This past Friday, I went on a field trip with my students to Shenandoah Caverns. I'd been here before and to other caverns so I wasn't expecting to see anything new, although there's always one or two interesting tidbits I pick up on that I missed earlier. What I encountered, however, left me profoundly moved.
We were in the furthest depths of the caverns. A small tunnel looped behind a giant wall of rock to a reflecting pool. The ceiling of the tunnel was so low, it required even my students to duck. I decided to stay behind, knowing they would return within a minute or two. As the kids disappeared behind tons of solid rock, their chattering voices became fainter and fainter until they had vanished completely. In that moment I experienced complete and utter silence.
As a fifth grade teacher and father of four, noise is a constant companion. Groups of children gathered together in a confining space are not prone to extended periods of self-reflection and focused concentration on independent tasks. And when released into the open air, their volume only increases as if in effort to fill whatever space they occupy. I relish my forty minute commute to and from school as it is often the only time during the day I have to myself.
But I am no stranger to quiet either. I've spent numerous hours hunting in the woods, though not very many the last several years. I have no problem sitting somewhere without speaking for long periods of time. I used to drive between Virginia and Chicago, a twelve hour trip, all alone, radio off, with nothing but my thoughts for entertainment.
Yet here, at this moment in this cave, I realized I knew nothing about true silence. Even in the quietest hours of the night, when the rest of the world slumbers, there are still the chirps and calls of animal life. Even in the solitude of the forest on a brisk autumn day, far from civilization, you can still hear the distant whoosh of a jet passing overhead, the rustling of leaves from a passing breeze. Even in the hush of a gray winter day, when the world is blanketed with snow and cloud, the soft susurrus of falling flakes and scraping snow plow serves as a reminder that quiet is a relative thing.
But here, I found the total absence of all sound. No vibration stirred the air, the thick stone a perfect insulation between me and the chatter of children. To some it might have seemed oppressive, pressing in on all sides. To me it was exactly the opposite. A sudden weight was lifted, as if all the pressures and stresses of the world had vanished.
As the students rounded the corner and returned, so too did the sounds of life. For a moment I was vexed, wishing I could remain in that silence because it had been so brief. I thought about returning on my own later to let it hold me in its ghostly embrace. I knew it would still be there. Of course it would be, I realized. This place held a deep and constant silence only broken by visitors from the surface.
As we continued our trek through the caverns, my thoughts lingered on what it would be like to go utterly without sound for a day, a week, a month. That's when I realized why I enjoy quiet so much. Not for the sake of quiet itself, but so that I can better appreciate noise in the world of the living. For where there is life, there is noise.
Too much of anything desensitizes a person. We are constantly bombarded by the noise of life and I would hate to lose sight of just how precious it truly is. My son's laugh, my daughter saying "I love you Daddy", the applause of a satisfied audience, the hoot of an owl, a dog baying in the distance, rain on a tin roof. I am glad to have had this experience to remind me of what I would miss.