Ranger Kathryn's Arches

October 30, 2011

Canvas of silence

Deep in a cave underground, the absence of ambient light finds other ways into your psyche besides through your retinae. It presses its way through your eardrums, osmoses through tiny skin pores, and even tastes dark. So, also, is it with the absence of sound out here in the desert. Our acoustical environment is unique, and powerful, and (if you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know this) a balm for my soul and spirit. It is also unsettling to those who have lived their lives with noise. Desert silence is an auditory black hole that often disorients a person.

Does Shafer Canyon look quiet? Only a few decibels of noise are heard here. A soft whisper is 15 dB.

In our regular lives sound is all around us, filling us at a low level continuously, irregularly punctuated with loud or louder.  Car engines, iPods, wind, refrigerator hum, TV, crickets, leaves rustling, dog barking — our soundscape is comforting and familiar. If you picture this as colors and brushstrokes on an artist’s canvas, the few small bits of negative space are the quiet in our lives.

Mercilessly, unapologetically, the desert presents a massive unblemished canvas of silent ‘negative sound-space.’ It is, as nearly as I can describe, almost a presence. Sitting on a high rock, straining to hear a single thing, the blanket of soundlessness pressing onto eardrums (retinae, skin pores, sinuses) threatens to undo all you’ve ever known about acoustics. The canvas is not just blank; it is utterly blank. Onto that surface may come a pinprick of sound-color: a one-syllable bird chirp from 800 feet below. Silence is the reality… sound is an intrusion.

It takes some getting used to. Once this new reality becomes the norm, however, one is ruined — for good. Extrinsic noise now grates on me more than ever, somewhere on the continuum between irritating and malevolent. What am I supposed to learn from this?

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