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No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart. (Coleridge)
I need silence to make sense of what surrounds me. The gaps between sounds are borderlands separating yet straddling mountainside and plain, jungle and savannah, shorelines joining land and ocean, embarkation points for journeys into the hearts of worlds. To go on without pause, a machine without sensibility, eventually means death. Life needs moments of respite, lacunae on whose limits the spirit can simply just be—where nothing is needed but stillness. Then time comes for sound, for motion. And I can move because I am moved. The scattered order of gaps, silences intermingling with voices animate and inanimate, words, holy noises enriches experience and allows order to slide in and out like breath.
Beauty sounds within me, gasps of wonder at all that can be. How does silence exist? As long as there is breath, life, blood coursing, sap rising, foliage stirring in the wind, rocks cracking under the sun, water flowing over pebbles and sand, underground seismic rumblings, deep sea stirrings, as long as all these things and more are with us, silence is an abstraction and does not exist. The wonder is there are many silences, though all have their own sound, their own aural reticence and ambiguities—the silence of a city at dawn where birdsongs are briefly ascendant while the traffic is yet sporadic, the silence of a still forest wilderness with shy insect sounds and leaves lazily rustling, the silence of a calm night ocean with faint watery lappings against a boat, the silence of a deserted house with its unexpected creakings and settlings, the silent church slightly resonant with the outside world. All places speak to us with the silences proper to their being. When misfit sounds and alien silences intrude into a particular place or state of being, beauty is marred, the soul jarred.
Silence should be so respected that the words which break it must leave the
world the better for their birth. (Christmas Humphreys)
Sonic justice allows each environment to weave its sounds and silences into garments that its inhabitants delight in wearing. The pauses and overlays in and around my inner city dwelling—flute tunes wafting over from the school across the road, an occasional helicopter, rumbling diesel trucks and buses, droning and clattering trams, booming car stereos, street voices, children’s cries, yells, angry arguments, farewell ‘I love yous’, doors opening and closing to other lives, a washing machine in the apartment above, toilets flushing, showers running, radios and TVs mumbling, music sometimes so loud that brick walls reverberate, dogs barking—these are part of my life’s fabric; I accept sometimes I will enjoy them for the sense of connectedness they give me to the human world, sometimes I will merely tolerate them or mask them with my radio, and, that sometimes they will drive me to distraction, to confrontation. Always it is ‘inconsiderate’ sounds that most offend—overloud music played too long, power tools late at night. Warts and all, city sounds express a city’s nature; though, they too often are an aural expression of environmental tragedy.
I saw old Autumn in the misty morn
Stand shadowless like Silence, listening
To silence. (Thomas Hood)
Non-existence discloses unlimited potential. Silence reveals the infinitude of sounds. If I go into the forest, sit on the leaf litter under a tree, allow myself to become as still as I am able, my silence, my emptiness, my state of grace, these are what link me with the vast spectrum of nature’s sounds—the wind in all its moods; the bright colours of birdsong; the browns and blues of creeks subtly moulding rocks; the variegated rustlings of leaves; the crack of falling branches; the roar of ancient trees arcing to ground; the cries and movements of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates—a percolating sinuous chaotic collage, held together by the gaps, the ephemeral silences. These silences are runways from which the world takes off and soars into infinity. They are the earth beneath my feet, the bed cradling the skies of our imaginings. Ground zero. An insubstantial terra firma, yet a source of myriad new worlds, of creations springing from inner stillness.
How can we know silence? Sound is within us. We put the seashell to out ear to hear the sound of our own blood flowing. Even as we sleep, the heart performs its intricate pulsing oblation to life. Blood gushes greedily, gastric juices gurgle and intestinal passages undulate. The very breath vibrates in our lungs and airways. Each time we turn over in sleep our outer bodies rub against the sheets while myriad internal organs and structures bump, brush, jiggle, collide then settle down. And what of the minuscule sounds made by hairs or tiny flakes of skin as they fall through the air and hit the bedding? Our ears are not sensitive enough to hear such sounds, just as unassisted we do not hear radio signals from the stars or the songs of the whales.
No matter how far we stray from the noises of civilisation, how far we travel into the forests or the deserts, how high we climb into the mountains, how deeply we dive under the seas, there will always be molecules ceaselessly moving. If we possessed no ears, what would silence mean? Though deaf, we are still capable of feeling sounds that resonate with heart, skull, guts, whole bodies. But as long as there is the wondrous dance of atoms, there will be gaps, silences, stillnesses within for harmony to unite inner worlds with natural worlds.