Shortly after returning a long showshoe hike in the woods near my house a few days ago, an online news headline caught my attention: Noise is No. 1 quality-of-life complaint in NYC.
The caption under a photo accompanying the article read, “In 2013, the city’s 311 hotline got more than 260,000 calls about excessive noise, up 30 percent in two years.”
I flashed back 20 years or so to a public hearing in my small town over a proposal to install a small sawmill on a road about half a mile from any house or business. More than 40 people turned out, most of whom raised their voices angrily against the sawmill.
They equated the noise potential of the sawmill with the awful disturbance the previous year caused by a large-scale forestry operation that ran day and night, subjecting residents a mile away to the trucks, saws, chippers, and the endless bleating of back-up beepers.
Industrial machines, heavy traffic, construction noise, shrieking trains, honking horns, jets and helicopters overhead, barking dogs, and hollering humans, gets people anxious, angry...and sick.
Most people know that high-decibel noise can damage hearing. But chronic exposure to noise has a wide variety of negative health effects that go way beyond annoyance, including cardiovascular problems, immune-system disruptions, sleep disturbance, interference with fetal and child development, and more.
It turns out the study of “soundscapes” and their relationship to human health and wellbeing is broad and breathtakingly complex. Studies of the relationships between humans (and wildlife) and the sound environments they live in have resulted in calls for preserving native, natural “sound environments” as common resources like soils, air, and water.
George Foy, a journalist and New York University creative writing professor, also found the New York City soundscape a hellscape, and set out to find “the last place on Earth without human noise.” He visited an anechoic chamber, a room built specifically for the purpose of excluding all noise, at Orfield Labs in Minnesota.
…[M]inutes into his stay in the chamber, he noticed that the silence was in fact broken. His own body, it turned out – his breathing, his heartbeat, even the scratchy sound his scalp made rubbing against his skull when he frowned – was betraying his quest for auditory nothingness.
“The only time you’ll hear absolute silence is when you’re in no position to hear it, because you’re dead,” he realized.
An article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health notes, “the term ‘quiet’ is not synonymous with silence; its standard usage implies an absence or masking of industrial noise, and/or the presence of natural sounds such as water flow, birdsong, or wind.”
There’s quite a bit of research on the healing effects of nature, although few studies that specifically tease out the visuual from the sound or olfactory effects which includes the stress-relieving effects of natural sounds, even in virtual environments.
Most of us would define noise as intrusive, unwanted sound of any kind. I feel grateful my semi-rural environment rarely presents annoying noise I can’t control. (One roaring exception: motorcyle week, when thousands of bikers from across the nation come blasting through central New Hampshire, day and night all week.)
Somehow I don’t find troubling the more usual sounds of chainsaws, snowplows, and lawn mowers in my sparsely populated corner of the universe. They connect me to my community in comforting ways. Even the sawmilll (which received its permit despite the protests) and a gravel-mining operation half a mile down the road—both separated from me by generous stretches of woods—enter my soundscape with only the occasional muffled sounds of operation.
Last spring, the New York Times asked its readers: "Where do you go to find peace in this boisterous city? With eight million New Yorkers and 50 million tourists a year all packed into 301 square miles, is there a special park bench, riverside fishing spot or underused historic site where you go to cherish the sound of silence?"
More than 1,000 readers responded, telling the paper they find quiet space in parks, on piers and riverbanks, in places of worship, museums, parks, public gardens, cemeteries, and wildlife sanctuaries. The paper created this beautiful slideshow from readers’ suggestions.
Replete with soundscapes, this lovely photomontage brings a sense of peace and calm just by viewing it.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.