Silence and the Space to Be Amazed

Friday, August 14, 2015 - 7:46am
Photo by Juan Gonzalez

Silence and the Space to Be Amazed

Try this: after you’re done reading this sentence, stop and listen to where you are right now. If you’re in a room in a house, can you hear other people moving around? The TV? The furnace kicking in? Expand your perception to outside. Can you hear any cars? The wind blowing through the trees? Dogs barking? Are you sitting here in complete silence? Can you hear yourself reading this sentence in your head right now?

When was the last time you listened to silence?

“Silence is an endangered species,” says Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who traveled the world for over 25 years to find and record places completely free from manufactured noise. I think that statement holds real truth. At the same time, I believe that silence can be found anywhere, if you listen for it.

What is the purpose of silence? Of engaging in the act of being silent? Of creating silence with another person? I think it has something to do with slowing down, noticing where you are, who you’re with, and what you’re doing, and being absolutely consumed with amazement; if only for a small moment in time.

Sitting in rocking chairs on the cabin porch, reading and drinking hot chocolate as the sun rises over the fir trees. It is silent, except for the songs of the sparrows, mourning doves, and robins. The air is still, and dew drops glisten on the blades of grass under our feet as we walk together towards the creek.

Teenage girls hang out in rocking chairs on the porch at Lake Lodge in Yellowstone National Park.

(David Restivo / Yellowstone National Park.)

Our silence creates space to listen. Our listening creates space to take notice. Our noticing creates space for amazement. It is our amazement that gives us the energy to create change, whether that be in ourselves, in other people, or in the world.

Being silent, listening, noticing, and telling what amazes you is a metaphor for the scientific method. All hypotheses are created by noticing something weird or awesome or crazy or wrong, and wanting to figure out why. Or in the case of noticing something wrong, wanting to figure out how to change it. We would not have the breadth of knowledge about the world and the way it works if people did not have the capacity to be silent and notice.

“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” —Gordon Hempton

Being present. This is the hardest task to ask a ten-year-old to accomplish, especially when 40 of them are together walking up a mountain surrounded by big sticks to play with. But they did it. After three weeks of utter chaos, with kids yelling and running up to the site where we taught our natural history lesson, something finally clicked. Before entering the forest, we asked them to try being completely silent so they could have the chance to spot animals without scaring them away with their frenetic energy.

When the first person set foot on the trail became in tune with the all consuming sounds, sights, and smells of the pine forest, a kind of ripple effect occurred. Every student was mirroring the energy of the forest and each other as they walked silently up the mountain. They could hear squirrels scrabbling through leaves, woodpeckers knocking on hollow trees with their beaks, and blue jays sounding their alarm call through the canopy. They could smell the freshly fallen pine needles. They could see the sharp-shinned hawk shoot like an arrow through the canopy right above their heads.

(Kevin Conor Keller / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

They were silent, they were listening, they were noticing, and they were overwhelmingly amazed. And as a result, they were changed. Changed from a chaotic mess of noise and movement to a balanced and connected line of energy moving not against, but with the mountain.

“Listening is not about sound. Listening is about place.” —Gordon Hempton

Sometimes the act of noticing that silence is standing right in front of your face — waiting for you to embrace it — and it is really hard, even for people who are not ten years old. Our minds and thoughts stop us from being present. This is why seeking out silence is so important.

If we’re lucky, nature will hit us on top of the head with an acorn or in the eye with a branch as if to say, “Hey, I know you’re not paying attention and you’re eventually going to get hurt if you can’t shut up and listen.” In order to survive in the world, animals have to be masters at being silent and listening. Predators like mountain lions and tigers use silence to their advantage in order to stalk and kill prey, while deer and rabbits rely upon their ability to be silent and vigilant in order to detect predators.

But what about us? When do we ever silence our thoughts and just listen? As a society, we don’t prioritize silence. If everyone is trying to have their voices heard, to be the best, to be as productive as possible, or avoid pain, when will we have time to truly listen to another person, to be astonished at what is right in front of us right now, to be present with who we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to be?

The most beautiful thing about silence is that you can find it almost anywhere in small moments — even in the midst of the unavoidable noise in our daily lives.

Immersed in identifying plants and recording data, I work alongside seasoned ecologists on an experiment to figure out what is happening to the herbaceous layer when it is continually devoured by the booming deer population. I’m in the mountains of western Virginia, underneath a canopy of white oak trees with blueberry bushes brushing against my ankles as I walk from plot to plot, but my brain is distracted by the knowledge that the area is notorious for its resident rattlesnake population. For a moment though, something shifts. The wind suddenly picks up, I hear the rustling of the leaves above me become louder and louder as a gust of wind travels across the forest. I stop next to a striped maple sapling and look up at the dense canopy. My attention is captured by the patterns of swirling leaves and flecks of sun shining through them and onto my face. I look to my feet and notice how the ferns become dappled with sunlight as the clouds shift. I’m silent, I’m listening, I’m noticing. And I’m changed by amazement; if only for a moment.

I’m laying in the middle of a frozen lake surrounded by hemlock trees that stand like silent sentinels against an indigo sky, twinkling with stars. It is -2 degrees out. The air is completely still and all I can feel is the coldness of the frozen water beneath me. This is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing the definition of true silence. Slowly and calmly, a light breeze begins to dance across the icy landscape. The tips of the hemlocks wave back and forth; distracted from their silence, but only for a moment. They become sentinels of the night again as the wind passes, dissipating like mist into the sky.

It only takes one moment of silence to listen, to notice, to be amazed.

What do we hear in these moments of silence? We hear each other, we hear ourselves, we hear the Earth.


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Annie Rosenbauer

is a senior at the University of Vermont studying Ecology. She is passionate about doing ecological research, but with the intent of spreading knowledge and inspiring amazement at the natural world in a ways that are accessible to those not within the scientific community.

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Truly appreciate this post-thank you for it. "Silence between the notes, is as important as the notes themselves", is a quote that has stayed and resonated with me. I think this has such broad applicability in personal and professional life. I believe Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, speaks to a concept of "white space" in the context of designing presentations. Overdevelopment, in my opinion, is the norm and so many open spaces are turning into retail shopping plazas. Inundation of information over every available medium and it goes on. We have to allow ourselves to breath. Thanks for the reminder.

Thanks Annie. Excellent article.

If you haven't already read it, check out “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.” I think you'll enjoy it.

Take care.

This is absolutely beautiful, thank you.

Beautiful piece. It reminded me of one of my favorite Whitman poems -

by Walt Whitman

WHY! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love--or sleep in the bed at night with
any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds--or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down--or of stars shining so quiet
and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best--
mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans--or to the soiree--or to the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring--yet each distinct, and in its place.

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass--the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women,
and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim--the rocks--the motion of the waves--the ships,
with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
Walt Whitman

Wendell Berry in his Sabbath poems says "Best of any song is bird song in the quiet, but first you must have the quiet." I too am deeply grateful for moments of awareness in which I feel held and blessed by nature. Thank you so much for this reflection.

Wonderful! This experience should be part of all educational systems.

Beautifully written--thank you!

This is a beautiful piece. In the summer I take time to sit on my deck in the early morning hours, to listen to the birds, the wind, to notice what is happening. If I'm still enough, a gold finch or two will land on the sunflowers. I get to be amazed at nature and it's beauty. Thank you for your post!

I grew up on a farm many years ago. Silence was a DAILY factor--I didn't need to go looking for it anywhere else. My whole growing up was a "meditation." I would wander the yard as an 8, 10,12, 16 year old, watching chickens drink water, pigs snort and root in the ground; I loved the song of the Meadowlarks. I HEARD everything: the owls at night, the crickets, the wind blowing leaves in the trees. I also watched things happen: I watched a mosquito on my arm suck blood, watched it get fat with red showing through his translucent body. Then when he was "full," I'd smack him dead for taking my blood, and my arm would be bloody. I watched and listened and saw a lot of small things that other people never did, as a young child. When I was old enough to drive, I had to take noon lunch out to my Dad and brothers in the field. There were no noises there, when the machinery was on the other end of the field and I was waiting for them to arrive on my end. The "sound of silence" was apparant, and it was a hum sound. There is no absence of sound, because that hum was a sound. And if I were in the field close to the highway, like a mile away, I could hear the sound of car tires on the pavement--there is a sound for that too. I never checked on how far away I could be and still hear the car tires.

Some people could not bear this much silence in their lives. I did. I still do. I never turn on the radio in the daytime and never know what "news" is happening locally, and I really don't much care anyway. I can wander my home and enjoy the company of my own mind. If I get to feeling "lonely" by myself all day, I just head for the grocery store for some little thing. People in the aisles and checkout clerks are about as much "human stimulation" I need to still feel sane.

But I think of the pioneers during settlement time. I was experiencing much of the same things they did, being out there with no sounds other than themselves and the sounds of nature, and maybe their own animals. Silence is not a new invention. It's only "new" to city dwellers who can't even see a sunset for all the buildings and homes in the way of a horizon. I experienced sunsets every day. I also saw all the stars at night, every night, unless clouds were in the way. City lights precluded anyone in town from experiencing nighttime stars, unless they drove out of town to view. I saw the northern lights, psychodelic flashing before modern technology started doing it electronically, digitally.

An aquaintance who doesn't ask questions of me and my life, but who prefers to lecture me, tells me that I need to read about "silence" and how good it is for developing the inner self. I can only be amazed at the utter gall! And somewhat humored by it. Such a sad, sad life that feels the urge to give advice when none was sought, to give "direction" to others when she needs to find her own direction. If I ever hear a kerrnel of truth she has recently "discovered," one would think she discovered a new universal truth, and she is there to report, at length, her findings, so that we may learn from it. Thankfully, I live at quite a distance and do not get this "conversation" very often.

Memories of walking on the Hoh River Trail 20+ years ago in late summer on a backpacking trip with one other person in that magical, mystical green cathedral-like sanctuary. Sounds: birds, trickling water; soft conversation with a park ranger on his way out from a work assignment in a remote area of the park; the gasp of my partner walking in front of me as he stopped suddenly on sighting twin fawns standing with their mother in a dappled glen 20-30 feet off the trail. So much to sense and experience in silence and stillness.

Beautiful in every way. Thank you.