The Sound of Silence

Coming from a big family and a home that was never quiet, I always used background noise to concentrate.  I found utter silence so unnerving and distracting that I couldn’t study or focus in any way if I was in a silent environment.

As a small child, I frequently went hoarse for weeks because I talked so much.  Even though I matured beyond my incessant talking, I am still a flaming extrovert who makes conversation with anyone and anything.  People sometimes say I “could talk to a brick wall,” and I typically respond with, “I could get a brick wall to tell me its life story.”

I love words and I love people, and at times, I have found the absence of both to be disheartening.  Until the Trail, silence was but a brief respite from the perpetually-bombarding cacophony.

But the Appalachian Trail has completely changed my perspective on silence.

Now, silence is normal.  Now, the slightest “background noise” (an airplane overhead, music blaring from another hiker’s iPod) is unnerving, for it distracts me from my peacefulness.

I have long appreciated the use of “negative space” in visual art – the void that helps the focal points to shine.  I had always thought of “rests” in music as the negative space for sound, but they really are not the same thing.  But broad silence, long silence, is different from short rests.  Hours upon hours upon hours of quiet has finally provided me with the sonic negative space that I never had before.

Now, there are fewer noises, but there is more to hear.

Even conversation while hiking permits, and even approves of, more silence than conversations by other means.  When hiking, conversation ebbs and flows.  It might ebb for seconds, but it might ebb for hours.  A pause of any length is not awkward; it is just an opportunity to contemplate. Even hours later, a conversation can resume where it was left off, or a subject from yesterday can be revisited, or a new topic can be introduced.  In no case is this awkward.

I think this is why even conversations, even words that fill the silence, are better while hiking.  There is no need to fill the silence with superfluous sound, there is no need to respond before you have thought a through a point (for hours or days, if need be).  Extensive negative space brings only the worthwhile words into focus.

In the woods, silence is not awkward; it is peaceful.  Silence is not empty; it is a sound of its own.


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