Discovering silence, solitude and night darkness in a world full of everything else

 

“Listen more often. To things than to beings. The fire’s voice is heard, hear the voice of water. Hear in the wind the bush sob: It is the ancestors’ breath.” Birago Diop, Senegalese poet and storyteller

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Sunset over the Appalachians and the prelude to an incredible dark night sky                                   (photo by Mark Ellison)

Silence. Solitude. Night darkness. They each offer a sense of peace as well as health benefits, but seemingly are shunned by a world too busy to appreciate them. To many, they may seem foreign after being bathed in noise, navigating through crowded cities and living in neighborhoods with lights on 24/7. When was the last time you truly experienced silence, solitude or darkness? Have you ever embraced them as part of who you are? If you haven’t, you are missing out on some of the best gifts that nature provides.

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The soothing sound of a creek in the late afternoon (photo by Mark Ellison)

It is difficult to be attentive to what nature has to share with our earbuds in and our smart phones captivating all of our attention. We often have a closer relationship with our phone than nature. Are we trying to distract ourselves from  a reality that includes constant waves of traffic noise, leaf blowers and ambient light that blurs the view of stars in the night sky. Just as sound permeates nearly every corner of the world, human created light protrudes deep into the wilderness as well.

In his book Silence: In the Age of Noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge talks about the silence within us, around us and the silence we must create. Silence is a luxury for all creatures. Bird songs have even changed because of noise. The lower tones used by birds have disappeared,  replaced with higher tones to compete with human noise. This has made it more difficult for birds to attract a mate.  Kagge describes the opportunity to experience silence as a disparity that gives some people the opportunity to enjoy longer, healthier, richer lives than many others. Indeed, noise pollution is one of the biggest stressors in modern life.

How do we find the silence within us? In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy was introduced in the 1980’s and is now becoming popular in the United States, as a way for stressed out urbanites to improve their health. The path to this for me has always been through nature. It takes hours for me to filter out the thoughts, stress and garbage in my brain and spirit to arrive at this place. It requires being in a natural environment that is free of human created noise, light and buildings. Wilderness areas are a wonderful escape, as are trails that are off the beaten path, as well as just getting away from population centers. If you live in an urban area, it may not be possible to access this kind of nature regularly. However, you can find places that offer some escape from it all.

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The Japanese poet Bashō eloquently describes the power of listening in a haiku: An old pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water! (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being alone in nature can have a transformative impact. Experiencing the silence of nature solo “can provide awareness, understanding and clarification of one’s place,  purpose and direction in life,” according to Clifford  Knapp and Thomas Smith in their book Exploring the power of solo, silence and solitude. They add that going outside into nature can help us go into our minds.

Just as silence and being alone seem foreign, so can being out in nature in darkness. Darkness  cradles mystery and the unknown. It magnifies sounds and intensifies imagination  because it limits what we can see. Darkness, like quiet and solitude, is a gift if we are open to embracing it. Freedom from the stimulation of human created light is beneficial for humans as well as animals. Wilderness offers us a cocoon from the unrelenting glare of modern life that disrupts sleep, causes stress and hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Human created light also has a negative impact on many animals.

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Tracking down the One Square Inch of Silence in Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being able to experience wonder and awe are two huge benefits of silence, solitude and darkness in nature. In the book Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and engineer the unexpected, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, Ph.D talk about the necessity of surprising yourself by turning on the sense of wonder.  The suggest doing this by slowing down and looking closer. This could be looking at a wildflower, listening to stream, gazing into the depth of a sky filled with hundreds of stars. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass encourages us to recognize “the dazzling gifts of the world, and to respond to the world as a gift.” Don’t try to put a name on the wonder, just experience it.

Seeking out experiences of awe is also important. Awe is described by Luna and Renninger as a surprise that is stirred up by something unfathomably vast or complex. Nature is the most common trigger. Awe helps us reframe ourselves as small and the world as vast. Awe also makes us feel like we have more time… an “extended now.” Experiences of awe are rare. You have to actively seek them out.

For those who are not yet comfortable with the silence, solitude and darkness nurtured in nature, that can change. Perhaps taking a hint from the authors of Surprise, it might take putting yourself in a position to grow. “It’s the moments we surprise ourselves and grow our comfort zone that we find the most meaningful. We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not. By stepping outside your comfort zone you grow your comfort zone.” That is the challenge. It might make you somewhat uncomfortable, but you will feel so much more ALIVE!

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Soaking in silence, solitude and soon to be darkness (photo by Mark Ellison)

Making time and taking the first step towards experiencing something outside your comfort zone can feel scary. On the other side of that is exhilaration and deep peace.

So go for it. Make time in your schedule this year to enjoy the silence, solitude and night darkness wrapped up for you as a gift in nature. And while you are there, be sure to thank the plants, animals, trees and stars for making it all possible.

 

Five Ways to Connect to Nature in 2018

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Plott Balsam Mountain Range (North Carolina)

The new year is a fantastic time to rediscover how being in nature can help reduce stress and increase effectiveness. You do not have to make a large commitment of time, just block out some space in your schedule. Here are a few tips that I use to help stay connected to nature.

Develop a Plan Focused on Doing Things You Love

I like to spend time in nature by hiking, cycling, mountain biking, and kayaking, so I set goals in each of these areas to make sure I stay on track. It helps my physical fitness, and also my mental fitness. It is not about the numbers, but that helps me stay motivated. I had 1,300 miles in 2017, so I am aiming for 1,500 in 2018. My body, mind and spirit will thank me for every extra mile.

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Sunset over Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Waterrock Knob Trail (NC)

 

Make Room for Silence

We live in a noisy world. One way to escape the stress that this causes is to allow the silence available in nature to capture your attention. This is not only calming but serves to help restore your attention capacities. Find quiet places to go on a lunch break or for an after work stroll. When you have time for more extended trips, find places that are not near areas with lots of human created noises (eg, roads, airports, neighborhoods).

Reflect While You Are in Nature

Getting away from the things that cause stress and spending time in nature is the perfect setting to reflect. Bring a journal and write about whatever is on your mind. Try writing with your non-dominate hand to help your mind slow down. Draw the things you see in nature. These simple approaches to reflection can help you relax.

Volunteer

There are numerous volunteer opportunities that can get you out in nature more. Perhaps there is a community garden in your area, or a trail maintenance and hiking club such as the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville, NC. These are great ways to help the environment and make new friends.

Take a Social Media Fast

Social media diverts attention. When you are in nature stop thinking about what pictures you want to take to share on social media. Let yourself become immersed in the experience. You will remember much more about the things you saw during a hike if you are not constantly thinking about what you want to photograph.

Enjoy the new year and get outside as much as you can. There is bountiful research showing that time in nature truly does wonders for your mind, body and spirit.

I hope to see you out on the trail or paddling sometime soon!

Introducing Silence to our Landscape, One Square Inch at a Time

It is raining this morning at my home in North Carolina. It is soothing listening to the gentle showers while watching the songbirds frolic in the water. What I l love about rain, and snow, is that the world gets a little quieter because not as may people are out, and things seem to slow down a bit.

Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

I enjoy days like this because the world is a noisy place. The majority of us live and work in cities, or developed areas, which usually means non-stop human generated noise: traffic, lawnmowers, airplanes, sirens, trains, machinery and crowded side walks. There is no way to escape. The verve of the city is stimulating, and fun. But for our health, we need an escape from it.

Noise can negatively impact health in many ways. Noise causes stress, and literally any sound can be perceived as noise under the right conditions. Over 11 million Americans are exposed to traffic noise at or above levels that risk hearing loss (Bell et al, 2001). Exposure to noise has been associated with many health problems including hypertension, ulcers, compromised immune system, digestive problems, psychological changes that lead to disease, sleep loss, and delayed development of reading and verbal skills in children (Bell et al, 2001). Noise also increases aggressiveness when people are angry (Bell et al, 2001). Studies have linked increased crime to the presence of noise in communities (Bell et al, 2001).

Spending time in natural settings provides  opportunities to experience silence. Freedom not only from ambient noise, but also the opportunity to experience “cognitive quiet” a term first used by Stephen & Rachel Kaplan, professors at the University of Michigan, to describe clearing the mind to be able to think more clearly. Silence in nature does not necessarily mean complete quiet, just freedom from human generated noise. The presence of what the Kaplans identified as “soft fascination” in nature is relaxing, not stress inducing. Soft fascination includes things such as bird songs, the water of a stream flowing over rocks, a  rain shower, or the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, which help clear the mind. Soft fascination captures our attention to a small degree, but leaves room for thought, and self reflection.

Moss and fern covered tree in Hoh Rain Forest Photo by Mark Ellison

Moss and fern covered tree in Hoh Rain Forest
Photo by Mark Ellison

One of the most beautiful and quiet places I have hiked is the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. I experienced such a profound sense of peace as I hiked deep in this forest. Hoh Rain Forest is home to the “One Square Inch” research project, designed to create a sanctuary for silence in Olympic National Park. One Square Inch of Silence was designated on Earth Day 2005 to protect and manage the natural soundscape in Olympic Park’s backcountry wilderness. The reasoning behind this is that if a loud noise, such as  an aircraft, can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100% noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles around it. Protecting a single square inch of land from noise pollution  may be able to benefit large areas of the park. One Square Inch may be the quietest place in the United States.

Olympic National Park was chosen for One Square Inch because it has a diverse natural soundscape combined with substantial periods of natural quiet. Unlike other national parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or Hawaii Volcanoes, air tourism is undeveloped and roads do not divide park lands.You can experience the natural sounds of Hoh Rain Forest and Olympic National Park in this “Breathing Space” compilation of natural sounds. I use this in the office to block noise, and at other times to just relax.

Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

When I take a group on a hike for one of my classes I introduce experiencing silence as part of the trip. Hiking in groups offers tremendous opportunities to connect with others. More importantly though, it provides freedom from human noise (relatively speaking) and an opportunity to observe the sights and sounds that only nature provides. It also allows time to quiet the mind.

We need to be aware of the amount of noise we make and the impact it can have on others whether in our everyday settings, or in a forest. We can have a similar impact as the One Square Inch project by doing our part to reduce noise. I encourage you to take a holiday from noise, and breath in the true essence of the natural world, silence. Your health depends on it.

Reference

Bell, T., Greene, T., Fisher, J. & Baum, A. (2001) Environmental Psychology. New York: Taylor & Francis.