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A Quiet Place

By 13 April 2022June 4th, 2022Feature Article, North&South

A Quiet Place

In our bustling day-to-day lives, it can sometimes feel impossible to snatch a few moments to yourself. As human-made noise colonises more and more of the planet, a small group of volunteers is starting to fight back.

By Petrina Darrah

A silent motorway in Auckland’s April 2020 lockdown. Photo: Stephen Penny.

On the first day of Level 4 lockdown in August last year, Wyatt Page stood in the central Wellington suburb of Newtown, listening. The city had stilled overnight. The main street was empty. No cars purred past the shuttered shops, no busses hissed and lurched from one stop to the next. “The only thing I could hear,” Page says, “was the hum of the air conditioning units in Wellington Hospital.”

A self-described geek, Page has warm brown eyes behind wire-frame glasses and punctuates his sentences with enthusiastic hand gestures. Associate Professor of Acoustics and Human Health at Massey University since 2009, Page rattles off decibel measurements as if he’s describing the weather. He has been keenly attuned to sound ever since he was a young boy sneaking into cinemas to absorb their superior acoustics. His love of sound extends to editing New Zealand Acoustics, a quarterly journal for the Acoustical Society of New Zealand — but he’s well aware that when it comes to noise, more isn’t always better.

Speaking about the “sea of background noise” whipped up by urbanisation and industrialisation, his tone tends to stray into urgency. Noise, he knows from his years of research into sound and its impact on wellbeing, is the cost of living in vibrant cities — and the price can be surprisingly steep. As Page listened out on that late winter day, the vibrations of this low and persistent drone weren’t a surprise. Even during a nationwide lockdown, he expected to hear . . . something.

In our day-to-day  lives, we are constantly surrounded by noise. The fridge whirs, a mobile phone pings, the neighbour revs their lawnmower. In urban areas, it’s almost impossible to escape noise. Pause for any given moment and you might hear a motorbike roar past, car horns honk, a helicopter chopping overhead: all part of the blaring, relentless din of a city full of people. “Urban centres frequently surpass levels of noise considered safe or reasonable,” says Page, explaining that, generally, noise above 55 decibels can have an unpleasant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. Busy street traffic can hit 70 decibels, a lawnmower 100 decibels, and the howl of a siren 120 decibels. However, noise pollution isn’t solely a question of volume. The sound of rainfall can be 50 decibels, and a clap of thunder 120 decibels, so nature is not necessarily quieter. But the reverberations of natural sounds affect us differently.

Within nature, Page says, most sounds are stochastic, which means they have natural variation — the rustle of leaves in a breeze, rolling waves, or the rushing of a stream. These sounds evoke a sense of reassurance in us, part of the reason why rain on a rooftop or the crackle of a fire can be so comforting. In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers found that naturalistic sounds balanced the body’s cardiovascular fight-or-flight response and activated the calming parasympathetic system.

Last year, an historically high number of homes were consented, and construction seems like it’s proceeding at breakneck pace, especially in Auckland, where the housing crisis has been most keenly felt in record prices, and where major public projects like the City Rail Link are well under way. In residential areas of our biggest city, construction noise is allowed from 7.30am to 8pm during the week and almost as long on Saturdays. In the CBD, construction is permitted seven days a week. If you live next to a building site, you have very little control over the noise emanating from it. And it doesn’t take a scientist to discover that the sound of an electric saw or jackhammer doesn’t have the same effect on our psyches as a gently rippling creek. “As soon as you step outside, you are confronted with noise,” Page says. “There is no way around that.”

Maybe you now find yourself sitting on the front porch with your morning coffee while enduring the sound of a nail gun punching violently through the calm. Or perhaps sawing, drilling and banging has replaced what would normally be a peaceful evening lull before bed. The construction hubbub, while essential if we want to get on top of our current housing shortage, is nevertheless annoying. And it can have bigger impacts than just disrupting your morning routine. Over time, the stress response triggered by exposure to this kind of pervasive noise can lead to an increased likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, as well as higher blood pressure, strokes, diabetes and depression.

Noise pollution is an invisible threat: according to research by the World Health Organization, we have become adept at tuning out these background irritations, but the impacts of long-term exposure to environmental noise pollution are so severe that in Western Europe alone at least one million years of healthy life are lost every year from traffic-related noise.

Noise seeps insidiously into every crevice of life within cities and extends into the farthest reaches of the planet. Aural evidence of humans can be heard in wildernesses such as Siberia and the Sahara as commercial aircraft throttle overhead. Even in the far reaches of the Mariana Trench, the deepest crevasse in the ocean, researchers have recorded echoes of shipping traffic and seismic airguns. In New Zealand, the inhospitable mountain ranges of the South Island and some smaller islands in our archipelago are among the precious few places left free of noise pollution for any significant amount of time; our last cradles of quiet. In fact, naturally quiet places (defined not by the absence of all sound but the absence of human-made noise) are so rare they are in danger of going extinct.

tongariro national park
Tongariro National park. Photo: Imogen Greenfield.

Even if you’re not consciously hearing it, noise is affecting you. Low-frequency sounds — identified by a constant drone or tone, an ongoing throbbing hum — saturate urban environments, from the cars we drive to the air conditioning units that keep us cool. The impact is subtle but profound. “Your whole body is being gently vibrated, which affects your entire physiology,” Page says. “In an evolutionary sense you would be concerned if there was low-frequency rumbling all the time. It would increase your stress levels.” In urban areas, we are constantly exposed to these unnatural noises that trigger our stress response. Run, that noise is signalling to us. There is a threat coming.

Despite this, often we barely notice the clamour. How can you know what silence sounds like if you’ve never experienced it? In early 2020, after the country plunged into Level 4 for the first time, Page sat in his suburban Wellington garden and marvelled at the birds flitting from trees to the ground, whistling happily to each other. He noticed how, without having to compete against traffic and construction noise, the birds had started to raise their voices and move more freely in urban areas. Page estimates noise levels had dropped by 90 per cent. “It was so dramatic. The whole world’s soundscape just completely and utterly changed,” he says.

Exposure to pervasive noise can lead to an increased likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes and depression.

For many people, the lockdowns were the first time they noticed what their city sounds like when the volume is turned down. The phenomenon was so surprising and unusual it gave rise to a new term, anthropause — a global reduction in modern human activity. In this startling moment, as human movement around the world came to a standstill, many people heard what the world sounds like without us. Now, they want more.

“The whole world is seeking an antidote to noise pollution,” says Gordon Hempton, a renowned acoustic ecologist and pioneer in protecting silence. He describes the earth as a “solar-powered jukebox”, and natural soundscapes as the “beautiful, timeless music of the interweaving of life”. His work to record and conserve our planet’s sonic wonders spans four decades and includes recording some of the rarest sounds in the world, from the dawn chorus in the outback of Australia to thunder in the depths of the Amazon and wind across the sand of the Kalahari Desert. He aims to digitally preserve these sounds before they are drowned out entirely.

Hempton’s prescient belief in the value of natural quiet led to his founding Quiet Parks International (QPI), a non-profit organisation with a simple, singleminded mission: to save quiet for the benefit of all life. From its origins in the United States, QPI is now active in countries around the world, including New Zealand. In the same way that the International Dark-Sky Association has helped bring attention to pristine night skies and protect them from light pollution, QPI hopes to draw attention to places such as the serene Zabalo River flowing through the Ecuadorian Amazon and the wide-open plains of Grasslands National Park in Canada.

From his home in a rugged northwest corner of Washington state in the United States, a place with wild coastlines and dense forests similar to New Zealand’s own, Hempton speaks in calm, measured tones. “There is not a single place left on earth that is noise-free for a 24-hour period,” he says matter-of-factly. “Not even the North Pole.” According to Hempton, in the mainland United States, there are only a dozen or so places with noise-free intervals longer than 15 minutes.

“When we go to the naturally quiet places that are left on earth, what do we find? We find intact ecosystems, we find ancient forests or undisturbed prairies. We find healthy ecosystems rich in biodiversity,” Hempton says. He firmly believes soundscapes can be as attractive as landscapes: open your ears to the beauty of quiet and the rest will fall into place. Conservation, it turns out, is as much about protecting the environment from noise as it is from other forms of habitat destruction.

He envisions a future where visitors understand how to visit a place with as little impact as possible — including making as little noise as possible. “For travellers, not only are they doing something good for themselves by seeking out quiet but they are also doing something good for the places they visit.” This could be easier than you think. In 2011, researchers carried out a noise reduction study at Muir Woods National Monument in the United States. They found by simply asking visitors to switch off their mobile phones and talk quietly, the sound level dropped by three decibels, which is equivalent to 1200 fewer people being in the area on a normal day.

This benefits not only us humans, but the creatures who live in the places where we go to seek peace of mind. When noise pollution is introduced into an environment, it gets in the way of animals finding food, navigating, avoiding predators and communicating with each other. Research has found that noise pollution causes caterpillars’ hearts to beat faster, birds to have fewer chicks and even whales to strand en masse. In lockdown last year, ecologist, tour guide and Banks Peninsula local Marie Haley noticed leopard seals lounging on Akaroa’s beaches, basking near the boat shed and lumping down the boat ramp. “Then,” she says, “as soon as lockdown finished they just disappeared. No one saw any.” She believes the hubbub brought by the resurgence in cars, spectators and dogs drove them away.

Hempton has never been to New Zealand but he sparks with enthusiasm at the thought of visiting. “Wilderness quiet, which New Zealand particularly has to offer the world, is a precious, soul-changing experience.” With vast areas of largely unpeopled wilderness, our islands would appear to be peaceful sanctuaries for travellers, rich in the resource of quiet.

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Haley would disagree. She laments the irony that travelling to wilderness areas often means making noise. Even our most far-flung glaciers and “ords are easily intruded on by a silence-shattering parade of helicopters, planes, boats and buses. On a recent trip to Doubtful Sound (what should be one of our quietest and most remote places) Haley waited in vain for a moment when she could listen to the sounds of the “ord without the muffled roar of the boat’s motor. The moment never arrived. “I didn’t get to connect,” she says sadly. “I didn’t feel that place.”

Haley grew up in a strikingly quiet corner of Banks Peninsula with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Her upbringing led her to have a strong affinity with silence. “Natural quiet has its own vibration,” she enthuses. “It allows you to get a sense of a place, the subtleties of the wind, the breeze. The feeling, if you really want to go into it, of the mauri of the place. The spiritual life force.”

Mueller Glacier
Frozen Mueller Glacier Lake and Mueller Glacier in front of Mt Seftom. Photo: Pseudopanax CC.

So where, in a country crisscrossed with highways and flight routes, dotted with wind turbines and laced with powerlines, can people escape noise? Helping to answer this question, and identify places that may one day be recognised as quiet parks, is a small group of QPI volunteers. Among them is Annet Forkink, who speaks of the natural world as a wellspring of both energy and peace. You might be thinking she sounds like a bohemian flower child, but Forkink, who is in her 40s, is an environmental planner and scientist. Originally from the Netherlands, she speaks with clipped vowels and a no-nonsense air — it’s easy to imagine her commanding a room full of students. Her impressive career spans research and teaching in areas such as environmental policy and natural resource management, an academic background deeply rooted in her connection with nature.

Before moving to suburban Wellington, she had always lived rurally. Now, trapped in the echo chamber of Wellington’s hills, she noticed for the first time how easily natural quiet is crowded out. Searching for a solution, Forkink stumbled across QPI. Excited to find out she was not alone in her quest for quiet, she reached out to Hempton. To her surprise, Hempton replied. He asked if she would be interested in championing quiet in New Zealand and seeking out places that might receive an award. No harm in trying, she thought, and joined the ranks of QPI volunteers scattered around the world.

For the volunteers, finding quiet means poring over maps and searching for places away from flight paths, transportation networks, powerlines, farms and any other sources of noise pollution. They then visit each place they identify multiple times to hear how it sounds at different times of the day and different times of the year. Everything from the peaks and troughs of traffic throughout the day, to the seasonal density of foliage on the trees, can change how a place sounds. The next step is getting local communities and park management officials on board, before finally inviting QPI engineers to test the potential site. If a soundscape is found to have “exceptional sonic beauty”, QPI will offer the park its official designation.

Research has found that noise pollution causes caterpillars’ hearts to beat faster, birds to have fewer chicks and even whales to strand en masse.

QPI itself doesn’t protect quiet areas or create any regulations; its intention is to provide the extra imperative for local authorities and visitors to act. “What we want to do is give attention to what is right and title things in such a way that everything else happens in an appropriate fashion,” Hempton says. “To simply say ‘national park’ is not enough. Here in the United States, 90,000 helicopter tours were being flown every year over the Grand Canyon. Nobody said it was a quiet park. Sure the description of the Grand Canyon includes ‘sacred silence’, but it was not labelled a ‘sacred silence park’.”

The protection of quiet spaces is left to the land managers, whether that is indigenous groups, local government bodies, or visitors themselves. In New Zealand, QPI has identified Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and Tongariro National Park as potential Wilderness Quiet Parks. Both are places of exceptional natural beauty that also offer, in Hempton’s words, a clean acoustic environment and an auditory horizon that extends for many miles. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is home to the country’s highest mountains and longest glaciers. A rugged wilderness of ice and rock, the park is defined by its grandeur. There is only one road into the park, and the village has only a few hundred residents. Here you might hear a whole concert of ephemeral sounds, such as snow melting, glaciers cracking or the lonesome call of a kea. “If in New Zealand you have Mount Cook Quiet Park, anybody going there has an expectation that it will be quiet,” Hempton says. “And anybody who is thinking of starting air tours there is going to know that could be a problem unless they have some kind of quiet aircraft they have invented.” Imagine, he says wistfully, an intentionally quiet community with quiet rooms, quiet transport, and quiet experiences.

Although Aoraki and Tongariro national parks have attracted the attention of QPI, they are by no means the only places to find quiet in New Zealand. And how we experience quiet can be as important as where we find it.

Great Barrier Island is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, a recognition of its status as one of the darkest places in the world. Areas free of light pollution are likely to also be very quiet. The island is a haven of tranquillity, with roughly two-thirds of its area protected conservation land. With beaches that face the wide-open Pacific Ocean and fewer than 1000 permanent residents, it’s a small bastion of quiet. A handful of daily flights intermittently disrupt the stillness, but in the spaces between the hum of aircraft, the main sounds are rolling waves and the wind rushing into them. Locals have watched apprehensively as closed borders have landed Great Barrier on the radar of domestic travellers keen for a getaway — those who’ve rejected mainland life altogether are well aware of how precious their quiet and solitude is. In February, Charles Nepia, the kaiwhakahaere of Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea Trust Board, told Auckland Council on behalf of local iwi to suspend consents for helicopter pad applications. Nepia also asked the council to give more credence to local iwi’s position as kaitiaki for the Barrier and their role in taking care of the island and its way of life. Five applications for helicopter pads were made in as many months, surprising locals, who were preparing a petition against any such construction.

Vicky Kyan is a certified forest nature therapy guide who has lived on the island for more than 30 years. The natural soundscapes of the island are the backdrop to the work she does awakening people’s senses. Kyan uses sensory connecting meditation to guide visitors through a nature experience — that includes actively listening, to help ground them into the beauty of the place. “The symphony has its own rhythm and melody completely unique to this moment. There might be layers of sound, so I might invite people to notice if they can hear themselves within this music.” She describes the experience as an opportunity to be present with themselves and nature, which many people find profoundly moving.

At the other end of the country, on the windswept Banks Peninsula, Haley guides visitors to sea cliffs where the only sounds are seabirds and waves below. Out there on the precipice, bathed in fresh air and presented with sweeping views, she invites people to listen to what the peninsula sounds like away from the crowds. Her tour business, The Seventh Generation, is crafted around the indigenous concept that our actions today should support a sustainable world seven generations into the future. She’s also the seventh generation of her family to live in this remarkable place, so she guides tours with an intimate knowledge of the local history and passion for the environment.

Weaving together the threads of history, deep sustainability concepts and personal connection, Haley encourages her guests to rethink how they see a place when they visit. “I’ve had these experiences with people where they just feel this real connection,” she says of the final moments of her tour when visitors find themselves listening to the wind and the sea. “Quiet is a way to connect to yourself and the earth and to place.”

The point Haley is trying to make is that to find quiet, you need to be open to it. You need to learn to listen.

“Listening, really listening, is a crucial part of visiting a quiet place,” says Wyatt Page. “I go tramping and one of the nice things is stopping and having a break in the bush. Most of the time people are trying to tune sound out instead of really listening.” Pausing to listen is a chance to be present with yourself and the world around you, creating a sense of calm and relaxation. Studies have shown that listening to natural soundscapes in national parks in the United States has positive health outcomes as a result of lowering stress.

Visiting a new place with this perspective can be transformative. Travel can change how we see the world — and it might also change how we hear it. Where you can, choose to walk. Stay overnight to savour the peaceful lull of evening. And wherever you are, pause for a minute (you might experience only a few fleeting moments of silence) and listen. You might find a new appreciation of what nature sounds like when the befuddling fog of extraneous noise is lifted.

Of course, wilderness quiet might be restorative, but it’s not always easily accessible. Few city dwellers have the time or the inclination to seek out the wild places often. So, in the noisiest places on Earth, places with a jackhammering, revving, thundering backdrop of human-made noise, QPI is helping to gently carve out and protect oases of calm. Yangmingshan National Park in Taiwan, only an hour from downtown Taipei, was the first place in the world to be awarded Urban Quiet Park status. London’s Hampstead Heath was the second, the 790 wild acres of the park providing refuge to Londoners and rare opportunities to listen to nature. They’re not perfect — no matter where you are in a city, there will always be a distant rumble, which Hempton likens to kettle drums. Even so, when the mind-numbing roar of the city is relegated to the background, space for a new experience emerges.

In an Urban Quiet Park, Hempton says with reverence, it will be quiet enough to hear your own footsteps. You will be able to speak in a whisper to anyone you choose to walk with. “And,” he says, “when you stop and extend your hand to rub on the surface of a leaf because it has an unusual texture you’d like to feel, you’re also going to hear your fingers rub on that leaf.” In quietness, these are the details that become clear, details that can pave the way for a new sense of wonder.

Forkink is especially devoted to finding Urban Quiet Parks in her adopted city of Wellington. As of yet, the process hasn’t progressed far enough for any spaces in Wellington to receive the QPI award. But she’s certain they are there. If you look closely and search for places far enough from densely populated areas, you might find a spot where even the whine of air conditioning units fades into the distant background.

There is work to do in convincing people of the need to save quiet. Forkink has found that people can understand saving trees, because we need clean air, or water, because we need to drink. But saving quiet is harder — most people don’t see the purpose. As Hempton would say, quiet is a feeling. A precious sense of calm and connectedness with nature. “We talk about rewilding the earth,” Hempton says. “No, it’s the rewilding of ourselves that we crave. And that is going to take time, learning from and observing nature. It’s reminding ourselves of how we truly want to live.”

Petrina Darrah is a travel writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.