IF silence is golden, then the value of gold has assuredly plummeted.... Silence is not one man's meat and another's poison. It is one of the elements of an interdependent ecology. Noise is pollution, a contaminant, a fouling of the environment.
Forced rebreathing of the exhalations of smokers - unaesthetic as it is unhealthy - is an offense nonsmokers have every right to protest. Noise is no less an irritant, and when it invades consciousness without our consent, it invades our privacy.
Psychologists have now correlated sustained high levels of ambient noise with decreased levels of verbal comprehension in the young, a phenomenon already suspected by parents. Environmental noise generally produces stress. Intermittent, unpredictable, and sudden noises - erratic barking, coughing at concerts - especially may tend to irritate; but persistent, regular instrusions on our awareness of the washing machine-bass rhythm of rock or the mindlessly monotonous barking of a mindless owner's dog act as special forms of Chinese water torture.
Proust did not need controlled studies to tell him that another man's noise is poison to concentration, creative work, and personal privacy. Cab lackeys, aware of his sensibilities, cracked their whips on the street outside his cork-lined room, as churlish then as many more seem to be today, as I can testify.
In 1984, I began to devote full time to writing. My wife and I moved to a coastal town north of San Diego, where we perhaps innocently expected a modicum of quiet. But after several months in altercation with recalcitrant owners of vigorously yapping dogs, we gave it up. One neighbor smugly turned from my complaint with this over-the-shoulder rejoinder: Another neighbor had already taken her to court, but had lost the case. It wasn't hard to find out why....
The county Office of Noise Abatement and the Office of Animal Control could indeed offer assistance, of a sort: There were forms to be filed, decibel-level meter readings to be taken, and the need for a community-action complaint against the offending neighbor-and-dog. (A noise disturbance is a rare species of infraction that in California requires a community consensus to identify it.) A friend in San Diego shook her head. It had taken her six months of concerted effort to satisfy the long list of legalities, to curtail two curs on one side of her house, only to have the problem recur across the street. When there is unanimous disdain for quiet among one's neighbors, there are too many fronts on which to wage a battle.
And so we moved.
Shortly after we had settled into the new place, my wife and I pretended to ignore a neighbor's sledgehammer demolition of first one wall and then another in his home behind us. After several weeks, it strained the limits of belief to suppose any walls were still standing, and yet the blows continued to rain down, even at night. I went to reconnoiter.
What I found was not a remodeling project, but a construction for which I was entirely unprepared: There, in our neighbor's backyard, stood the impressive accomplishment of their teen-age sons. Covering every square foot of the no doubt now dying lawn beneath was a series, no, an elaborate complex, of interconnected skateboard ramps the sides of which sloped to a height well above the eaves of their home's roof. Neighborhood adolescents, abundantly full of energy and suited up in helmets and knee and elbow pads, careened up and down the parallel-planked wood ramps, their skateboard wheels resounding with thundering pounds at the bottom of each mad plunge, and then crashing and rattling up the next ramp, as the sledgehammer tore another chunk out of the walls-without-end upon which our neighbor, so we had thought, bent his fury. Yes, there were also spotlights, so these youngsters might enjoy the pleasures of adrenalin unalloyed after dark.
And so again we moved. (I suppose I must add that there were three other neighbors with yapping dogs, and seven shriekingly playful children across the street.)
The curious thing about these experiences was not the mere existence of offensive noise, but the startling signs of unconcern and manifest antagonism our neighbors displayed when asked for their consideration. So the reader may understand, I assure him or her that I am unlikely to be regarded as thoughtless or undiplomatic. My manners are those my mother taught me: They do not readily include profanity, belligerence, and name-calling; are not, in short, particularly execrable.
But nevertheless my requests for quiet appeared to arouse an unsuspected, primitive passion in the breasts of all my noisy neighbors. Their wraths were piqued. They were irked to distemper and discourtesy, profanity, hostility, and verbal abuse. Indeed, they took considerable umbrage that anyone should complain of their noise. Perhaps I scratched upon an uncharted residuum of aboriginal territoriality. I do not know. But it was as if my neighbors believed that noisemaking is an inalienable American privilege, a right to invade another's auditory awareness, protected by the Constitution if not by God. In fact, such seems indeed to be close to the truth at the present time.
We now live on five acres in Oregon. It is very beautiful here among the pines. I'm working on a new book. All goes fairly well; I have learned not to complain to noise-deafened ears. I try not to be disconcerted by the high-powered rifle shots on both sides of our property, or by the engine tuneups a neighbor embarks upon at midnight. Yes, their dogs yap, but their cries are distant.
I suspect that effective laws to protect one's right to quiet will be a long time in coming, if ever they do. This is a pity. Most of us today almost never have the opportunity to experience the beauty and serenity of total silence. We are continually barraged by traffic noise, the sounds of machinery, construction noise, barking dogs, shouting children, basketball percussions, the roars of three-wheelers and quads, the sound of airplanes and trains, of radios and televisions. Even backpackers in the wilderness seldom get away from this onslaught of noise pollution. When all else fails, with a nod to Proust I don my headphones, to fight fire with fire. Beethoven, at least, is music of my own choosing. But sometimes I resort to earplugs. They are artificial, not comfortable, but it's the closest I can come in a world in which silence is not yet golden.
Steven J. Bartlett, a free-lance writer and author of six books, lives in Fall Creek, Ore.