What is quiet? And the companion question that begs to be whispered is, “Where is quiet?”

Earlier this evening, I sat in my small sauna in the basement. I closed my eyes and strained to hear anything. Nothing. I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly the sauna’s insulated walls sheathed in white cedar  keep those faint or not-so-faint household noises such as the hum of the fridge, the blowing of the furnace or the disgorging of a flushed toilet muffled.

I fear that true silence is an endangered sense. We rarely take time to be quiet and it is getting more and more difficult to find those spots that aren’t tainted by some distant human-based noise.

After a 90-mile backpacking trek on the Lake Superior Hiking Trail last month, I was most disappointed that we could not find a campsite where human noises were absent. And bear in mind that much of the trail goes through or is adjacent to large tracts of state parks and Superior National Forest.  Whether it was a distant train, a pack of roaring Harleys on Highway 61, nearby ATVs or overhead jets, it was annoying and unexpected.

For most of last week, I made a daily hike from an old deer shack to a favorite deer hunting knob in Superior National Forest. I relished the thought of sitting quietly up in a spruce tree waiting for a deer to come by. In our household, venison is our primary source of meat.

When I’m up in a tree, the world slows way down and I get to inventory the sounds of a day from its dawning to sunset. Here I have the privilege of interpreting the croaks and gurgles of ravens or listening to the uninhibited play of wind through overhead branches. I swayed on a small portable stand fifteen feet up in a spruce while naked birch and maple limbs rattled against each other like a tireless battle of sabers.

Thankfully,  the third morning broke dead still. In the first hour of hunting, my anticipation and focus is most keen. All noises out here are accentuated in the calm. I turned my head to the left when I heard a faint tick. Over the next few mornings this thin fragment of birch bark clicking in the breeze would repeatedly grab my attention.

But the overall quiet is almost overwhelming. As a society we are awash in human-induced noise and it is only growing worse. How often do kids get to experience the awe of complete silence? Or would it be so alien that it might make them nervous or frighten them?

I recall a December day when, as a naturalist, I led a small group of sixth grade urban students into the snowy woods. Our intent was to practice observation. I told the group that I would drop off each of them along the trail and that they had to stay at their drop-off point for about ten minutes. I made sure that each student was out of sight from his or her classmates. Their charge was to sit or stand silently until I returned. Some were nervous and others were excited. I assured them that I would return.

After I picked them up, we returned to the nature center for lunch and the kids then wrote in their journals about their solo observation time. The following day the teacher felt compelled to share with me a couple of the journal excerpts.

One girl wrote, “At first I didn’t see anything. . .  just snow and trees. But then I began to notice all the animal tracks. Some very tiny ones right by my sitting spot. I really liked it. I felt like I could see within myself.”

I smiled when I read a boy’s observation: “I heard a bird that sounded like a computer.” I was both saddened and not surprised that his perspective revolved around computers. I wish I had been there to tell him that his computer bird was likely a white-breasted nuthatch.

During the calm on my deer stand, I could close my eyes and hear the investigating pecks and flits of a small flock of chickadees and downy woodpeckers as they foraged for insects in the bark of nearby trees. But even this rise of boreal wilds is not shielded from human noise. A few gun shots, a distant ATV and eight, yes eight, commercial aircraft passed high overhead before noon. Their out-place roar was most obnoxious. And yet, how many of us simply tune out the background of constant noise?

It was mid-afternoon. I was still perched like a knob on a tree and it was still wonderfully calm. Then the silence was interrupted. I heard a slight rustling coming through the leaves directly in front of me. The noisemaker was screened by a mixed growth of balsam fir, birch and some maples. Suddenly I felt the tell-tale tickle in my throat that clearly wanted to grow into an out-of-place cough. I tried desperately to swallow the tickle. I couldn’t do it so as a last resort I tipped my head down and pulled the five layers of clothing from my neck up over my mouth and coughed gently down in the heated, muffled cavern.

For a moment all was calm. Nothing was moving. And then after a few seconds the red squirrel resumed its November chores. And in reasonable silence I could only smile.

According to some anthropologists, current humans are only four hundred or so generations removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That’s not much time in the big picture. Their hearing was likely far more acute. I wonder which generation will find silence only an idea?

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