Jet-lagged, not knowing the time of day, or even the day or month, I lay in bed listening to the twitter of a robin.
The room was in near darkness. Was it dawn or dusk? I had no idea, but in that strange twilight of the mind that is jetlag I knew at least I had arrived safely in Britain from Tasmania. The song of the robin told me so, and I knew it was winter. The robin was singing a winter territorial song, the one I heard from churchyards in my winter ramblings as a child growing up in Britain.
The robin, in full voice now, had been singing for about 10 minutes when another sound intruded. The robin was suddenly in a duet with the drone of a jetliner straightening for the final approach to London’s Heathrow Airport about 30 kilometres distant.
I knew the plane was heading for Heathrow and I knew it must be around 5am. The previous morning I had been on the same flight from Sydney, the first into Heathrow.
From that moment planes loomed large and intrusive during my three-week stay in the British capital.
On successive days, in the bed of my friends’ home in Deptford in south-east London, I’d listen to the planes going over. There was one every few minutes for so, possibly for 17 hours a day, and I came to appreciate during my stay that silence truly is golden.
I had not lived in a metropolis for 15 years after leaving London for a new life in Australia and like most Londoners the sounds of jets had become a mere backtrack to the symphony of the city.
Silence, or at least an absence of man-made sounds, is something I’ve taken for granted and immediately after my return from Britain I went up to the Waterworks Reserve to clear my head of all the sounds that had accumulated on my trip to Europe – well at least the unpleasant ones – and, as the saying goes, get back to nature and its refrain.
It was a delight to listen to the excited chatter of the black-headed honeyeaters and the strident, melodic notes of the grey shrike-thrush. These bird, unlike some of the species I had seen and heard in London, had not had to moderate their songs and sing at a higher pitch to make themselves heard over the competing sounds of traffic.
My experiment in near-silence, however, was mistimed. It was 5pm and I could still hear the distant, if faint, drone of traffic making its way along the dual-carriageway Southern Outlet to the south. For my next experiment I decided to drive deep into the country, the Upper Florentine Valley bordering the South-West Tasmania World Heritage Area, to see what experience this brought forth.
I’m not alone, of course, in finding pleasure in silence but all the same I considered myself a little eccentric in seeing areas free of the sounds of civilisation as a new frontier in environmental activism. That was until I read an article in an American newspaper about a man who had travelled the same route to silence and sanity and had set out to declare official sanctuaries of quiet.
The campaigner for tranquillity, Gordan Hempton, had proposed a national park devoted to silence, in the same way that some national parks are devoted to a single species, habitat or environment.
Hempton finally established what he termed his One Square Inch of Silence in a corner of the Olympic National Park in Washington state.
Hempton went so far as to try to get some of the major airlines whose flight paths cross the park to alter their routes slightly so that they avoid his precious space.
By and large, they all agreed.
Jet airliners to Hempton constituted the biggest threat to his sanctuary of quiet which, because it is in a national park, was not disturbed by chainsaws and even tourist aircraft.
In his research Hempton found that an aircraft’s noise could range from 35 to 65 decibels – the higher levels comparable to a vacuum cleaner in the next room or a laundry dryer just a few metres away.
Hempton found a truly quiet spot and laid a stone there to mark it. A trail leads to it and walkers are invited to go there and place a message in a bottle extolling the virtues of quiet.
The new frontier of environmentalism, as I call it, has now been extended from America to Tasmania with calls for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to be banned from the world heritage area under any new plan to open the wilderness to tourism development. These aircraft might not be as loud as jetliners but there are nature-lovers in Tasmania – as the letters page of the Mercury attests – who feel that the area should be free of this most intrusive of human-made sound.
I accept that some flights into the south-west are necessary and unavoidable, to take both scientists and birdwatchers to study the endangered orange-bellied parrot at Melaleuca, for instance – but I can sympathise with those who don’t want to see and hear low-flying aircraft on a regular basis
I now have my own retreat in a quiet corner of the Florentine, which is not on any flight path. I escape the city and sit there reading a book some afternoons, listening to the yellow-throated honeyeaters and scarlet robins. To me it’s the sound of silence.
Talking Point, Mercury, 2012