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The Tenth Silence: Revised

Butterfly Wings's picture

“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of  being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”
Paul Goodman- “Speaking and Language”

     At first glance, Paul Goodman’s categories and differentiations can come across as incredibly logical. They all feel different in our experiences as humans; “alert perception” is undoubtedly separate from “resentment and self-recrimination”, both in sensation and purpose. There is, though, an inherent problem with his system of characterization, one that is commonly reflected across the readings we have studied in class. Not one has considered a non-anthropocentric view of silence. 

     Silence within nature is unheard of. Everything from the wind to the grass can make a noise; everything vibrates, reverberates, fills up space. Gordon Hempton explore this lack of silence in nature in his essay “One Square Inch of Silence”.  This kind of noise, though, can create its own type of fulfillment within the listener. It takes the noise in the mind, drowns it out, and replaces it with its own power. Hempton claims that “To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it”. The “typical anti-noise strategies”, like earplugs, do not aid in feeling silent in the natural world because they defeat the purpose. The silence comes in our respect for the environment- it is a silence of ourselves and a forgetting of our own self-centeredness. In allowing the world to make noise for us, we are better able to feel ourselves. Humanity’s slow conquering of natural spaces is rapidly eliminating the number of places in our world where we can escape the sounds created by humanity and ourselves.  There is a certain power, though, beyond the nine silences Goodman lists, in the silence nature can bring to you, one I have personally experienced.

     It was a mid-summer day, but we were in Nova Scotia. It was cold outside, maybe in the low sixties. I remember wearing my mom’s dark blue sweater. Despite the chill and grey clouds, my Dad was determined that we make the most of our vacation. He was certain that any day could be a beach day if we tried hard enough.

     We hopped in the car and drove out to Green Bay, one of our favorite beaches around. It’s a bit of a drive from our favorite place to stay in Nova Scotia, but often well worth it for the tide pools. The ride itself was dreary; my younger sister and I sat curled up in the backseat, using our beach towels like blankets and loudly complaining about being forced to leave the cottage. We had wanted to watch “Aladdin”. 

     The beach was somewhat less colorful than the cartoonish Agrabah marketplace. Fog had rolled in during the drive, blocking out the ocean from view entirely. My parents and sister wanted to go for a walk, but I stayed behind to look at the tide pools. I remember losing interest rapidly- the hermit crabs and periwinkles were all tucked away. I didn’t feel safe wandering out into the water with that much fog, either. So I sat by a puddle of rocks, somewhat impatiently waiting for my family to get back so we could finally leave.

     It was while I was sitting there that I first realized what          could be. I had always been a more solitary child, but I always had sought to fill that         . I endlessly read books, watched movies, made up stories to fill the time. But the ocean’s waves put me in a trance. I was not trying to fill it; I was not forced to embrace it; the      was naturally there, and I actually Felt it, deep down inside of me. While I was sitting there, waiting, I started really listening to the ocean. It rumbled up, deep and loud and unending. The waves never stopped rolling- just continued to smooth and pull and add to the beach. “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything” (Hempton).

     I had never been so deeply isolated, but so deeply calm before. It is like a cool cloth settled over your whole body, but you stay warm inside. It was something I felt “in my chest” (Hempton). The fog was solid white around me, and the sand was cool and dry. I was aware of the feel of wind on my skin, but I was not cold. I was just peaceful, for the first time I can remember. I do not know if it was moments later, or an hour later, but my family returned. Standing up again felt like there was a bowl of water balancing on my head. The ride home was quiet. I didn’t wan to play scrabble, or watch aladdin, or sing any songs with my sister. I sat on the cottage porch and looked at the ocean in the distance, tried to find that place again. But it was out of reach.

     My                is hard to find. It comes over me and fills me up like a cup of water. I cannot fill it myself. My              , real               , is not what is felt in an absence of sound. The sea was as loud as anything. My        is that tranquility of my mind. It can be loud in the outside world but still be          for me, so long as my inner dialogue is quieted. It is hard for me to give up my story telling for even a moment, but it is an essential way of homing in to who I am and what I feel. As Hempton would put it, this “[            ] nurtures our… human nature, and lets us know who we are”.

     It was a tenth type of             ; the            of the mind in the presence of nature. I argue it was not a “communion with the cosmos”, as Goodman might say. I did not feel that same give and take the water shared with the beach. To commune would require an exchange; I would need to be offering something of myself to the universe, to balance out what I take. What I felt, though, was a drinking in of that natural noise, a drowning out and removal of the clutter in my mind. 





Selections from “One Square Inch of Silence” found at


Anne Dalke's picture

Julia—your first web event  was unusual—really unique among your classmates’ essays—in celebrating the non-dialogic silence of the natural world. In this revision, you re-start your essay by making that claim explicit, acknowledging that none of Goodman’s categories of silence, for instance, are non-anthropocentric; none are “a forgetting of our own self-centeredness” (lovely phrasing!).

But then you re-prise what you’d written before, about your own experience of this kind. I’d like to nudge you now beyond this, and ask you to begin generalizing from your own experience. Where can you take this insight? How (for example) might you represent such silence, aside from inserting blank spots in your sentences? Does the image with which you preface both versions of this paper (for instance) evoke the silence you describe? Or refuse it? (am thinking here of Rankine’s description of how she used visual art in her book/poem, Citizen : i was  attracted to images engaged in conversation with an incoherence…in the world. they were placed in the text where i thought silence was needed, but i wasn’t interested in making the silence feel empty or effortless the way a blank page would.”)