A few quiet words on silence

Silence at sunrise

Shhh. Just listen a moment. It is early, before the sun has even broken the horizon this soft summer morning. The lake is still, rising and falling as softly as the breath of someone sleeping. The sound of dripping water inside a shoreline cave along the north side of Oak Island, like the gentle pluck of harp strings. 

This is morning in the Apostle Islands. This is natural silence.

Silence before sunrise
Morning in the Apostle Islands – Jeff Rennicke photo

When we speak of the value of nature, it is often natural resources we speak of – timber, oil and gas, fisheries, stone from quarries. Even in discussions of national parks it is often visitation numbers or the impact on local economies that grab the headlines. But underneath it all, if you slow down and listen closely, there is silence.

As much as timber or oil or the dollars spent by visitors, silence on a morning like this one is a natural resource and, in the long run, a resource perhaps more valuable to the human soul. Yet, like too many other natural resources, it too is becoming scarce.

Urban noise levels have been doubling every ten years. Traffic, both on the road and in the sky, has tripled in the last ten years adding to the din. Some places have gotten so loud that researchers have documented a shift in bird behavior with some species singing earlier in the morning before the day begins or singing with more volume to try to get attention. Noise has been documented to be detrimental to many species of wildlife – whales that get frightened and confused by high pitched underwater sounds causing them to beach themselves, the heart rates of bears increasing during hibernation in reaction to the thud and boom of seismic testing even a half mile away. 

It would be foolhardy to believe that we as humans are somehow immune to noise. Continuous loud noise has been proven to elevate heart rates and stress in humans. We are hard-wired to be on alert in the city. One study showed that when participants view nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love light up. But when urban scenes are viewed, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety are activated.

It would not be news to most of us to be told that our environment can increase or reduce stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working.

Sun in a yellow sky
It seems like you could hear the sun itself rising – Jeff Rennicke photo

Perhaps that is why the natural silence of our parks is so important a resource. Time in nature has been proven to lower stress and encourage relaxation and calm. Bird song can add to a sense of happiness and connection leading to positive emotions of belonging and community. Over 72% of Americans say experiencing the natural peace of nature is valuable and important to their lives, and an important resource to be protected in our national parks. There needs to be some places that are quiet, some mornings when you can hear your own heartbeat and the brushing of wings overhead.

Morning just like this, when the only sounds are the soft shushing of the lake and a few scattered notes of birdsong, a morning so quiet it seems like you could hear the sun itself rising just now out of the water on the horizon. 

For more information on the efforts of the National Park Service to preserve the natural soundscapes of our park, go to https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/index.htm.


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.