The age of loudness

 

“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.

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.