“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has
turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents
machines and devices that increase noise and distract
humanity from the essence of life, contemplation,
Henry David Thoreau
Until now, you would be forgiven, if you thought you were reading some latter- day Westwood Walden, or backyard bird guide. You might have assumed, wrongly, that Robyn, Shiva and I are untouched by the more mundane and unsavory experiences that affect all lives. Today I’ll take you to the dark side’s factory floor, for a pastoral polemic.
We were awakened three times last night, by a rabble of drunken louts, proclaiming along the boardwalk. Their noise was at worst, profane and, at best, a cogent argument against ten million years of human evolution. They cursed Shiva for her protective barking, and later, the sound of squealing tires echoed down the lake as they departed. And returned, and departed. When I awoke this morning, it was from too little sleep. I wandered out to the garden with my coffee, to sit and reflect. Even that effort was doomed. Less than a minute after I found my favorite garden Adirondack chair, I was out of it.
Even waving my arms, he didn’t see me. I knew he couldn’t hear me. Plugged into the iPod earphones under his earmuffs, the leaf-blower danced and screamed in six-eight time. He was three acoustic layers down, and a world away. On my other side, one of our other neighbours started the riding mower she resides on, accompanied by the whining thrum of her weed-whacking helper. A motocross biker gang emerged along the ridge across the lake, like a swarm of chainsaws. The garbage truck combine-harvester began emptying bins two doors down. A helicopter flew directly overhead, and the kid at the top of the drive powered up his grunge garage band. It was a summer Saturday, after a long summer Friday night.
In order for sound to become noise, somewhere along the trail, the physical must travel through the physiological, to exit through the psychological and the philosophical.
Sound is just sound when it is just physics, a simple form of energy, expressed in units called joules. The rate of production of energy, or power, is expressed in watts, a watt being one joule per second. But it is not the number of watts of acoustical power generated that is the problem, it is the rate of flow (i.e. flux), measured in watts per square metre, where the area of concentration is your eardrum. When the engineers got hold of the unit of acoustical energy flux, F, they made it complicated, by converting into a base 10 logorithmic decibel (dB), so that
D = 10 log F + 120
meaning that, for every increase of 10 dB, there is a tenfold increase in energy flux. The only real facts you need to know are these- the louts last night were shouting at 60 dB; quiet conversation occurs at 55 dB and if you complain about ‘noise’, a Bylaw Official in Saanich accepts 58 dB (the level at which you can’t hear what I am saying in the same room), as a perfectly acceptable background ‘sound’ level. By civic ordinance, it is entirely legal for someone to interfere with your ability to hear conversation, with twice as much acoustic energy as you are adequately communicating with.
Bylaw Bob would have determined you were mistaken that it could have been annoying you. The leaf blower terrorism next door operates at over 75 dB, legal between the hours of 0700 and 2300. All of those hours, inclusive. But clearly, then, the difference between sound and noise is more than just about physics. Could it, more accurately, be about physiology?
Moving from the physical energy flux to measurements of acoustic perception, physiologists have recruited human subjects to evaluate pure tones of different frequencies and intensities, for the same ‘perceived loudness’, calling them ‘phons,’ and ‘sones’. For sounds that are not pure tones and have a wide frequency range, physiologists have used analogous units of the ‘noy’ (suggesting both noise and annoyance), and its logarithmic counterpart, PNdB, (short for perceived noise in decibels). One problem is that the human ear is not equally sensitive to all frequencies, at one frequency with varying amplitudes in all individuals, or in the same individual at different ages.
None of this matters to Bylaw Bob. He has a picnic basket full of his own metrics, to help him decide what constitutes an acceptable sound level for various activities: LAeq,T for the assessment of residential development sites, LA10,T for road traffic noise monitoring, LA90,T for the background noise level, LAmax for the maximum noise level, LEP,d the daily personal workplace noise exposure level, and that all-important Vibration Dose Value (VDV), the fourth root of the integral of the fourth power of acceleration, after it has been frequency-weighted. But none of this, Virginia- not the physics nor the physiology, tells us anything at all about how annoying an intrusive sound actually is. Which would bother you more? 58 dB for 3 seconds or 55 dB for 3 hours? 58 dB at 2:00 pm or 55 dB at 2:00 am? Vivaldi at 58 dB or squealing tires at 55 dB? Rain on your roof or a dripping tap? Random thunder or regular pile driving?
To get finally from sound to noise, we need to ascend to the next level, the psychological, riding those sound waves into the external ear canal, vibrating the eardrum, sending the resultant neuroelectrical signals from the inner ear to the auditory cortex, and on to the frontal cortex and the deep hippocampal and other visceral centres of the brain, where our emotions live. Where our rage resides.
Annoyance is contextual, not mathematical. It’s not about the decibels, its about the dumbbells. Noise is unwanted sound. Noise is trespassing. Quiet is good. And disappearing.
The unfortunate truth is that one man’s noise is another man’s music. Witness the moronic motorcycle engine-revving madness that goes on for hours down our street. The backwards baseball-capped adolescent, so offended by the use of the high-pitched mosquito deterrent at the local convenience store, boombox thump-thumps behind closed truck windows down Arbot Road, breaking an otherwise quiet Sunday without remorse. The whine of the mitre skillsaw addict in the trailer park continues, unabated, for so many weeks on end, that he could have built a dozen real houses by now. I know these people are enjoying themselves, but if they were producing proportional smells instead of sounds, they would all have been tasered by a Hazmat S.W.A.T. team in a heartbeat.
We need to know what is happening here, why it is happening and why it matters.
What is happening is that we are making more noise than ever before. This is not because there are more of us living in greater proximity (I’ve been in some pretty crowded monasteries). This is our desert-derived monotheistic heritage run amok, with two stroke Germs, Guns, and Steel. Nature needs to be tamed, yea, verily, vanquished. Progress is measured by a process of acquiring more and more petroleum-powered weapons, to do just that. The ninety-year- old Buddhist monk, Diasetz T. Suzuki, told the mythologist Joseph Campbell, after reading the Old Testament: ‘God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion’. And a very noisy one.
Now I’m not such a Luddite that I can’t see that some unwanted acoustic poisoning is unavoidable. As a society we all individually, implicitly, agree to tolerate a certain amount of noise, for benefits that we think are worth the annoyance- motorized transportation, labor-saving machinery, karaoke (strike that last one). In fairness, there is continuous quality improvement going on, designed to make our machines quieter, and I can’t wait for the real advent of the electric car. However, along with the right to make some noise, should come the responsibility of keeping the intrusiveness to a minimum, to make no unnecessary noise. The leaf blower is the hands-down antithesis of this principle, an irrational instrument of questionable utility, operating at the cost of self-immolation and social isolation, that exists solely because it can. My father used to say that a man has the right to throw his fist as far as he wants, as long as it doesn’t touch the nose of his neighbour. With that kind of noise, we have failed this vital societal principle.
Surveys of high school students demonstrate that the majority believe they have an unlimited right to make as much noise as they want, anytime they want. They have become the apotheotic synthesis of parental indulgence, hormones, and leisure. No longer are they seen and not heard. Growing older rather than up, they regale us with their chopped motocross dirt bike recreational excavators, boom cars, all-terrain vehicular mechanized fun toys, speed boats, jet skis, power tools, and ghetto blasters (‘cause they like to share Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence, Delerium’s Silence, and Queensryche’s Silent Lucidity, at full volume). Their lives are one big party-hearty in Surroundsound.
We have reached a point where it is almost unimaginable for all our activities to be unaccompanied by some form of noise. Some of this derives from our Western cultural tradition of feeling uneasy in the company of others who are quiet. We can misinterpret their silence as anger, hostility, disinterest, or any number of other emotions. Muzak evolved as a comfortable narcotic sound barrier to conversation and it’s now louder than ever. More sadly, we have also reached that further point of having a culture of total inconsideration for anyone else in, or even the actual environment, itself. In these intolerant times, if you put your finger to your lips, you’re more than likely to get another one back. To what depths have we sunk, when we cannot even abide the quiet of the countryside? Even in Calcutta, Mother Teresa had noted: ‘See how nature--trees, flowers, grass--grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence...we need silence to be able to touch souls’. But not on the ridge trails these days, where I can hear the iPods coming, by the tinny sounds leaking from their earbuds. When joggers run by our bedroom window at 5 a.m., their animated conversations can be easily heard across the lake, when they should be listening to the sounds of their own bodies instead.
So, why does it matter? Well, one of the reasons is that there are negative health effects from noise. For several decades, we have been aware of noise-induced hearing loss, but it’s not about the volume. Most ‘convenience’ power tools bypass physical exertion, but it’s not about the loss of exercise opportunity either. The real life-killing effects start with disturbed sleep. More than 30% of people living in the EU are exposed to nighttime equivalent sound pressure levels exceeding 55 dB, mostly because of aircraft noise and traffic. This can be up to 80 dB in cities of developing countries. The primary sleep disturbance effects consist of difficulty in falling asleep, awakenings, and a reduction in REM sleep. Stress hormones surge into the bloodstream, leading to primary visceral effects like increased blood pressure, heart rhythm disturbances, and an increased propensity to diabetes. But it is the secondary, or aftereffects, where the evil begins in earnest. People who even perceive the quality of their sleep to be impaired are more tired, depressed and irritable. They use more sedatives and sleeping pills. They have trouble learning and, when it happens all night long, every night of every year, the more susceptible will develop mental disorders. They close their bedroom windows and have to use earplugs instead of their balconies, turn up their radios and television volumes, write
petitions, and complain to authorities, usually with no results. They begin to use alcohol and drugs to get away. They become unfriendly, aggressive, and disengaged. And then…they snap. In August 1995, the Daily Mirror published a report on more than 16 people in Britain who had committed murder or suicide in the preceding six years, because of noise.
The victims included: Julie Harvey, from Manchester, who overdosed on painkillers after she moved to avoid noisy neighbours, only to find herself near the friends of her previous tormentors; Valerie Edwards, from Bristol, who died of pneumonia after sitting in a park for several nights in the cold and rain, to avoid her neighbour's loud music; Jack Gott from Bradford, who killed himself after noise from a teenage neighbour drove him insane; James Bourke, from Birmingham, who was battered to death, after neighbours became sick of his loud classical music; and Harry Stephenson, from South Glamorgan, stabbed 22 times, for complaining to a neighbour who incessantly revved his car in the early morning.
Another reason it matters is because we have lost the right to enjoy our own property, without the intrusion of noise, especially the unnecessary leisure lamentations of louts. Alexander Pope knew them (‘It is with narrow-souled people as with narrow-necked bottles; the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring out’) as did Ben Franklin (‘The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise’).
If noise, and especially loud noise, belongs to the street and the vulgar, what company does silence keep? Pretty impressive, actually. Nature’s silence allows us to ‘come to our senses’. We speak (or don’t have to) of ‘peace and quiet’. ‘Inner peace’ is a spiritual goal that is meant to bring us in contact with reality, ourselves or, if you’re a believer, the divine. This is found in Christianity (especially Quakerism), Sufism, Buddhism, and in Hindu yoga. Silence is wonderfully represented in proverbs (‘We must have reasons for speech but we need none for silence’; ‘One coin in the money-box makes more noise than when it is full’; ‘When the river is deepest it makes least noise’) and people. From Lao Tzu (‘Silence is a source of great strength’) through Gandhi (‘In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness’) to Einstein (‘I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind’), they got it right. And the Max Ehrman parchment that many of us hung on our dorm room walls at University? ‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence’, during the years we were anything but. Silence can be commemorative, as in ‘a moment of’’, or respectful, as in ‘you have the right to remain’.
Silence is Golden but total silence is not. In laboratory experiments, animals that have been subjected to complete silence show behavioral change and aggression. What to make of prospective deaf parents, who consider themselves a ‘linguistic minority’, and demand a selective form of IVF to ensure that their child will also be born deaf? After last night, I don’t judge them too harshly.
But what can we do, and what hope is there? We do have rules about noise. We’ve had them a long time. The ancient Romans enforced rules about the noise emitted from iron-wheeled wagons which, battering the pavement stones, caused annoyance and disruption of their sleep. Horse carriages were not allowed in certain Medieval European cities at night, to ensure a restful sleep for the inhabitants. However, those were different times. In our 21st century, we will bear a shortage of water and of silence. Let’s start global and work local.
The World Health Organization has proposed guidelines for community noise, in the categories of annoyance, speech intelligibility and communication interference, disturbance of information extraction, and sleep disturbance. Their Guideline 4.3.7, regarding Parkland and conservation areas, invokes keeping the signal to noise ratio low (whatever the hell that means) using three principles: the Precautionary principle, the Polluter Pays principle, and the Prevention principle. Only one big problem: the Enforcement principle. Noise is not like chemical effluent that sticks around and invites inspection. Noise violates you at night, on weekends, and on weekend nights ‘cause the louts are out when the lights are out.’ Noise may be transitory- a motorcycle, for example, roaring along on the other side of the lake for thirty minutes after midnight. Bylaw Bob and his decibel meter is currently unavailable, but your call is important to us. And then the noise, after causing its damage, is gone, no slick to be found. ‘Dadadadada, vroom, putt, putt, dadadadada. WRAAAaaaaAAAHH. WRAAAaaaaAAAHH.’ Gone.
Working our way down the food chain, we pass the Federal and Provincial governments who have no interest, and land where the rubber literally meets the road- the municipality. One needs to remember that there is money in noise. Case in point was a communication from a certain Sandy Currie, Executive Director of the Toronto-based Marine Manufacturers Association who, in 1996, took umbrage at Saanich Council’s decision to ban jet skis on Prospect Lake. Ms. Currie called the ban ‘a virus which must be snuffed out before it spreads… The Municipality has basically thumbed its nose at all procedures. They have taken it on themselves to pass a bylaw which seems punitive, arbitrary, and very discriminatory… We haven't yet decided to throw in the troops and high-priced lawyers. I hope that if they have a look at the report and really think about what they are doing, cooler heads will prevail.’ Hey, jobs at stake here. To get to the finish line you need to begin with our local Noise Bylaw:
City of Nanaimo Noise Control Bylaw 1994, No. 4750 is a bylaw that regulates or prohibits making or causing noises or sounds that disturb the quiet, rest, peace, enjoyment or convenience of individuals or the public. The most common complaints received by the Bylaw Services include barking dogs, loud music, and noise caused by heavy machinery and construction activity. The playing of radios and stereophonic equipment or any apparatus used for the amplification of sound where the noise is disturbing and clearly audible is prohibited before 9:00 a.m. and after 11:00 p.m. Noise due to construction shall not be caused before 7:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday and before 9:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. on Sundays and Statutory holidays. Noise caused by any domestic animal or bird that is persistent and creates a disturbance by its cries, barks, or howls is prohibited at any time. Depending on the nature of the complaint, a City representative may be dispatched to the scene of difficulty, or a letter may be sent to the individual or company that is alleged to be causing the noise, advising them of the complaint and requesting compliance. Failure to comply will result in the issuance of a municipal ticket. If a ticket is issued, the complainant(s) may be required to testify in court if the allegation is disputed. Should you wish to report a loud and/or disturbing noise outside of normal office hours, please contact the local R.C.M.P. office at (250) 754-2345.
To its credit is the absence of any arbitrary decibel level, a dismal failure of a criterion in any jurisdiction that chooses to use it. It recognizes that, not only the public, but also individuals who are annoyed, can have their grievances addressed. Its simplicity and general interpretability is to be admired. But then it falls flat on its face, by restricting enforcement to
after 11:00 p.m. and before 09:00 a.m. The Bylaw was obviously designed for residential and commercial areas, but it may as well not exist, if noise is not more rigorously controlled around natural reserves like Westwood Lake. The animal life doesn’t know it’s 11:00 p.m. (not the four-legged kind, anyway).
Which brings us to the hooliganism of last night. Because of the worsening squeeze from the nightly revelers, and the early morning coffee chat joggers, (both of whom are in the Park long after and long before the signs indicate the trail is closed and open), residents along the trail had met with representatives from the Parks and Recreation Department, to discuss issues of noise, vandalism, littering, and personal
security. We have always had an excellent relationship with the City. In the early years, we contributed funds to help build the boardwalk that now graces the trail along the lakeshore, finally solving the problem of the incessant, insistent interloping declarations of riparian rights. This year, when the abuse hit critical, the city acceded to our request for gates, to be placed at either end of the inhabited part of the trail. The plan was to close them when the Park was closed, and open them when the Park was open. The gates went in and the venom came out. The rage was swift, and predictably irrational. The local rag (‘somewhat undernourished’, according to Mark Steyn) ran a blog question, inviting bile for the gates and blood for the gangthink. There was denial (‘I don't think early morning joggers tend to chat a lot’; ‘the sounds of a group out hiking would be welcome’; ‘birds chirp in the morning... shoot them’), class warfare (‘complaints of a few wealthy landowners’; ‘buyer beware’; ’If this isnt NIMBY-ism’; ‘they want to have their cake and eat it too’; ‘Give us ordinary people a chance to enjoy this lake’; ‘Wouldn’t it be a novel idea to have people worry about others rather than themselves’; ‘if you buy a house next to a park, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BITCH ABOUT THE NOISE!’; ‘my tax $$'s are paying for these gates to appease a few complainers’), participaction (‘way to encourage fitness Nanaimo!’; ‘buy some ear plugs and get a life.....or perhaps get up and go and enjoy the trails yourself....ya bunch of’), and vengefulness (‘I need to go start my Harley’; ‘I will bring along a ghetto-blaster as well, cranked to volume 10’; ‘What I would like to see is a ring road around Westwood Lake’). It was only a matter of time. We knew this. Last night they went around the gates.
There are only three things that could save us from this evil. The first is nostalgia. What if we started to hear the whirr of reel mowers, clicking across lawns again. Or the sound of a bamboo rake. The rustle of a broom. The whoosh of a handsaw. That’s not going to happen. There used to be an old guy that stood up in the back of his canoe and sang Italian arias while he paddled. It was rather charming- now he has a boombox playing Top 40. We live in inexorable times.
The second idea is the Dutch Solution. In Holland, individual provincial authorities can designate certain areas as ‘silent zones’ (Stiltegebeid), areas of ‘at least several square kilometres or more, in which the sound load caused by human activity is not high enough to disturb the natural sounds in the area’. I like this one very much. There is no reason why it shouldn’t happen here.
Then, there is a third option. In the Early 1970’s, a nutbar named Marshall Applewhite formed a cult whose 39 members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled (wiped clean, renewed, refurbished and rejuvenated), and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. They called themselves ‘Heaven’s Gate’, and on March 26,1997, they committed suicide in shifts, the remaining members cleaning up after each prior group's death. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Windrunner athletic shoes, and armband patches reading ‘Heaven's Gate Away Team’. Now there’s some participaction you can believe in.
Shiva’s barking at some spandex on his cell phone down at the lake.
“Honey!” He shouts. “You wouldn't believe how quiet it is up here.”
You can download 2 minutes of silence here