In Search of Silence

One of the most amazing things I discovered during my journey to Lo Manthang was silence. On the morning we left Tsarang, as I sat on a rock waiting for Dabendra to bring the horses, I watched a man lead his sheep out for the day to graze on the sparse and stunted greenery of the mountainous desert that makes up Upper Mustang.

The only sounds were the soft shuffling of the sheep and the man whistling to them to keep them from straying. Otherwise it was silent—an ancient silence that spread across the land, a silence that must once have covered the whole earth.

In my favourite book, Kristin Lavransdatter, the story of a woman’s life in mediaeval Norway, the sound of the river is the background to their lives.

The river gleamed behind the dun and golden trellis-work of the alder-brakes—it filled the air with its gladsome rushing sound, for here in Jörundgaard it ran swiftly over a flat bed strewn with boulders.

What must it have been to live with only the sound of a rushing river in the background?

I later experienced silence on the Arctic tundra in Canada, but it was a muffled silence; in spring, the landscape would wake and the sounds of life would once more fill the air. In Upper Mustang there are no trees, except in the villages where small brown sparrows twitter among the wood piles and peck up seed dropped during the harvest. The wind, the gentle tinkling of horse, donkey, and sheep bells, and human voices are the only sounds. 

Or at least they were. With the road has come machinery, mainly motorbikes, but also trucks and jeeps. And they bring other machinery: computers, radios, and electricity, albeit still patchy, enables the noise. On the two occasions I heard a truck it was playing music.

Are we humans meant to live with constant noise?

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine, Why Everything is Getting Louder, makes the alarming claim that “You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels—slightly louder than a purring cat”. The article claims we cannot adapt to noise. And yet most of us live with constant noise that we probably aren’t even aware of. I only realised this when it was no longer there. 

And yet there are obviously pleasant sounds. It would be weird to live in complete, constant silence, although some religious orders do. The film Into Great Silence documents the lives of Carthusian monks in France over a year. The film has no sound track, only the gentle sounds generated by daily life in the monastery. But even these venerable souls have Sunday afternoons off being silent to chat and take walks in the countryside.

And of course not all sound is noise. In The Atlantic article an acoustic consultant, Arjun Shankar, is quoted saying: “Sound is when you mow your lawn, noise is when your neighbour mows their lawn, and music is when your neighbour mows your lawn”. (I’m not sure about that last bit!)

Equally the sounds of nature are not generally considered noise which is why I recently installed a solar-powered fountain on my front verandah. Although it is artificially created it is still the sound of water falling. It doesn’t block the sound of traffic from the main road, but it does let me at least pretend for a while that I’m in some serene and exotic place, far from the noise of modern life. Alas, such silence as still covers the barren landscape of Upper Mustang becomes vanishingly rare.