On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.
"In the concert of nature, it is hard to keep in tune with oneself if one is out of tune with everything else."—George Santayana
My first New York apartment was on the corner of 101st and Amsterdam, across from a playground and a housing project. The streets were alive, at all hours, with people hanging out, shooting off M-80s, playing music really loud and yelling, sometimes caustically, always profanely, in phrases that got tangled in my dreams. Eventually I got used to the noise (my mother on the other end of the phone never did), but I never felt calm and peaceful in that place, which was otherwise a scream of a deal with an exposed brick wall, big windows and three real rooms. Within six months, I moved to a tinier and more expensive place, on 46th Street, far from any playgrounds.
It’s not easy to find stillness anywhere in New York—although Buddhist monks manage to do it at the Zen Center on Broadway. Cities are loud. That’s both their charm and their tediousness, and we’ve been trying to control noise in them since civilization began. In 6000 BC the Sybarites banned blacksmiths and cabinetmakers, with their bang-bang-banging, 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.)
Centuries ago, our ancestors used thick tapestries to muffle noise. Photo by Dan Sidor
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.”
Read more about quieting your home: The Sound of Silence: How to Reduce Home Noise.