On Wabi-Sabi Weekends, I post excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.
“O Great Spirit, help me always … to remember the peace that may be found in silence.”—Cherokee prayer
In describing his days at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau writes of summer mornings spent sitting in his sunny doorway, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang amid or flittered noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”
These days, half a day spent sitting in a doorway would cause enormous email pile-up, and we have to drive far, far into the country to find the kind of quiet that can be broken by birdsong and wagon wheels. We live fast, noisy lives, facilitated by loud machines. High-speed expressways roar through towns. Cell phone conversations are everywhere. Our homes are a symphony of digital beeps, from the coffeemaker to the dishwasher. We barely notice lawn mowers and chain saws, noises that would have made our ancestors jump and run.
Thunder was the loudest noise that rocked pre-industrial humans. Before internal combustion, roars and booms signaled danger, and our bodies still react to loud noises with a prehistoric adrenaline surge: our hearts pump harder, our blood pressure rises, our blood vessels constrict. Living in a din of ringtones, mechanical humming, unrelenting music and iPods, it’s no wonder we get stressed.
“Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,” former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart said in 1968. “Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.” Endocrine, cardiovascular and immune systems can all suffer from chronic noise, and children from highly noisy households have been found to experience delayed language skills and increased anxiety. Noise disturbs sleep, affects emotional well being and may contribute to heart disease and mental illness.
Humans have been trying to control noise since civilization began. In 6000 BC the Sybarites banned blacksmiths and cabinetmakers from working in residential areas (the first zoning). Julius Caesar tried to ban speeding chariots over cobblestones because of the clamor they created. In medieval Europe, horse carriages and horseback riding were not allowed at night in some cities; straw was strewn on the streets to muffle the sound of hooves and wheels by day. (Inside well-to-do homes, thick tapestries and straw on the floors protected bluebloods from hawkers’ and street musicians’ eternal noise.)
Modern living has made urban noise a bigger problem than the Romans or the royals could have imagined. (Who could have predicted that in a modern version of straw and tapestries, Queen Elizabeth would ban cell phones from Buckingham Palace?) Over the past 15 years the noise level in major metropolitan areas has increased sixfold; urban noise doubles every eight to ten years. Noise complaints are by far the most prevalent to the New York Police Department’s Quality of Life hotline. Noise is Americans’ number one complaint about their neighborhoods and the most cited reason for moving, according to the 2000 Census. “Background noise” from planes, car horns, voices and music in the typical urban home averages 50 to 60 decibels (about equal to the decibel level of an air conditioner in use).
Escaping to the country isn’t much of an escape. Even in the unpopulated wilderness, where cell phones don’t work and no one’s found a way to pipe in Muzak, our engines roar overhead. In 1998 Gordon Hempton, a sound recordist attempting to build a natural sound library, toured 15 states west of the Mississippi and found only two areas—in the Colorado mountains and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters—that were free of motors, aircraft, industrial clamor or gunfire for more than 15 minutes during daylight.
A few years ago, during a women’s retreat in the Rocky Mountains, our leaders sent us all off in different directions with pencil and paper, to find a tranquil spot and record what we heard. “Airplane,” I wrote. “Airplane. Airplane. Airplane. Helicopter.” Then finally, blessedly, “Mosquito.”
A Quiet Home
Today’s subdivisions are full of large homes on small lots, meaning that neighbors’ noise is our noise. Floor plans with rooms merging into one another through wide, doorless passageways and waist-high walls allow sound to bounce freely around our houses. Great rooms connect everything to the kitchen—the loudest room in the house.
Modern construction blocks sound much less than older buildings do. Most interior walls today have Sound Transmission Class ratings of about 30, a level at which loud speech can be heard through a wall. Gypsum board, the wallboard of choice since World War II, absorbs much less sound than the inch-thick plaster walls used in pre-war buildings. Old-fashioned cast iron pipes were denser, and so quieter, than today’s plastic pipes.
Carpet, for its many flaws, does a lot to muffle our homes’ noise. Hardwood floors, for their many virtues, are big drumheads that send sound reverberating through a house. Bare walls (especially if they’re plaster) and plain wood furniture do the same. You can minimize this by making sure that at least 25 percent of every room contains some absorbent material such as drapes, Venetian blinds, fabric wall hangings or large canvas paintings, or carpet. Book-filled bookcases and deep, squashy upholstered furniture—the softer and larger, the better—will also help stop sound from bouncing around the room.
If this sounds a bit Victorian, think about nubby hemp, rustic burlap or raw silk for draperies. Sisal, sea grass and cork can absorb sound underfoot. Burlap-covered homasote, a fiberboard made from recycled newspapers, is a terrific option for walls.
In the bedroom, home office or meditation space, where quiet is not a luxury but a priority, consider a white noise generator. Small enough to fit into your palm, these devices produce gentle rushing sounds that help mask traffic noise and voices. (Pink noise generators are more intrusive, with ocean, rain and waterfall sounds.)
Acoustical perfume probably couldn’t be considered wabi-sabi. But sometimes modern ingenuity is the only answer in a modern world.