Listen to this

Still reading Horan’s Timothy O’Sullivan. Another passage caught my attention both because it concerns a growing point of dismay for me as well as because I read it just a few days after reading about a study, and perhaps a new field of science, concerning the same issue.

The quote is from Mark Twain’s Roughing It in a passage where Twain describes his travels over an alkali desert after leaving Salt Lake City:

The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface–it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound–not a sigh–not a whisper–not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird–not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air. And so the occasional sneezing of the resting mules, and the champing of the bits, grate harshly on the grim stillness, not dissipating the spell but accenting it and making one feel more lonesome and forsaken than before.

Think of it, to listen and to hear nothing, “not a sigh–not a whisper–not a buzz, or a whir of wings.” Nor the low background rumble of jet planes flying at thirty-six thousand feet nor the surf-like wash of noise from some distant highway, just within hearing.

Like true dark skies it is an experience that is rarely lived anymore even when you think you are far from civilization. Years ago, on my first visit to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, I was alarmed to hear what sounded like a fighter jet at low altitude, somewhere just overhead. A ranger at a small museum there confirmed it was indeed a fighter jet, based upon numerous past fly-overs, but we were unable to spot it that time.

But you don’t need fighter jets. There are few places anywhere in the country where that low rumble of passenger jets isn’t there.


When I lived in Maryland it was a revelation following 9/11 when all of the aircraft in the United States were grounded. It was so quiet. Sort of eerie quiet, all the time, for days. And this in a suburban environment.

The New York Times ran a related article on Wednesday which talked about something called “soundscape ecology” and the concerns that the sound we have introduced into the environment might do actual harm to the workings of the ecosystem.

I’ll be in Death Valley in a week and a half, starting soon. I’ll be listening.

Leave a comment