The Quiet that Keeps Us Sane

Natural stillness matters.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Each November I hunt elk. In the eerie darkness I set out into a silent world, hoping to spot elk feeding at first light. After that first hour or two, the animals retreat into dense cover to bed down and listen for approaching predators.

A soft-footed cougar might have a chance of getting close to a resting elk, but not a clumsy human. Even when seemingly relaxed, their ears are always moving. A single snap of a twig will put them on full alert. One more cue and they explode into flight, seeking a more peaceful retreat.

A quiet world is natural for elk and most other wildlife. It isn’t silent out there, of course—wind, distant creeks and the soft voices of birds are threads woven into a stillness that has always pervaded the lives of wild animals and birds. When an unfamiliar noise invades that stillness, it demands attention.

Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years. For 197,000 of those years, our ears were attuned to the same natural stillness as other species. It’s only since the industrial revolution that our human world has become a noisy one. That’s when we started using machines and putting fossil fuels to work running them.

When we escape back into nature, for whatever reason, we return to a natural stillness that is in fact our healthiest and original home. It’s soothing to be away from massed noise. It’s stressful to return to it.

The same applies for other species. Nathan Kleist, a University of Colorado researcher, measured stress levels in bluebirds and flycatchers nesting at various distances from natural gas compressors. Those compressors, as anyone knows who lives near one, generate a constant industrial drone. Kleist and his co-researchers found that birds nesting closest to the noisy compressors had stress hormone levels consistent with what is found in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers. When experimentally subjected to a loud, sudden noise, nestlings near the compressors had much more dramatic increases in stress hormones and took longer to return to baseline levels than those in quieter nests farther away.

Rob Guralnick, an associate curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was one of Kleist’s co-authors. In a summary report he says, “These birds can’t escape this noise. It… completely screws up their ability to get cues from the environment. They’re perpetually stressed because they can’t figure out what’s going on. Just as constant stress tends to degrade many aspects of a person’s health, this ultimately has a whole cascade of effects on their physiological health and fitness.”

Researchers have found that few songbirds nest near noisy freeways, because they can’t make themselves heard. Owls, which rely on hearing to zero in on prey, hunt less successfully where it’s noisy. Species whose whole evolutionary history unfolded in a naturally quiet world simply can’t cope with our hubbub.

Birds nesting closest to the noisy compressors had stress hormone levels consistent with what is found in post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers.

Noise can even drive species to the edge of extinction. The sage grouse, once a hunted game bird, is now critically endangered in Alberta. Its natural habitat—the sagebrush country south of Highway 1—is riddled with oil and gas infrastructure. Grouse avoid otherwise good habitat because it no longer offers the quiet they need.

Jessica Blickley of the University of California–Davis studied male sage grouse on the leks where they perform courtship dances each spring. Rather than risk disturbing the endangered birds, she chose to measure stress hormone levels in their droppings. Grouse exposed to industrial noise had almost 20 per cent higher corticosteroid levels than those using quiet leks. Blickley concluded that “…chronic noise pollution can cause greater sage grouse to avoid otherwise suitable habitat, and can cause elevated stress levels in the birds who remain in noisy areas.”

Historically, Alberta governments have never let endangered species hinder oil and gas development. That’s why, in February 2014, the federal Department of Environment finally stepped in. It issued an emergency habitat protection order prohibiting any new noise-producing industrial installations on 1672 km2 of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan sage grouse habitat. That order was Canada’s first recognition that natural quiet is a nature conservation issue.

If it’s a nature conservation issue, then it’s a human one too. For all our toys, indulgences and distractions, we are still part of nature. That’s one reason my annual escape to the natural stillness of elk country feels so important to me. Watching the dawn’s first light spread slowly across a landscape so still it seems to be holding its breath is more than a hunter’s moment of suspense. It’s a return to the world that made us, to the stillness that lives at the heart of all existence—to the quiet that keeps us and our fellow creatures safe and sane.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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