Disturbing the Peace Garden

The other day, my wife was walking with a friend on the path between lakes Harriet and Calhoun when a woman came up behind them and brusquely admonished, “I came here to listen to the birds and all I can hear is you talking.” Then she huffed past, undoubtedly scolding more loudmouth groups along the way.

Obnoxious and hilarious, to be sure, and further evidence that the privileged classes of South Minneapolis don’t exactly have enough real problems on their plate. So let’s give the woman the benefit of the doubt and go with the Russian proverb “a kind word is like a spring day,” and chalk up her inability to enjoy her bird-walk as a casualty of the times:

For God’s sake there’s the oil spill and the economy and widespread panic and political stupidity and the hell-in-a-hand basket world our kids are being left and all I dreamed about all winter was listening to the birds but the only thing you can hear are all these freaking people yammering on about their lives.

For completely different reasons, the woman reminded me of a kid I saw in New York two summers ago. I had been in the big City for a few days, and was fairly well acclimated to the intoxicating speed, noise, hustle, bustle and loud, gregarious people. One morning after drinking in the beautiful noise with a cup of coffee in St. Mark’s Place, I decided to go to Coney Island for the day and climbed the stairs down into the tube station.

The subway train screeched to a halt with such a deafening intensity that my whole being instantly measured it by the two loudest rooms I’d previously been in — concerts by Motorhead at First Avenue and Metallica at Target Center. The violent metal-on-metal collision of wheels on tracks threw sparks, and the sound was like standing next to a revving airplane on a runway.

The sheer force physically knocked me back, so much so that I shook my head and looked around for the face of just one comrade-in-over-stimulation, but saw only a sea of blank, wholly unaffected New Yorkers. I took my seat across from a teenage kid who had the white-noise of death metal blasting on his headphones, and, as the train pulled out with another molten screech, I watched his hollow, sweating, twitchy face, and to this day I wonder how that kid is doing.

I’ve written about this before, and at the moment it’s probably the by-product of immersing my ears in live and recorded music all these years (yes, I use earplugs), but in these times of aural onslaught it bears repeating that silence is good and necessary for the soul. When there’s too much noise — from other people, music, media, voices in your head, the environmental bombast of traffic, planes, chatter — it creates a unique stress and unbalance that can only be soothed, I’ve found, with breathing, meditation and exercise. A few years ago, George Michelson Foy had a similar experience as my subway scene and ended up writing “Zero Decibels: The Search For Absolute Silence,” a sort of “Eat Pray Shhh” about the author’s pilgrimage to the quietest places on the planet, including the Parisian catacombs, Joseph Pulitzer’s silent vault, the Berkshires and an anechoic chamber, a sound-proof room at Orfield Labs in Minnesota.

The book is breezy and insightful, but even the premise of it makes me wonder if complete silence is attainable, or preferable. That is, if you’re always seeking complete silence, always conscious of how loud everything is and what state of mind you’re not in, you’ll miss the natural melding of silence, space and sound that is music. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to the rain.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.