Hear This: Noise and Nature Don't Mix

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We checked into a hotel a few years ago on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and peered out the window into majestic, blueish prehistory — one of the planet's more powerful astonishments.

A family checked into the room next door, and a moment later, through the thin walls, we heard the sound of the television coming on. Loud.

And later we pitched our tent in Chaco Canyon, in a pure light just at dusk. Presently there rumbled into the campground five or six rhinoceros RVs, behemoths with generators on their roofs that hummed and groaned all night to power the people's TVs and air-conditioners. They slept sealed up inside the beasts, and in the morning, the rhinos rolled off single file down the blacktop, heading for Zion.

It is time to turn off the machines when we come to nature. All through the Memorial Day weekend, small planes droned and snarled overhead. Helicopters clattered by from time to time — the newly rich ostentatiously commuting to their indulgences, their cash turned into blighting noise. This market has released too much money into the atmosphere in the form of private planes, and onto the surfaces of lakes and rivers as roostering speedboats and their juvenile delinquent offspring, jet skis, which have the charm of chainsaws. The airplanes go everywhere, shredding the common air and the peace of everyone beneath their flight paths. The exhilarations of Saint-Exupery have turned into a stupid, selfish invasion of other people's privacy. Loud, alien metal has colonized the sky.

Some people love noise — their own noise, at any rate, the sound of their own pleasures. Some of us hate noise — or at any rate, other people's noise. The world is divided between the makers of noise and the victims of noise. Some of us may be hypocrites about it, too. Tonight at sunset in upstate New York, I shot down Seneca Lake at 50 miles an hour in the bow of my brother-in-law's speedboat — the rumpled surface of the water turned pewter, touched with the sunset's tangerine, and a fine spray stinging my face like BBs.

It is better to go noiselessly on water, propelled by wind or paddle. You see things clearly. You think. The point of noise is not to think, not to see, not to be still, but rather to throw yourself headlong into the rush of motion.

A summer or two ago on a lake in Ontario, I let my canoe drift on a light breeze down the shoreline of a piney island. A muskie, four feet long, mistook my canoe for a floating log and came to laze in my shadow, his surly, prehistoric head three feet from mine in the emerald water. He rippled his ventrals and pectorals to stabilize his dreamy suspension. I moved only my eyes at first, and then, not even those. At length, not thinking, I shifted my arm on the gunwhale. The motion roused the fish from his dream. He finned away and vanished into the deeper emerald light.

The moment, which meant much to me, was possible only because of my absolute stillness. Such things happen if you wait silently.

It is time for people to go on vacation — if they are going into nature — with, among other things, a certain amount of humility. The virtue of humility, like silence, is nearly extinct. But humility, if you see what I mean, opens doors. Noise destroys everything. Noise is an idiot and a Visigoth.