Lessons in stillness

Meghan O’Rourke travels to one of the quietest places on earth for lessons in stillness. 

Lessons in stillness

The Olympic National Park stretches down coastal Washington and east toward Seattle on a thumb of land known as the Olympic Peninsula, some 60 miles long by 90 miles wide.

Around a three-hour ride by car from Seattle, it feels much farther, as if you have passed into an otherworldly realm.

Within it are volcanic beaches scattered with the remains of massive Sitka spruces, evergreen-crowded mountains, broad, flat valleys and the Hoh Rain Forest, through which 12 miles of hiking trails and the glacier-formed Hoh River run.

The Park, in total nearly a million acres, is home to what may be the most complex ecosystem in the United States, teeming with big-leaf maples, lichens, alders, liverworts, Monkey flowers, licorice ferns, club mosses, herbs, grasses and shrubs of remarkable abundance.

Today, thanks to federal protections, it is home to some of the largest remaining stands of old-growth forest in the continental US.

It was an unusually warm and sunny day in August when I arrived in Washington. I was walking the grounds of my hotel in Kalaloch Beach, less than an hour’s drive from the rainforest, when I heard another guest call out.

“Whales,” he said. “Do you want to see some whales?” I climbed up into the gazebo beside him and looked where he was pointing, at the vast, pounding ocean.

A delicate spout of water breached the air. And then another. And another. And then — a fin of an orca arcing over a wave.

“They’ve been feeding all day,” he said. “I was down there watching them for the past hour. I’ve never seen them like this.”

I hurried down to the beach. The dark gray sand was velvety and warm. I walked past beached jellyfish and oyster shells and the slender bones of seagulls. Before me was nothing but ocean — no ships, no airplanes, no buildings.

The huge noise of ocean and nothing but ocean was profound, a silence in its own right, which seemed odd as I thought about it — how can noise feel like silence? Perhaps because its quality is continuous, soothing, allowing complete immersion.

Listening, it seemed I was on the verge of some feeling or fresh understanding. As the sensation crested, a huge orca lifted up out of the water, baring its smooth gray back, and for a moment I felt its weight settle on me.

The Olympic National Park in Washington, encompasses nearly a million acres of diverse ecosystems.
The Olympic National Park in Washington, encompasses nearly a million acres of diverse ecosystems.

Emotionally drained

A new child, a sick father — I’d had a year that drained me emotionally and physically in ways I had no words for.

My father had been diagnosed with advanced lymphoma when my son was three months old; unable to care for himself, he came to live briefly with my family in our apartment in Brooklyn.

After months of chemotherapy he was better, but those days, weeks and months had been harrowing, hectic ones of visits to the doctor, calls to the insurance company and searches for food that might appeal to a finicky patient, all while caring for an increasingly needy baby.

I was behind on a book that required a lot of careful reflection, and I, too, was recovering from a long illness. When I returned from a month-long work trip with my son in late July, I was exhausted, unwell and snappish.

I desperately needed some quiet. At my husband’s urging, I flew to Seattle alone.

Along with being one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country, the Hoh Rain Forest is also one of the quietest places in the US, according to the One Square Inch project, run by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has worked over the years to preserve the Hoh’s quiet (for example, by requesting that airlines remap their flight patterns).

Here, the absence of sound is complete. There are indeed few planes crossing the vast sky overhead, and on the less populated trails I walked during my visit I saw few other tourists or cars.

Around me, the sun filtered through dense canopies of leaves, and mosses hung, beardlike, from Sitka spruces and Douglas firs, turning the landscape into a Seussian fantasia.

Sword ferns, their leaves delicate and precise, formed coronas at the base of the massive spruce trunks. (A less martial mind might have named them after Victorian feather hairpieces rather than weaponry.)

Twelve to 14 feet of rainfall here annually, and the plant life is monumental: I was immersed in a forest’s cathedral stillness.

Hiking alone, I felt like the loudest thing around, crashing endlessly forward. I was loud inside, too, a cacophony of swirling worries, nagging to-dos and then — beneath all that — a layer of thoughts I hadn’t had time to think in months.

So I stopped. Entering the quiet spaces of woodlands, as the novelist John Fowles once put it, “is almost like leaving land to go into water, another medium, another dimension.” I sank into a medium where impressions arrived more slowly — and more completely. What I heard, oddly, was distance.

An insect far to my left on the mossy floor; a gray jay, maybe 50 yards away; and, even farther, the Hoh River, its waters a quiet, claylike, alluvial blue, stained by the rocky beaches banking it.

When I finally came to it, a herd of elk was resting dreamily in the sun, curled against one another. As I watched, one woke, wobbled up onto its oversize legs, and made his way to the river to drink: a baby still.

I stood there, breathing, taking in, being.

“Silence is for bumping into yourself,” a monk tells George Prochnik, the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, a meditative exploration published in 2010 about the costs of noise and the benefits of pursuing quiet.

I’d come here to try doing just that — to find a willful silence. My tense, raised shoulders slumped. I felt my body relax and my breathing slow.

Sitting on the rocks by the river, letting the sun flush my skin a warm pink, I realised that all summer I’d barely even registered the overwhelming sensation of heat, the way it makes you both sleepy and attuned to the tiniest flecks of sound around you, the pulse flicking in your wrist.

Of course, almost all of us have had the feeling that we need a break from the chaos of our daily lives — you hardly need me to tell you that.

The world gets noisier by the day. More of us inhabit cities or population-dense areas than ever before, and car and plane traffic is steadily increasing.

The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum threshold of 40 decibels at night for healthy sleep — one that’s easily exceeded by spikes of noise from a truck braking on the street or the roar of a lowflying plane.

Noise, in a world where we’re not likely to be killed by an avalanche or a rampaging elephant, is also a metaphor for the hurly-burly of modern life. We all live under an assault of constant inputs, demands, tedious bureaucratic tasks or requests.

The email dinging on your desktop, the text that has to be answered while you’re on the freeway, the Twitter troll you can’t stop yourself from answering — it’s no wonder we crave silence.

This desire for less stimulation isn’t exactly new — it’s been afflicting Americans at least since the invention of the steam engine.

Concerned about “the thousand intricate problems ... which perplex those who struggle to-day in our teeming city hives,” the neurologist S Weir Mitchell wondered: “Have we lived too fast?”

In his book Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked — published not five years ago, but in 1871 — Mitchell diagnosed an epidemic of “hysteria” and “neurasthenia” among 19th-century Americans, worrying that modern life’s stimulation was overtaxing them.

In other words, neurasthenia was thought to be a disease of nerves overstimulated by the pressures of work, leading to fatigue.

That wasn’t quite right, but the noise pollution that 19th-century neurologists worried about is a real health danger, researchers now say. Increasingly, they believe that quiet is a long-neglected component of health.

Loud sounds arouse parts of our brains connected to fear, which in turn trigger a spike in blood pressure and stress hormones like cortisol. These adaptive mechanisms helped our ancestors avoid, say, a bear attack.

But if they’re triggered day after day, they take a toll on our cardiovascular system. Today, your flexible health-care spending account is likely to list earplugs alongside crutches and knee braces as a qualified medical expense.

And for good reason — a 2007 study by the WHO Noise Environmental Burden on Disease working group found that “long-term exposure to traffic noise” in cities may account for around three per cent of deaths from coronary heart disease in Europe each year — that’s about 210,000 people annually killed (in part) by noise.

Other studies show that children who attend school near airports have poorer results on memory and reading-comprehension tests. Ironically, all the magazine articles I kept encountering about the dangers of noise pollution had only been contributing to the noise in my head.

Calling for calm, they produced in its place an anxiety-inducing hum: I better get some quiet, or else.

Silence and peace

Why do we mistake silence for peace?

Silence is peaceful because it reduces stimulation. And silent places tend to be slower places. As I sat by the river in the rain forest, in rushed all the thoughts that noise had blotted out, and held at bay.

I felt like an iPhone trying to download a huge cache of emails and texts after a long airplane flight.

Here, announcing themselves, were my father’s illness, the insistent reality of my new son, my ambitions for my book.

But if silence is so peaceful, I wondered, why do many of us choose to live in busy, noisy cities? Ours is a poetic dilemma: We want silence, but we also want to blot it out.

We confuse silence for peace — then go a little crazy when we have it. After all, silence allows troubling realities: what Philip Larkin called, in ‘Aubade’, his brilliant 1977 poem about predawn silence, the “arid interrogation” with ourselves over “the dread of dying”.

The truest kind of silence is the ultimate one. Is that why we choose to live in noise, through centuries of complaining about it?

Adrift in it, we can duck confrontation with the metaphysical and the existential: the piercing, enduring regret at how you treated an old, estranged friend; the inequities evident on every corner of the city; the fear that your life has been a project of self-delusion — that its elaborate armature, its gilded hand-stitched brocade, may in fact be moth-eaten.

The next day, up the coast at Ruby Beach, about 30 miles west of the rain forest, I walked for miles at low tide. Cormorants wheeled raucously around the peak of an island headland gnawed into existence by waves pounding it over thousands of years.

They had left only the hard core of volcanic rock behind, a high isle that becomes accessible at low tide. In the distance children were cartwheeling on the sand.

I sat on a piece of driftwood — a huge fallen Sitka, dried out by years on the beach. Though it was noon and the sun was strong, mist clung to the headland, blanketing the beach like something from Emily Brontë.

It was the kind of landscape that promised transformation, a wardrobe opening onto Narnia.

Only on the wild beach, the transformation was a subtler one — an inner rather than an outer shift. In quiet, it turns out, we perceive more — our senses spring to life.

I noticed two fallen trees whose root systems were intertwined, so entangled it would be impossible to separate them without damaging them both.

Instead of revving like an engine trying to drive ever onward, my mind slowed, slinking sideways and inward. Entering a cove, I realised just how habituated I am to noise when my mind kept interpreting the loud waves as the roar of engines.

We typically think of the need for silence as a way of communicating with our inner selves. Paradoxically, though, during the quiet days I spent in Olympic Park, I found myself becoming “less inwardly focused than communally aware”, as Prochnik put it, describing a Quaker meeting he once attended.

Perhaps that’s because the park is a public space. A national reserve, it is meant for all of us, unlike commercial quiet spaces where the emphasis is on personal renewal.

In my case, I was reminded of all the “countless silken ties”, as Robert Frost wrote, that keep us bonded to those around us.

What announced themselves in the existential silence of old rocks and an old ocean were memories — of my mother, who died almost 10 years ago, and the deep sorrow of her never knowing my son, and all that he would lose by not knowing her.

These thoughts were like music.

Rather than my having them, they were having me, and I climbed atop a pile of beach logs — enormous spruces, some 50 feet long, piled up like matchsticks by the roaring ocean — and let the driftwood warm my feet and the silence pool in my ears.

To hear ourselves, we sometimes have to flee ourselves, diving into silence until we’re uncomfortably alone with the noise within.

The New York Times

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up