Why Sometimes Just Finding Silence is Enough

Another outdoors media outlet has published an article saying music played loudly on speakers in the backcountry is totally fine, and if you don’t like hearing it, it’s your own cultural biases and those need to be rethought. Actually, no. Not at all, not even a little bit. That in mind, we’re putting 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]. Fellow parents will laugh knowingly, but in the months before her birth we’d made bold plans to ensure we’d still camp most weekends and that I’d still fly fish and surf and ride mountain bikes just as much as I always have; we even hoped to go backpacking with our daughter at 12 weeks. Those plans are now in the garbage along with several hundred (compostable) diapers.

It’s not that our daughter couldn’t handle those things. We hike with her most days and she sleeps right through it, when she isn’t staring at the trees, making cooing noises. She’s already a badass. It’s just that we only have about two hours per day when she doesn’t require some kind of attention and then there’s housework and paid work to do and then the weekend is over and, look, now we haven’t been to the mountains yet and it’s freaking late June?

Now that silence is really all I have time for, I’m realizing that silence was a far bigger part of outdoor experiences than I’d imagined.

We’ve learned something about ourselves in this, the longest fallow period of outdoor adventures for us since we’ve been together these past 14 years. It’s not necessarily the excitement of planning a trip that we really miss. It’s not necessarily the mystery of what’s going to happen out there in the backcountry either. Sure, I’d love to be waist deep in a Sierra stream right now looping casts toward brown trout holding beneath cut banks, but my daughter falling asleep on my chest is far more rewarding than that.

I think what we really miss is the recharge of a sustained silence in the wilderness. The calming soothe of a week with no sound but the wind in the pines, the babble of a brook, the songs of birds.

We learned this by trying to recreate those natural silences near home. Driving to the redwood forests of the Marin Headlands, finding a meadow, plopping down camp chairs and just…sitting. For three, four hours at a time. Something I always want to do on backpacking trips but never really do. There’s always more water to fish, a peak to scramble, a view to chase. Of course, silence is a constant there. It’s always been appreciated it, but as a secondary benefit to being in the backcountry.

Now that silence is really all I have time for, I’m realizing that silence was a far bigger part of outdoor experiences than I’d imagined.

Science has shown why, I’ve since learned.

Studies in the last two decades have shown all kinds of physiological benefits of silence.

Two minutes of silence can lower blood pressure, slow breathing, and bring to rest a pounding heart. Our attention spans, withered to a nub by constant demands of work and distraction by electric screens, can be rejuvenated by silence, especially in a natural environment, according to the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Mice as part of a control group in a study about noise were discovered to regrow brain cells when kept in silent environments, an accidental discovery in this study. Researchers believe the same thing applies to human brains too.

I suppose instinctually, I knew these things. I’m aware that forest bathing is a popular trend for just this reason. I’ve written about how doctors are prescribing nature walks for everything from chronic pain to mental health disorders. The healing aspect of nature is fairly obvious.

But what I hadn’t realized is that so often, when I’m in the wilderness, I’m rushing to do…something. See the most country, hike the most miles, ride the raddest line, catch the most fish. All of that is tremendously rewarding and my life is built around those activities, but I took for granted the restful power of quiet. Of the gentle massage of silence.

I’ve also learned that to scratch that adventure itch, at least a little, a rocking camp chair and a tremendous view, and a respite from the noise of modern life can help. Preferably joined by the smell of hot pines, the whispers of native grasses blowing, the calls of osprey circling overhead. A microadventure I suppose, one just micro enough to be doable for new parents.





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