In search of peace and quietude nTC

September 19, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Beyond the stone gates of the All Saints Convent in Catonsville a hand-painted sign in a hardwood grove points the way to a "SILENT RETREAT," marking the place where people come from thousands of miles away to experience the physical and emotional lift that quietude can bring.

But listen: An airliner thunders overhead. In the distance a truck rumbles, a lawn mower growls.

This is silence?

In a 1993 American megalopolis, it may be the closest one gets. Like an endangered bird, quiet struggles for habitat. It dwells in the pauses between the din of trucks, cars, planes, bulldozers, jackhammers, supermarket Muzak, boomboxes, beepers, mobile telephones, helicopters and car stereos cranked to concert volume.

If Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle thought silence was golden in 1833, what would he say today, when vending machines talk, when callers on hold hear pop tunes? He might say silence has grown more precious than gold. And he might not be surprised tofind that in an increasingly noisy world, more attention is being paid to the virtue of quiet.

Some people say "quiet," some prefer the word "stillness." The curator of a collection of natural sound tapes in California calls it "quietude," and means not utter silence, but time spent hearing the cadence of nature's voice. More than just the absence of noise, silence is a space in the mind and the heart, "the place where everyone finds his God, however he may express it," essayist Pico Iyer wrote recently in Time magazine.

But quiet can conjure our own thoughts, which may help to explain why we so often run from it.

"There are patients who crave [silence], and patients who are afraid of it," says Alice Domar, a psychologist and senior scientist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston. "People are very afraid of their own thoughts. Most of our thoughts are negative. . . . If you put most people in a room with no noise, they wouldn't sit there thinking what a great person I am, what a good day it is."

So we switch on the television, crank up the car radio, pop a tape into the VCR. There in the noise is refuge of another sort.

"I think some people feel like it's threatening," says Nelsa Knight of Halethorpe, who for 12 years has taken retreat at the 88-acre convent grounds in Catonsville for silent weekends. Guests there take part in Episcopal prayer services but do not speak from 8 p.m. Friday to lunch on Sunday.

At first Ms. Knight said she found it difficult to keep still, but adds, "I've grown to cherish it and love it."

It would appear that many others have, too. Ms. Knight, a 50-year-old bookkeeper, says years ago she used to be able to book weekend retreats in Catonsville a day in advance. Now she says she has to reserve a room a month or more ahead.

"I can just sit in that grove and think of nothing. Just enjoy it," says Ms. Knight. "It gives you the strength to go back out into this noisy world and this clamor."

Too much noise

"There's too much noise," says Dr. Herbert Benson, a Boston cardiologist who founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute in 1988 under the auspices of Deaconess Hospital. "People realize that the treadmill is not satisfying. They have to find quiet."

Yes, but where? Even wilderness hikers say that the experience of quiet, uninterrupted by human-made sounds, grows ever harder to find.

There was enough concern about quiet as a dwindling natural resource on the West Coast that the Oakland Museum nine years ago established the California Library of Natural Sounds.

"We became aware that quiet places were disappearing," says the collection curator, Paul Matzner. "Not only in the most obvious places, but even in the most remote."

He says a similar natural sound collection is being compiled on the East Coast, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where the the quest for quiet is even more daunting.

"I know from people on the East Coast that it's practically impossible to find a place to record sounds" without some human-made interruption, says Mr. Matzner.

"You can get away from the people, but the hard thing is getting away from the airplanes," says David Lillard, vice president of the American Hiking Society, a national non-profit organization based in Washington.

Mr. Lillard has a little trouble coming up with a quick list of tranquil places within an hour's drive of Baltimore. He mentions Triadelphia Reservoir on the Howard-Montgomery County line, the Morgan Run Natural Environment Area in Carroll County, Gunpowder Falls State Park and the Gunpowder Falls State Park Trail in Baltimore County.

Backpacker magazine sought out the nation's 10 quietest campsites and reported last month that they can be found in nine states west of the Mississippi. Average ambient daytime sound level at these places ranged between 20 and 32 decibels, soft as a whisper.

Measuring noise

Decibels are measuring units for sound, 0 defined as the threshold of human hearing. A vacuum cleaner puts out about 70 decibels, a jet taking off roars at 130 decibels, a power lawn mower measures 100.

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