hills five years ago, shortly after the birth of our second child. We were astonished at the noise it made, its constant presence, a decade prior to our arrival in London. We joked that we would not be able sleep after hearing the constant whir of it. We were worried that the new environment would keep us awake and its quietness would make it difficult to fall asleep. I began to see the silence as a vast empty space. Is life passing me by or was it too good? I felt like my life was passing me by when my wife became seriously ill not long after we moved. For months, an enforced quiet surrounded our home. My sister told me that people normally complain. I was able to recall worrying about the situation. AboutThe noise, not the absence of it.

Hempton knows that silence can be frightening for those who have not had enough practice in embracing it. The pandemic, he states, has been beneficial. Quiet is no longer a term that lacks experience. The whole world got to see what we’d been missing. It was initially alarming. What’s next? Now that we are beginning to see the light, we can look back at how that quiet made us healthier and more aware of who and what we believe in. We can also reflect on what it was that made us happier.

Allan shared with me on the Heath that at the start of the pandemic, many friends commented on being able hear birdsong close to their homes. They speculated for a while about whether there were more birds in that year. I think it is just accepted that the acute sound of hum suddenly dropped and you could hear into the distance.

Like now? I said.

We were passing a small cluster of trees. We could hear birdsong and the sounding of leaves shaking around us.

Allan said that it is quite loud today. It makes that strange sound. I don’t know what it is. Can you hear it? He waved his arms in the direction of where the park boundary was. The drone was low-level and steady, reminiscent of an aeroplane rumble, but closer to the earth.

What It is that? He said. A drill?

We continued to walk, first up a hill, then down a muddy slope, and finally into the woods. Once we were surrounded in trees, the drone became less apparent. Allan said that the drone gradually nurtures our inner stillness as we move deeper into the park. It should be. The drone was almost gone when we reached a depression in the forest. I looked up to see an aeroplane, but couldn’t hear it. Then, I mentioned that it felt like we were deep in the countryside, rather than in the middle a city. Allan nodded. It was quieter than it was when Allan had visited the park before. There was no rustling of leaves, soft-crunch walkers footsteps, or occasional flyover. Then, a crow called so loudly that it sounded like a dog bark, which was enough to startle us both.

That You wouldn’tAllan stated that it should not be considered a disturbance. This is part of the natural soundscape. It seems that everyone agrees that it is calming.

A chainsaw started to rev and shocked more birds out of the trees. Allan seemed disappointed that there hadn’t been a chainsaw when he was recording the QPI recordings. Three park employees were cutting down large branches, laughing, and looking up at us. We moved towards them, closer to their noise, then we moved in a different direction, away the sound. Allan was frowning. We wouldn’t have. CompleteHe spoke out of silence as a way to explain. There would always have to be something. He said, “It does feel quite noisy.”

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