The Sounds of Silence
From my window, I can see a tree with branches laden with buds which will open and explode in color when spring arrives in a few weeks. It is not a large tree — there are four-storied buildings towering above from behind it, all of them providing a tableau from my window. The Callery Pear is also not an uncommon tree for northeastern America. After its arrival from China and Vietnam, since the 1950s, it has proliferated across the American city landscape and is considered to be an invasive species. Pittsburgh has formally prohibited any more planting of its close cousin called Bradford Pear.
For much of winter, the branches outside my window were stripped bare. The bark of the tree had progressively gained pallor and, like some town under siege, thanks to the repeated assaults of snowstorms and subzero temperatures, it was hard to imagine how this tree would survive. Looking at it at dawn or late in the night, when everything else had fallen quiet and Arctic winds howled through the streets, the tree seemed enveloped in an immigrant’s loneliness and quiet desolation. On other days, to watch it stand there, often motionless, like a prop used in a high school play, was to yield to melancholy. In fleeting moments of clarity, amidst all the frenzies of Manhattan, I realized that if the city is a temptation to seduce and talk dirty, the tree outside my window is a monk who is content to share his silence.
Silence in cities is little understood or even less desired. Yet, for all our suspicion, discomfort and fear of silence, many of us intuit that silence can act as a reprieve from the clutter of the world and the chaos of everyday living; it is a form of therapeutic intervention that may eventually become a source of rejuvenation. Yet, when asked to describe silence, on most counts we simply think of silence as the absence of sound. But this is a linguistic shortcut to reduce a wide range of experiences into something practicable. To think of silence thus would be to mistake the quiet of a cinema hall as the climax unravels, when the mind is anxious and fixated on an outcome, for the quiet of a walk in a garden.
In the latter, surrounded by the staccato of a woodpecker’s knock, the crushing of grass under one’s feet, the swaying of trees and the faint flutter of passing birds, the mind finds itself prodded to observe not just the world but its own ebb and fall. Albert Camus writes of dawns in the northern Algerian seaside town of Tipasa in La mer au plus près, Journal de bord (The Sea Close By: Logbook): “I recognized one by one the imperceptible sounds which made up the silence.” In this sense, silence is analogous to the scaffolding of a building within which new shapes of the mind can be discerned. To recognize this distinction between noiselessness and silence is, perhaps, the real goal of any humanist education.
For millennia, restless humans have set out in search of silence. And in that quest, nature has provided a setting, unlike any other, in which different varieties of silence (the poet’s silence, the mystic’s silence, the renunciate’s silence, the thinker’s silence) have been born. Max Picard, the Swiss writer, who has written more illuminatingly about silence in our times than many, crystallizes this relation between nature and silence: “The forest is like a great reservoir of silence out of which the silence trickles in a thin, slow stream and fills the air with its brightness.” Closer home, Sri Ramana Maharshi was a human embodiment of silence.
But for much of humanity, the vast sprawling megapolis that we call home is a form of anti-silence. It is not just that the megapolis is loud, but the very existence of these economies of agglomeration is tied to their perpetual ability to produce sound and noise. If they — air conditioners, televisions, cars, cell phones, social media notifications, and so on — stop producing these sounds that fill our lives, the very social texture that drapes our lives threatens to come undone. Arguably, faced with an absence of noise, many of us would be no different than sailors adrift without a compass. We wade through the detritus of sound with the recklessness and joy of addicts. It is amidst this recognition that the tree outside my window, and the need for trees in our cities, acquires a meaning that transcends their physical form. They become great absorbents of the furies of the city.
Between the swaying of leaves on the tree outside my window, I can hear the clamor of birds that have made it their home. And all the while, the early morning rain trickles down the tree’s branches. Amidst these movements in a little-noticed tree on the edge of this city, there arises within me a silence brim with sound.
A version of this piece was published in The Hindu on April 7' 2018.