It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the most stressful time of the year. No matter where you tend to fall on that spectrum during the week preceding the end-of-the-year holidays, almost all of us hope for a quiet and peaceful season.
But how do you go about achieving that silence? I’d argue that you can always find pockets of peace, whether you’ll be spending some of your hours in crowded airports for your far-flung travels or your plans involve staying at home with immediate family members or a small group of friends.
Why seek the silence?
The intrusive and pervasive noise of the mechanized world doesn’t just affect your hearing: it can cost you your health. From communication difficulties, fatigue from lack of sleep, poor concentration and stress to more serious issues—such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, hearing loss and tinnitus—prolonged or excessive noise affects your day-to-day well-being.
In 2011, the World Health Organization released a report titled Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise—Quantification of Healthy Life Years Lost in Europe. The report collated data from various large-scale, epidemiological studies of environmental noise in Western Europe, collected over a 10-year period.
Results showed that at least 1 million healthy years of life are lost each year in Europe alone due to noise pollution (and this figure does not include noise from industrial workplaces). The authors concluded that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population” and ranked traffic noise second among environmental threats to public health (the first being air pollution).
Interestingly, it may be the sounds we aren’t even aware that we’re hearing that are affecting us the most; in particular, those we hear when we’re asleep. The human ear is extremely sensitive, and it never rests. So even when you sleep, your ears are picking up and transmitting sounds that are filtered and interpreted by different parts of the brain. It’s a permanently open auditory channel.
So, although you may not be aware of it, background noises, such as those of traffic or music coming from a neighbor’s house, are still being processed; and your body is reacting to them in different ways via the nerves that travel to all parts of the body and the hormones released by the brain.
The most obvious reaction is interrupted sleep. But there is another, more serious outcome. Even if you don’t wake up, it appears that continual noise sets off the body’s acute stress response, which raises blood pressure and heart rate, potentially mobilizing a state of hyperarousal. That can lead to cardiovascular disease and other health issues.
Finding peace on a plane
Airports can be stressful places, and noise plays a big part in that. The good news is that aircraft noise is decreasing; there has been a 95 percent reduction in the sound power generated by aircraft jet engines since their introduction. And more quiet planes are being developed.
When you fly, my advice is to bring along a quality set of noise-canceling headphones. Once you’ve blocked out ambient noise, taking a trip by airplane is an almost magical means for getting from one place to another. Strapped into your seat, you’re forced into a simpler life for those designated hours. You can no longer do everything and be in touch with everyone all at once.
Discovering wordlessness in the wilderness
However you define wilderness, we crave it because, as author Barry Lopez writes, we want to feel “the intensity of untrammeled, the extent of undeveloped, the amplitude of natural, the starkness of solitude, the classic goals of wilderness management.”
The great thing about wilderness is that its solitude is often not far off the beaten path. For example, Yosemite National Park encompasses nearly 1,200 square miles. Yosemite Valley represents less than 5 percent of the park, but it’s where well over 90 percent of its 4 million annual visitors go. If you’re willing to venture beyond the valley, it’s easy enough to put some distance between the masses and yourself, and find a more peaceful nature experience. It’s often like that in any outdoor area.
I experienced this recently when I traveled to the Southwest canyons in August of this year. On a very hot day in Bryce Canyon National Park, I opted to take a seat on some rocks next to a popular trail while my more heat-tolerant companion decided to hike farther on. I relaxed and watched as several groups of happy hikers passed.
After about 20 minutes had gone by, I suddenly sensed and heard a whoosh as something buzzed past my head. Thinking it must have been a large insect, I looked around to brush it away. But there, just inches from me, a tiny hummingbird was extracting nectar from the flowers that were sprouting from a crevice in the rock that was functioning as my seat.
I had never before been that close to a hummingbird. I could see and actually feel the flurry and brush of its minuscule wings. It was the most calming moment in the trip; experienced, no less, right next to a busy trail.
Being in nature often offers the kind of illumination that can take the darkness out of contemporary life. Once you pause to reconnoiter and focus, the tinnitus starts to fade, and you can feel the relief. To find solitude in nature and wilderness areas, I suggest that you step (or sit!) slightly off the well-worn track or go in the off-season.
Locating harmony in the here and now
As an amateur photographer, I used to regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to capture the stunning images of massive African elephants, humpback whales underwater or rare animals the way that the professional photographers did. I simply didn’t have the means to travel as much, I told myself.
But then I learned that finding the peace that most wild animals require in order to reveal themselves wasn’t necessarily dependent upon a travel budget. The secret is in observing nature, wherever you happen to be.
The famed fictional detective Sherlock Holmes once made the same point to his friend Dr. Watson: “Everyone sees, but hardly anyone observes.” Even a small patch of backyard in the midst of a city can be a gorgeous, natural country.
I recommend that if you’re searching for a bit of quietude, you step outside and listen to the birds. Prevalent in backyards, city parks and on rooftops, they are often the “gateway drugs” to nature: it’s an easy journey from birds to insects to plants to megafauna. As biologist E. O. Wilson has noted, it’s possible to “spend a lifetime in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.”
As we get ready to celebrate the holidays at the end of the year, I wish you many peaceful moments and stashes of serenity—whether you’ll be airborne or firmly grounded.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,