For the last year, I’ve been searching for silence, often with less than perfect outcomes. I’ve become increasingly anxious with all the manmade sounds that surround me and felt a need to immerse myself in a silent world. But, then I realised unless I go and live in an anechoic chamber, there’s no such thing as silence. There’s always something there in the background, raising its hand, trying to make itself heard. And more often than not, that something is nature.
What we mean when we say silence is a lack of manmade sounds. The screeching sound reversing bin lorries make, the drilling and hammering of a nation obsessed with DIY (more so since COVID), the monotonous rumble of traffic on the ring road. These sounds are, unfortunately, the soundtrack to our lives.
And these manmade sounds are making us ill. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that noise pollution is the second biggest threat to health, after air pollution. And noise annoyance has been associated with a two-fold increase in depression and anxiety.
But natural sounds are good for us, especially those of us with high-stress levels. They can also improve worker productivity, focus and mood. So, rather than searching in vain for silence, I should be looking for places that are overflowing with birdsong, waterfalls and rustling leaves.
Let nature sing
So, what should we do if all this manmade noise is getting us down? I’ve decided to surround myself with natural sound whenever I can, sometimes I stand in a field and just listen, other times I use nature as a barrier to other sounds. At the moment I’m listening to the springtime cacophony of horny birds, each one trying to prove they are the fittest by singing the loudest. It might not be the most soothing of natural sounds. I haven’t seen ‘Randy Pigeon’ on the Headspace list of sounds to relax to. But it doesn’t raise my heart rate or demand my attention as manmade noises often do. It’s just there, outside my window, in the background, doing its thing and letting me do mine.
I’d love to be able to stand on a beach and submit to the rumbling waves and whirling winds, but current circumstances prohibit me from doing that. So, instead, I’ve been looking for local alternatives or natural soundscape recordings.
Recently, I’ve become obsessed with Radio Lento, a podcast of natural sounds from around the UK. Launched in 2020, the podcast captures immersive soundscapes from deep inside forests to the shoreline of beaches. Interestingly they don’t edit out the manmade sounds. You can be listening to a soothing, trickling brook and then a car will drive by or a plane will interrupt the buzzing insects in the woods. And I quite like this. It reminds me that quiet is rarely perfect. According to Gordon Hempton, the Sound Tracker, there are only a handful of truly quiet places left on the planet — it’s unlikely one of them is my suburban back garden! Unless I can convince the Olympic National Park to let me move in, I’m going to have to accept some manmade sounds, and the Radio Lento recordings are a gentle way to let both worlds mingle without the human world taking over.
Accepting that silence is impossible wasn’t easy. My brain craved nothingness. But surrounding myself with natural sounds has provided the quiet I needed. Natural sounds dowse my mind in calmness, allow it to just be, rather than racing away with every siren, beep and buzz. So, why not give it a try — next time you feel overwhelmed by the sounds of humanity, turn on some nature, go stand by a stream or lie down under a tree in a park. Let nature be your soundtrack to life.