Wild geese in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York City, USA, 2017. Photo by Rebecca Norris Webb from the book Brooklyn, the City Within with Alex Webb/Magnum Photos


A place of silence

Our cities are filled by the hubbub of human-made noise. Where shall we find the quietness we need to nurture our spirit?

by Liam Heneghan + BIO

Wild geese in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York City, USA, 2017. Photo by Rebecca Norris Webb from the book Brooklyn, the City Within with Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

To walk from south to north on the peripatos, the path encircling the Acropolis of Athens – as I did one golden morning in December last year – takes you past the boisterous crowds swarming the stone seats of the Theatre of Dionysus. The path then threads just below the partially restored colonnades of the monumental Propylaea, which was thronged that morning with visitors pausing to chat and take photographs before they clambered past that monumental gateway up to the Parthenon. Proceed further along the curved trail and, like an epiphany, you will find yourself in the wilder north-facing precincts of that ancient outcrop. In the section known as the Long Rocks there are a series of alcoves of varying sizes, named ingloriously by the archaeologists as caves A, B, C and D. In its unanticipated tranquility, this stretch of rock still seems to host the older gods.

I sat below these caves that morning appreciating a respite from the tumult and, for a few minutes, I just listened. The pursuit of quietness, especially in urban areas has become a preoccupation of mine in recent years. However, the quiet I experienced below the caves of Zeus Astrapaios, of Apollo and of Pan was not precisely an encounter with silence, for it was punctuated by many sounds. A family of cats mewled; the wind gusted playfully across the limestone and the schist, and sent the leaves scuttering along the pavement. A murmur of voices rose up occasionally from the cafes of the Plaka neighbourhood; someone, somewhere, played a melancholy air on the klarino. All of these sounds were pleasant to my ears. This form of quietness, one that is not precisely silence, is characterised rather by an absence of noise or βοή (voe) in Greek, a word that might also translate as clamour, or din. I call the sort of auditory lull that, at the same time, asserts a benevolent presence, ‘avoesis’ (that is, the absence of voe or noise).

After a short time, I moved farther east along the peripatos and the susurrus of idle chatter picked up once more; a car horn sounded in the distance, and then I discerned the pronounced hum of traffic. A sharp whistle blew from the top of the Acropolis – I assume a visitor had breached a cordon and had placed a profane foot upon a protected antiquity. I had now left the quiet behind; my time with the gods was over.

This was my first visit back to Athens in a few decades. The city has always been appealing to me with its bustling market places; its vendors outside the garrulous cafes cajoling passersby to stop in; the gloaming sanctuary of its low-domed churches, the hardware merchants outside their stalls immersed in voluble dialogue (will there be fisticuffs or embraces? … One can never tell, for the arguments never end); the curious specificity of its engrossing museums; the indefatigability of its derelict buses honking their way through the snarling streets; the ubiquity of its adventitious feral cats; the sense that poetry has always been possible here; the lute players and the buskers on the street corners and in the squares; its burdensome heat in summer; its catastrophic and attention-demanding pavements; its promiscuous mix of wealthy and impoverished streets; the affability of its winter temperatures; its graffiti: political, amusing and occasionally inane or obscene; the chestnut vendors on the sidewalks absorbed with their roasting pans; the scattering of its monumental debris; the alternating mood of despair and vivacity suggestive that both revolution and equanimity are ever-present possibilities; the dark unkempt verdure of its botanic garden; the reverence Athens has for its past; the sense that the past should not determine its future.

And then there is the noise, the glorious polyglottic, polyphonic commotion of Athens arising from its people, vehicles and its infernal construction machinery. I had wondered, at first, if enduring the tumult of the city was a young person’s game, and perhaps it is, but returning to Athens seemed like an assignation with an old lover, whose whispers remain electrifying and whose harsh words are astringent but still exciting. Even so, I longed for some relief from the city and its din. I left, after a few days, for the mountainous Peloponnese.

It might have been unrealistic to expect Athens to offer silence. It is, after all, a sprawling and kinetic metropolis with a population of more than 3 million souls. I began to wonder if those quiet moments on the north face of the Acropolis were a figurative residue of a more ancient silence. It is tempting to regard the relicts of the ancient Athenian polis – cordoned off as these are from the modern city – as geological eruptions intruding into very modern urban strata. Yet there are important continuities between the old and the new. Certainly it is hard to imagine from reading accounts of the Athenian Golden Age that it was ever an age of silence. Despite its small size in the classical era – in The Greeks (1951), the scholar H D F Kitto gives the entire population of the Attic peninsula, which the city dominated, as a mere 350,000 – Athens, it seems, has always been a garrulous town.

The polis of ancient Athens was not just noisy in a quotidian way but rather it was grounded in a type of philosophical volubility. As the classical historian Jean-Pierre Vernant wrote in Les origines de la pensée grecque (1962), or The Origins of Greek Thought (1982): ‘the system of the polis implied, first of all, the extraordinary preeminence of speech over all other instruments of power … Speech was no longer the ritual word, the precise formula, but open debate, discussion, argument.’ In the philosophical and political writings of the Ancient Greeks, there are, unsurprisingly, slim pickings for the student of avoesis or attentive silence.

Admittedly, a small smattering of silence punctuates the Socratic dialogues. Commenting on these silences, my colleague Sean Kirkland (an Aristotelian, for the most part) observes: ‘Plato marks them with real emphasis.’ In Phaedo, for example, which takes place on the day of Socrates’ death, there is a notable instance of silence. Plato reports that when ‘Socrates had done speaking, for a considerable time, there was silence; he himself appeared to be meditating.’ But even as he endures the countdown to his execution, Socrates – that most disputative of the Greeks – cannot long remain silent. After his contemplative pause, the debate simply resumes. These important instances of silence notwithstanding, Kirkland concedes my point, observing that ‘the Greeks were pretty gabby (logophilic).’

If the Greek philosophical tradition is gabby and noisy, stillness flourishes in Greek spiritual practice. In her book Silence in the Land of Logos (2000), the classicist Silvia Montiglio excavates the complicated history of silence in Ancient Greek religious practice. Montiglio concedes: ‘Experiences that are normally silent for us were normally vocal for a Greek, at least in the archaic and classical period.’ Although the dead are notoriously silent, nonetheless Montiglio cajoles a range of texts relevant to understanding religious practice ‘to talk to one another about silence’. By doing so, she reveals that Ancient Greek silence often has the character of an interdiction: speech must be kept under control before the gods. One never knows what incautious words might offend them.

‘If you cannot attain stillness where you now live, consider living in exile, and try and make up your mind to go’

Whereas the silence of the Ancient Greek religious practice needs some careful academic sleuthing to declare itself, silence in the Christian tradition is loquacious. The Greek tradition of hesychasm (from the Greek hēsychia meaning ‘tranquility’, ‘silence’ and ‘stillness’) put silence on its most positive footing. The supplicant should be silent before an ineffable God because silence is a desirable form of prayer. The hesychasm of 14th-century Athonite monasticism builds upon the literature of the Desert Fathers – the 3rd- and 4th-century ascetics of Egypt and Palestine. These writings were collated by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and Saint Markarios of Corinth (1731-1805), and can be found in The Philokalia – the Complete Text (publication of English translations started in five volumes in 1979). Even those of us who don’t insist upon cultivating an intimate, contemplative relationship with God will find these readings immersive and instructive. They provide the most complete encyclopaedia we have in the Western tradition on the merits of stillness, silence and solitude. The writings bristle with striking aphorisms. For example, Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486) tells us that ‘where there is richness of spirit no speech is possible. At such times the soul is drunk with the love of God and with silent voice, delights in glory.’ The 7th-century Saint Theodoros the Great Ascetic states: ‘A silent man is a throne of perceptiveness.’ Theodoros then continues in a cautionary spirit: ‘The Lord has said that we shall have to give an account of every idle word.’ This might be awkward, at least for some of us.

Down through the centuries, hesychastic practice continues and indeed finds a home in contemporary spirituality. The central message endures: silence is a virtue; noise a distraction. Although the translation of hēsychia as tranquility and silence is appropriate, its translation as ‘stillness’ emphasises an important aspect of spiritual practice. That is, the word ‘stillness’ captures a sense of rootedness (or in the Greek etymology, of being seated). The anchoritic cell is rooted, as often as not, in the desert: tranquility being possible only far from the secular fray and the confines of the city. Evagrios the Solitary (345-399) – my favourite of these writers, if one can claim favourites among such stern fellows – wrote: ‘If you cannot attain stillness where you now live, consider living in exile, and try and make up your mind to go.’ Admonitions against the fleshly ways of the cities abound in the Philokalia. For example, Saint Neilos, the 5th-century Ascetic, warns us that ‘in order to escape vice, the saints fled from towns and avoided meeting large numbers of people for they know that the company of men is more destructive than the plague.’

These then are the poles, as I see them, of the Greek imagination: the talky anthropocentric babble of the polis on the one hand, and the stillness of exile, the mountains, the desert, on the other. The one pole gave us a politics, and a set of institutions; the other furnished a spiritual practice. These are not immiscible principles, of course. Athenian democracy takes root in peoples both cosmopolitan and pastoral, and one can find hesychasts even in the fleshpots of Athens. Although there are those moments such as the one I experienced at the north-facing rocks of the Acropolis when a stillness fell upon the Athenian hubbub, this city is rarely without noise. Nor, for that matter, is there much quiet in the city from which I hail, Dublin, nor in the one where I now reside, Chicago. Even those of us not listening in the stillness for the voice of God might need an absence of noise to hear anything important at all, even if it is just our own thoughts.

When I first visited Athens, I was a young graduate student living in Dublin. Back then, I possessed what I thought of as a kaleidoscopic mind. I recognise now that a truer description is that my mind was turbulent, restless and obsessive. A friend at the time suggested that we attend zazen meditation together as a mental salve during that last stressful year of dissertation-writing. The Catholic priest leading the session explained that we would just sit in silence in a bid to quiet our minds. Why, I asked, would I ever want that? So, I left. For the mind in need of constant stimulation, Athens with its ceaseless street theatre and all the charm of its noisy discord is a city of dreams. My frenzied mind seemed amplified and enlarged in that place. This is what I needed to thrive, I thought; rather that than quietly staring at a blank wall.

My mental processes seem slower these days. I like to think that they also run deeper. I require longer periods of quiet for the sake of equanimity. Living in Chicago, it has been hard to find those periods of uninterrupted silence where the human din is minimised and the sounds of other Earthly things – the birds, the insects, the wind, the lake waves on the shoreline, the creaking of trees – reach the ear and soothe the mind. Taking my cue from the spiritual wisdom of the hesychastic tradition – where stillness demands a cessation of anthropogenic noise so that other voices might be heard – I have become a student of this form of silence. In its secular context, I name it avoetic silence. Where the hesychast requires stillness in order to develop an experiential relationship with God, the needs of the avoetic listener are more mundane; that is, the absence of noise is a requirement for health.

My observation that metropolitan areas are rarely quiet is not especially novel; noise is often a point of civic pride – ‘the city that never sleeps’ must surely be a noisy one. Policymakers have often concerned themselves, laudably, with curbing excessive noise – eliminating damaging noise in the workplace, mandating quiet times in neighbourhoods and so on. However, I have discovered that quantifying urban quiet – and identifying opportunities for avoetic silence – is rarely done.

The longest period without the intrusion of disruptive anthrophonic sound was 3 minutes and 15 seconds

With a view of ascertaining the quality of silence in the Chicago region, I have worked with a group of intrepid environmental undergraduate students – Bailey Didier, Matthew Rosson and Ashlyn Royce, joined later by Angela Stenberg – to make recordings in places where avoetic silence might prevail. These students work with me on a variety of projects characterising the ecology of green spaces in the city. Braving inclement winter mornings from February to the onset of spring last year, we recorded twice weekly in two nature preserves in the city and a large cemetery north of the city. One of the preserves is a bird sanctuary close to Lake Michigan; the other surrounds a restored pond and is in a busy neighbourhood. An account in my field notes from a typical 10-minute period goes as follows:

airplane grumbles overhead, continues for some time; elevated train clanks by; low roar of traffic; slight wind arises; traffic continues; airplane gets louder; *silence* very briefly; traffic persistent; a distant airplane; geese some distance away; hiss of car tires; car honks; airplane; train clangs; *silence* very briefly; traffic sounds resume; screech of train; emergency vehicle siren blares; train loudly banging on tracks; commuter train clicks by.

We use the classification of sounds proposed by the writer and sound-recorder Bernie Krause in his book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (2012). Krause distinguishes anthrophony (sounds generated by humans), biophony (sounds generated by nonhuman organisms) and geophony (sounds generated by nonbiological natural elements). Our tallying of this data is almost complete. Without needing very complex analysis, this much is clear: over the 10 weeks of recordings during the winter, the longest period without the intrusion of disruptive anthrophonic sound was a mere 3 minutes and 15 seconds.

What we have found in Chicago is that opportunities for avoesis are rare indeed. It is an observation that will, I suspect hold true for most other cities, as there is not much opportunity for silence anywhere. That this is the case is illustrated by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton’s compelling search for ‘One Square Inch of Silence’. Hempton travelled extensively recording and preserving the rapidly disappearing wild soundscapes across the United States. The project led to the designation of one square inch of silence in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park in north Washington state – one of the quietest places in the US. Hempton’s work has done much to raise global awareness of the perils of sound pollution.

It is often the case that innovations in our environmental sensibilities (and in the environmental sciences) emerge from taking seriously the intuitions inherited from traditional knowledge. Indeed, some of these insights can be drawn from folk stories and mythology, as I tried to show in my recent book Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (2018). That humans benefit psychologically and physiologically from contact with nature, that being among trees might calm us, that unstructured play outdoors is salutary for children, that a brisk walk is good for you, that healing can be found in a garden: none of these assertions is especially audacious. Yet the sort of data needed to substantiate these claims and to drive public policy have emerged only from the work of a recent generation of environmental and social psychologists. Influential summaries of such research by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are technical, accurate, accessible and inspiring: eg, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective (1989).

Though the mechanisms by which such benefits from nature accrue are imperfectly understood, the patterns are clear enough to compel policy and educational programmes. Municipal regions the world over concern themselves with providing access to green space for recreation, and this is now a component of public health programmes. Children’s programmes that enjoin us to ‘leave no child inside’, as well as programmes which prescribe ‘nature cures’ or invite us to ‘forest bathe’ and so on, all draw from the research insights of environmental psychologists.

That a relationship might pertain between natural sounds and human wellbeing seems intuitive too. After all, few sleep apps feature jackhammers, yet many provide myriad birdsongs or ocean waves. Research that quantifies this relationship is now under way, though it remains a novel field of investigation. However, one influential article, published in 2010 by the Swedish researchers Jesper Alvarsson, Stefan Wiens and Mats E Nilsson, illustrated that just as images of nature can facilitate recovery after psychological stress, nature sounds can have similar effects. Papers such as this one, alongside the growing appreciation of the degradation of urban soundscapes, could inspire policy innovations in the near future.

Though one surely cannot command the birds to sing, nor the wind to play music in the trees, nonetheless it should be possible to manage urban space in a way that opens up these fields of possibility. Managed in this way, the quality of urban green spaces will be assessed as much by their soundscapes as by their visual allure.

For all of that, avoetic silence is a subjective quality. How much silence is needed in order for humans to contemplate their lot? What determines the quality of an avoetic space? When I stopped along my walk on the peripatos trail and the noise fell away, I stood, not in complete silence, but rather in a space cradled by the rocks and the path, and the murmurs of voices, and the gusting of the wind. And if I had regrets about being thrown back into the clamour of Athens, these feelings were not long lived for a city should host both the gabby voices of the marketplace, as well as avoetic silence. This is how it might always be with experiences of avoesis: they are rare (though perhaps we seldom seek them out), they could be a vital ingredient for a sense of wellness (though we have not evaluated them), and they might prove to be enduring – a moment with the gods creating impressions that could last a lifetime.

Thanks to my wife, Vassia Pavlogianis, for discussions on Greek vocabulary associated with noise and silence.