Noisemakers

make a little noise“There are no places left on earth that are free of human caused-noise 100 percent of the time,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. “That’s history. What we now use as a measure of quiet is the noise-free interval: how long is it quiet without an intrusion?”

Not long. In 1984 Hempton identified 21 areas in the state of Washington where the “noise-free interval” was 15 minutes or more. Today there are but three: one in Olympia National Park; “the other two,” says Hempton, “are protected only by their anonymity.”

Hempton believes there remain but a dozen such places in the entire United States. In Europe there are none.

Together with John Grossman, Hempton has written One Square Inch of Silence; he also maintains a blog. Some are calling his book “the next Silent Spring.” After traveling coast-to-coast across the US, Hempton in his tome concludes that “the extinction rate for quiet places vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction.”

Noise is dangerous. Recognizing this, Congress in 1972 approved The Noise Control Act, stating “it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.”

Ten years later, however, under the noisome Ronald Reagan, funding was shut off for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control. And so today no federal agency enforces The Noise Control Act.

Terrance HoughOn Independence Day of 2007, Cleveland firefighter Terrance Hough’s slumber was disturbed by the noise of firecrackers. He asked his neighbors to keep it down, but they demurred. He had over the preceding years filed 12 complaints against his neighbors. This night, he grabbed a gun, opened fire, and killed three of them.

“Do I think that what he did was right? Absolutely not,” environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft told Discover. “But can I understand the anguish he might have been going through with that noise? I think I can.”

So can I. My brother was once nearly driven to extreme violence by neighbor-noise.

During a period of penury, my brother lived in a rundown single-story apartment complex with paper-thin walls. His neighbors possessed but two record albums (yes, it was that long ago): one by Christopher Cross, another featuring pop music from the Punjab. These young men kept their albums in continuous, pulsing, pounding rotation, whenever they were neither sleeping, nor off at work.

My brother began by politely asking them to keep it down. This didn’t work. What they interpreted as “down” always quickly rose to offending levels. My brother had informed me of the outrage; by the time I visited, he had graduated his response to pulling out his chainsaw, yanking it roaring to life, and then walking back and forth next to the vibrating wall. A somewhat less subtle message; still one not received. I also witnessed him marching to and fro, chainsaw screaming, in front of his neighbors’ door and window. This maneuver too generated no response.

He next went to a flea market, where he purchased a boombox and a bootleg cassette tape sloppily labeled, in shocking pink, Punjab Music. The music was fierce, traditional, clamorous. He waited until his neighbors had shut off their stereo and presumably gone to sleep, then inserted the tape, cranked the box to 11, and pressed the speakers to the wall. Usually, he reported, all this prompted was frenzied pounding on the other wall, from his other neighbors.

Finally, jolted out of sleep one night by the 4,567th turning of “Ride Like The Wind,” he found himself, in a red rage, grabbing his shotgun, and pressing the barrels directly against the wall.

He stopped himself before he pulled the triggers. The next day, he moved.

My brother passed away several years ago. I inherited Punjab Music. If ever assaulted with Christopher Cross, I am ready.

The World Health Organization indentifies “aggressiveness” as a health risk of noise. Duh.

Noise makes you dumb. As Discover sets forth, environmental psychologist Bronzaft has pioneered studies that prove noise impedes children’s learning.

Following up on a complaint that a school was near a loud train track, Bronzaft compared the performance of students in the half of the building facing the tracks with that of the children in the quieter part of the school. She found that sixth-graders in the noisy classrooms were about one grade behind their peers in the quieter section on reading scores. The year after the Metropolitan Transit Authority installed rubber pads under the rails to lessen the noise, reading scores at the school evened out. Bronzaft says that more than 30 studies have subsequently documented the impact of noise on learning.

Habitual exposure to sound levels of 85 decibels or above will cause hearing loss in many people. But, as Bronzaft pointed out, noises of fewer decibels may cause health problems that are “real and measurable.”

Even soft noises, well below the level that can damage hearing, have been linked to stress and cardiovascular disease. “A sound that is interpreted as noise, as something we don’t want to hear, causes stress,” Bronzaft says, “which causes problems with the heart, the gut, and other organs.”

I thought about ending this piece with “Ride Like The Wind,” but I knew my brother would never forgive me. So instead I’ll post a bit of the rarely heard “whisper song” of the scrub jay. He liked that sound. So do I.

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2 Responses to “Noisemakers”


  1. 1 Julia Rain August 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    What about Siberia? I doubt there’s man-made noise in some parts of Siberia (although David just suggested that there are probably planes that fly over).

    I thought we were allowed to be noisy on the 4th of July? July 4th and New Year’s Eve – those are kind of all about making noise. I don’t think it’s fair to be mad at your neighbors for setting off fireworks on the 4th of July. Continuously pounding Punjabi music is a different story entirely.

    I remember loving the noise in San Francisco. I don’t really know why. Maybe because it was so different from the noises heard at my somewhat rural, small town home, so I always knew I wasn’t home, I was on a trip, and that was exciting. I remember being rather frightened of complete silence while trying to sleep. This was because every noise that I DID here was ominous and scary. I’ve always been one of those people who wants thing explained to me, and I just didn’t get it that the sound of the tv slightly repositioning itself wasn’t the fault of the supernatural or home invaders (or both) but gravity. My mom would say “old houses just creak”. I wasn’t buying it. Even now, I think it’s pretty weird. I especially hated it when the refrigerator stopped running, because then it got really quiet.

    I wonder what these noise specialists have to say about natural noise. I think for the most part it is good when natural sounds drown out most else, such as my favorite, the “marleying” of the wind, when it howls past the house. However, I know David was driven mad at the height of cricket season in the summer in CA, and that is a natural sound.

    I recently purchased a “soothing sound machine” for $15. I’ve tried just about everything for my insomnia except this. Here are some of the sounds it offers “rainforest”, “rain”, “thunderstoom”, “summer night”, “ocean waves”, “songbirds”, “train”, and “white noise”.

    Now, personally, I think songbirds is more appropriate for waking yourself up in the morning but the machine isn’t meant only to help with sleep – it’s also to help you de-stress. I was a bit surprised to see “train” on there, but perhaps like me, lots of people grow up near train tracks and therefore find the sound nostalgically soothing. I really like the ocean waves, because I can pretend I’m at Dillon Beach, but I do wish there were a Marley setting. The white noise is kind of creepy sounding, but it works better than any sleeping pill I’ve tried.

    Human noise doesn’t really bother me. I don’t like much light while I’m trying to sleep (hugely ironic in a night person. I just plain don’t much like the sun). My eye mask helps with that, and if I spray it with lavender body spray it works even better. David is the one who doesn’t like noise; it doesn’t get to me that much. But then again, since I grew up near train tracks maybe I’m predisposed to tuning noise out. I only remember once waking up at the sound of the train, at age 7, and then only because it was a weird, haunting, reverberating, ghostly sound. Not the train whistle of planet Earth, surely. My best friend Samantha was with me (she practically lived with us for a while) and we stared at each other in terror until the sound went away. A few years later, in junior high, this incident prompted me to write a couple short stories called the “Ghosttrain” series, featuring my friends and myself trying to uncover the mystery of how a train just disappeared off the tracks decades earlier, and can be seen in ghost form accompanied by a haunting whistle but once a year.

    I completely agree that to connect with nature you need to immerse yourself in it’s silence. I remember in 6th grade at Woodleaf Outdoor Camp we were all told to go find a place in the forest and sit there quietly until an idea for a poem came to us, and then write it down. I don’t know what ever happened to that poem (I think the school kept it), but I remember I liked it. When I went back to Woodleaf, years later, as a counselor, I was prompted to write another poem, which – gasp! – I actually managed to FIND! I think it is appropriate for this subject:

    The white owl opens up her eyes
    sets her gaze upon the skies
    seeking out a creature’s cry
    through the wood’s nocturnal sigh

    In the darkness crickets sing
    far beneath the owl’s white wing
    dew drops to the leaves now cling
    sparkling with enchanted sheen

    Senses alert, she prepares for flight,
    as the trees consume the light,
    she spreads her wings into the night
    silent as moonlight, and as white

    • 2 bluenred August 9, 2009 at 12:25 pm

      Hempton’s remarks about the “noise-free intervals” concerned only Europe and the US. Siberia is in Asia. I’m sure there are areas in Siberia that enjoy human “noise-free intervals” of more than 15 minutes. Though since they’re busy up there ripping oil and minerals out of the ground, and methodically logging the place, probably fewer than we might think.

      Yes, making noise on Independence Day and New Year’s is considered acceptable. But as Bronzaft pointed out, “a sound that is interpreted as noise, as something we don’t want to hear, causes stress.” The murderous firefighter clearly did not want to hear that noise, and was seriously stressed by it. You’ll recall from our own Fourth fireworks extravaganzas that he’s hardly the only human ever to be disturbed by fireworks: there was a certain person here who every Fourth hid under the bed with the cats, while outside we merrily tossed ground bombs, blasted holes in our eardrums with screaming petes, and watched fiery pinwheels spin off into the brush.

      One person’s music is another person’s noise. They tortured prisoners down at Guantanamo with music that other people willingly slip into the CD changer. You grew up with trains going by, no matter what home you occupied. You didn’t mind it much. Other people would be driven mad.

      As for “tuning out” noise: that was easier for me when I was younger. Now I’m getting so old and rundown I need near-silence to read; when I was your age, I could read in the midst of a riot.

      I like your poem. It seems kind of Japanese to me. I think you should post it on your blog. ; )


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