I recently came across an article from The Guardian in 2012 detailing the work of scientist Bernie Krause, who has spent his life recording sounds of nature. Krause’s major finding is simple: the loss of biodiversity, from the depths of the reefs to the rain forests, can be clearly tracked by listening to audio recordings over a 40-year period. He reports that he now hears deafening silence in so many ecosystems that once teemed with life. The article detailed his book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I bought the book, compelled to read more, the cryptic words of Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence echoing in my ears. This blog post is a bit different than some of my others, in that it is simply a response, a real and human response, to the growing sound of silence upon our landscape.
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
When I was a child and teen, I embraced dystopian science fiction. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, E.M. Forrester, Aldus Huxley, Marge Piercy, Suzette Hagen Elgin, and George Orwell enthralled me and horrified me with their tales of dark futures, where humanity was oppressed and the land stripped bare. But these were just stories, I’d think to myself. And growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they really did seem to be stories–we had plenty of resources, this was America’s heyday, when everything was booming. Of course we were were protecting the land as we grew and prospered, there were no costs to our progress…at least, that’s what we keep being told. But these tales often made me wonder–what was the cost? And how quickly were we headed to a future, say, like what Marge Piercy describes in Oryx and Crake? Perhaps faster than I realized.
When I was 14, I witnessed firsthand of the destruction of the ecosystem of my own beloved forest in the name of profit. I remember the deafening roar of the loggers’ machines as they pillaged that forest. I remember the eerie silence in the weeks following their departure, and the devastated landscape they left in their wake. Where a once-vibrant forest stood–and chirped, buzzed, skittered, and slithered–only silence remained.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
The silence of the forest after it has been logged, or the silence of the reef after it has been bleached, is only one kind of silence–there is another, just as tragic, in our own conversations as a culture and as a species. The silence that pervades us is a silence of fact, of truth, and of reality. We hear people talking without saying anything–the nightly news and national media do their best to continually report on nothing of substance, all day and all night long. When they attempt to address an issue of real substance, it is reported is a shallow husk of reality. The narrative we hear from those who speak loudly is that everything is fine and will continue to be fine, that mass extinctions don’t matter, that we can continue to pillage and plunder. Chris Hedges does a brilliant job in identifying these issues in his Empire of Illusion.
When people do hear about the work of scientists like Bernie Krause, they do not listen. They make excuses. They close off their ability to comprehend what is actually being said, or attack the credibility of science or or a scientist’s character in order to protect and preserve that their own internal mythologies. I think about the final comments of the authors of The Limits to Growth when they say that, despite the massive amount of evidence they compiled and presented, they weren’t heard at a regional, national, or international level. They, too, could not have conversations because the conversations were not able to be had. But they could talk and work locally, and that gave them hope. Still, so many others, also silenced.
And the silence is becoming institutionalized. And now, parts of the legislative branch in the USA are working to silence science. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 that effectively bans the use of scientific data in making predictions about sea level rise. Congress just this past year made it illegal for the Pentagon to address climate change and told them to ignore that it was occurring. Our very governments, those that are supposed to protect the people, are instead, protecting their own silence. And its not just our government–we, too, often turn away from the things we don’t want to hear, from the realities we face. We, too, offer silence.
“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
In the wells of silence
Even as someone who has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, who teaches effective writing as my profession, I am at a loss about how to address the silence, how to engage in conversations that enact real change. I’ve certainly taken my best step at some analysis of the tools we could use to address humanity’s current predicament on my little corner of the web. Still, I don’t know how we can break the silence of a larger system where power and privilege control nearly all dialogue and discussion. I, too, like so many of you, feel silenced.
Truthfully, in reading and reflecting upon the research of Bernie Krause and others like him, I am struck by the enormity of the loss of life that is occurring, of the silence that remains behind. I think about the little things I am doing in my life, the things I talk about on this blog, and I know they aren’t enough. But the really truly difficult things, like better options for transportation and housing, are still out of my reach at this point, partially because of lack of resources and partially because of the laws themselves. I make excuses, like I just did, and wonder what the best way to actually move forward is. I question how I can even be part of the system at all. I get upset, and angry, and frustrated with myself for my lack of real response. I engage in internal dialogue with myself….and get tripped up at this point…because I’ve just written two paragraphs that say, I don’t know, and I have nothing more to offer. From the outside, all one would hear is my silence. Meanwhile, the broader echoes reverberate in Bernie Krause’s recordings and the silence grows with each extinction and tree felled.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence
All the while, we worship the the neon gods, bowing to them and honoring them with our time, energy, and passion. But the neon gods cannot grow our food; the neon gods cannot provide us with water, or shelter, or warmth. In fact, the neon gods provide us with nothing that we actually need to survive. But they can certainly fill our minds with distractions so that we can’t hear the growing silence. Perhaps its time we turn away from the neon gods long enough to start to listen and to understand, on multiple levels. Perhaps its time to break that silence.