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The age of loudness

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billlascher | Jan 11, 2011 09:00 AM

“No age is louder than ours,” Ken McAlpine writes in his book, “Islands Apart.

“We have reached a crescendo of clamor, and it is both curse and comfort,” he continues. “Solitude, in our times, is rare and, for many, profoundly unnerving.”

What might solitude offer those who never have a chance to experience it? Can we all expect quiet? How should it be calculated in attempts to create more sustainable communities?

A few months ago I visited Portland's Forest Park with a friend. Up among the dripping, fern-shrouded hills, we heard the constant roar of a power boat from the Willamette River far below. The noise had followed us into the hills, muting the crunch of our footsteps and quieting the chirps from unseen birds. As we hiked, my friend said she'd just read Leslee Goodman's interview of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in The Sun. My friend explained to me how Hempton described his research into diminishing noise-free time in wild spaces, and what that research said about the health of those ecosystems.

Natural as it may be, Forest Park is not a wild space, though it is, at least, a refuge for many of us in Portland, especially those who lack the means or ability to escape further afield. I returned there this weekend precisely because it was so convenient. Grateful for the fresh air and exercise, within minutes I realized how inescapable the city really was. I didn't hear any power boats, but I did hear airplane engines, beeping trucks, slamming car doors and even a ringing cell phone carried by a passing hiker.

The following day I took advantage of the last of a week of no-charge days at the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland. I wasn't alone. Hundreds of visitors joined me that afternoon. (According to the woman managing the long line at the garden's entrance, 2,300 people had visited the day before.) Despite the large crowd, I accepted the opportunity to be introduced to the garden and hoped others were tempted, as I was, to return to the tranquility it promised again, at some later date.

Chinese garden Portland

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland.

Of course, the garden is by no means a wild space. It was meticulously crafted, with each element meant to achieve very specific purposes. It also doesn't feign isolation the way a woodland like Forest Park might. Instead, the garden sits right at the heart of Portland's “Old Town” neighborhood beneath condominium towers and state office buildings and only a few blocks from the city's commercial core. From the garden's courtyards and pavilions I could hear bus air brakes and sirens, not to mention all my fellow visitors' voices, camera clicks and footsteps. Even among the crowds and city noise, though, I found corners and moments of serenity. I'm glad that this space has been carved from the heart of the city. In the same way, I appreciate the hiking and refuge promised by Forest Park, the largest wooded area in the country within a city's boundaries, even if it means I can't completely escape hearing Portland.

Westerners are now quite familiar with discussions about the impact of sound on rural and wild life. Just Friday, Miller-McCune published David Rosenfeld's extensive exploration of the debate over noise impacts from wind farms in Eastern Oregon, illustrating that deep divides still exist surrounding the health impact from noise, if not the impact on the natural world so thoroughly explored by Hempton. The questions Rosenfeld explored matter, but do we too often drown out similar questions about the impact of sound in our cities?

Even closer to the Chinese Garden than Portland's office towers are the shelters, soup kitchens and nonprofits serving the city's large homeless, mentally ill and impoverished populations. I'm not sure what relationship the garden has to these service groups, but I can't help wondering what role peaceful, contemplative time there, or in the park or in other natural spaces might play. For how ready and capable I might be to escape the city's noise, to calm my mind by journeying further afield than Forest Park (thankfully accessible by mass transit in Portland) I wonder how near most of the clients of the institutions surrounding the Chinese Garden would ever get to experiencing the same peace?

Of course, what would happen if they did experience these (relatively) quiet natural places? To be sure, part of the dilemma of promoting access to the natural world is the impact that access wreaks, but as we consider acoustic ecology and what sound does to the natural world, it's important that we consider as well the power it has on the human psyche.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy.

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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