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Why sometimes just finding silence is enough

Another outdoor media has published an article saying that music played loudly on speakers in the hinterland is perfectly fine, and if you do not like to hear it, it is your own cultural preconditions and they need to be reconsidered. Actually no. Not at all, not even a little bit. That’s why we put this essay back on the front page. – Ed.

My wife and I have a six week old daughter at home [ed note: She’s now three years old and has a 7-month-old sister which makes all of the following even more true]. Co-parents will laugh knowingly, but in the months before her birth we had made bold plans to ensure that we would still camp most weekends and that I would still fly with fish and surf and ride mountain bikes as much as I always have done; we were even hoping to go backpacking with our daughter for 12 weeks. Those plans are now in the trash along with several hundred (compostable) diapers.

It’s not like our daughter could not handle those things. We walk with her most days and she sleeps right through it when she is not staring at the trees and making cooing noises. She’s already a badass. It’s just that we only have about two hours a day when she does not require any kind of attention, and then there is housework and paid work to be done, and then the weekend is over, and look, now we have not been in the mountains yet and it’s wild in late June?

Now that silence really is all I have time for, I realize that silence was a far greater part of outdoor experiences than I had imagined.

We have learned something about ourselves in this, the longest brackish period of outdoor adventure for us, since we have been together for the last 14 years. It’s not necessarily the thrill of planning a trip that we really miss. Nor is it necessarily the mystery of what is going to happen out there in the hinterland. Sure, I would love to lie at the waist deep in a Sierra stream right now and loop throws against trout that keep under cut banks, but my daughter falling asleep on my chest is far more rewarding than that.

I think what we really miss is the recharging of a lasting silence in the desert. The soothing soothing week without sound, but the wind in the pine trees, the babbling of a stream, birdsong.

We learned this by trying to recreate the natural silences near the home. Driving to the redwood forests of the Marin Headlands, finding a meadow, overturning camp chairs and just … sitting. For three, four hours at a time. Something I always want to do on backpacks, but never really do. There is always more water to fish, a peak to climb, a view to hunt. Of course, silence is a constant there. It has always been appreciated, but as a secondary benefit of being in the hinterland.

Now that silence really is all I have time for, I realize that silence was a far greater part of outdoor experiences than I had imagined.

Science has shown why, I have since learned.

Studies over the last two decades have shown all sorts of physiological benefits of silence.

Two minutes of silence can lower blood pressure, slow breathing and make a beating heart rest. Our attention span, withered to a knot of constant demands for work and distraction of electric screens, can be rejuvenated by silence, especially in a natural environment, according to Journal of Environmental Psychology. Mice as part of a control group in a noise study were discovered to regenerate brain cells when kept in a quiet environment, an unintentional discovery in this examination. Scientists believe the same is true for human brains.

I suppose I instinctively knew these things. I am aware that forest bathing is a popular trend precisely for this reason. I have written about how doctors prescribe nature walks for everything from chronic pain to mental disorders. The healing aspect of nature is quite obvious.

But what I had not realized is that so often, when I’m in the desert, I hurry to do … something. See most land, hike the most kilometers, drive on the sharpest line, catch the most fish. All of that is hugely rewarding, and my life is built around these activities, but I took for granted the relaxing power of silence. Of the gentle massage of silence.

I have also learned that it can help a rocking camp chair and a great view, and a respite from the noise of modern life, to scratch in that adventure, at least a little. Preferably accompanied by the scent of warm pine trees, the whisper of native grasses blowing, calls of osprey circling overhead. A micro-adventure, I suppose, a straight micro enough that it can be done for new parents.

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