Summer read: We are drowning out the natural world with synthetic sounds, and it’s getting worse, writes Michelle Langstone.
First published on January 23, 2021
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It used to be quiet once. Remember that? Remember the hush that settled over the cities like the silence that comes down in a snowstorm? It’s less than a year since Aotearoa first locked down, and the unexpected and wonderful side-effect of a terrible pandemic was peace and quiet. The whole country turned its volume down for weeks, and there was beautiful, pristine quiet, broken only by the chatter of birds. Perhaps that’s why I’ve become overly sensitive to noise; those months of quiet lured me into a false sense of peace, and they could not last. Now, I have no tolerance for noise at all. Now, according to one online commentator, the mere fact I am complaining about the noise makes me a Karen. I’m nearly 42, and had hoped to stave off the title for at least another decade, but it appears I’ve prematurely Karen-ed and I’m fine with it. I’m sure all of the 137 people who responded to my complaint about noise on Twitter are fine with being Karens as well, if it means they might get some hush.
Here’s the problem: we are drowning out the natural world with synthetic sounds, and we are doing it without consideration of our fellow human beings. This summer it’s been particularly bad. This summer I spoke tersely to strangers who were carting UE Booms to the beach and blaring their playlists so that the sound of the waves was lost, the squeak of your feet in soft sand was drowned out, and you couldn’t even hear if the Mr Whippy van pulled up. Just for a start that’s an ice cream crime, but aside from that, when did people start making the assumption that we’re all keen to hear their Spotify Top 100 playlist? Why has the beach turned into a 21st century equivalent of Dueling Banjos, but with speakers and really average soft rock?
Why, though, do we all have to listen to other people's music on the beach? Why can't we listen to the ocean and the salt? Why, on the Tongariro crossing, did I spend an hour stuck behind a guy playing Shaggy's greatest hits (sic) from a stereo attached to his backpack?
— Michelle Langstone (@mifflangstone) January 14, 2021
I love music. I listen to music all the time. I love that other people love music, any kind of music, hooray for music and for our individual tastes. I just don’t want to listen to other people’s music when I’m trying to have a nice time and appreciate the beautiful environment we live in. Before the hellfire of 2020 I walked the Tongariro Crossing. It was autumn, and very beautiful, the walk was like being on the moon — all rubble and strange-coloured pools. It could have been terrific, except early on in the walk, stuck in a queue of hundreds ascending a staircase, I got trapped behind a guy blasting Shaggy’s greatest hits on a portable stereo attached to his backpack by a carabiner. I would hope the first thing you feel as you read that sentence is outrage at the disruption to the peace, but I accept you might instead be wondering just how many hits Shaggy actually had. The answer is very few, friends. Stuck behind this chump for the better part of an hour, unable to wriggle out of line, myself and several dozen other people faced a steep climb to the sound of ‘Boombastic’ and it was so horrible I will not discuss it further, except to say when it moved on to the next song, I wondered if there might be a murder in broad daylight in a national park. And that was before we listened to every one of Shaggy’s songs three times. And yes, I did think about asking him to turn it down, and so did my fellow travellers, but as Kiwis, we’re not always good at confrontation, and prefer to glower like rain clouds around the subject of distaste, and hope they’ll get the message.
This is not an isolated incident. This is happening on all our beautiful walks across the country. My friend nearly threw someone off a cliff in the Abel Tasman National Park for playing loud music constantly on the trail. The Kepler Track has been similarly afflicted this summer. Someone on Twitter had a trip to Cathedral Cove ruined by people with sound systems. I do understand that you might need music as motivation for exercise – I know I sometimes do – and that’s why I employ the use of miraculous devices called headphones. I guess my question is why you need it on a hike you’ve paid a lot of money to be on, in environments you may never visit again in your life, where you might be lucky enough to hear some of our more remarkable birdlife, and the shimmer of insects calls through the air.
What has happened to us? Why do we find noise a necessity? Why do we create soundtracks for our every move? Why does a lady walk past my house at 10.30pm every other night with her phone on speaker, tuned into the radio? Why, twice a week, does a guy wander past around midnight, shouting into his phone, his voice ringing out through the dark as he does circuits of the streets around my home? Why can’t we just be with the world, and listen to the music being made around us every day by the natural inhabitants of the earth?
I don’t know why we can’t face ourselves in the quiet. Perhaps it’s self loathing, or self importance. Either way, it’s miserable. I wish music could be for parties and pools and concerts and sports games and gyms and houses and cars, and not for nature. DOC has a page on its website called Leave No Trace, about ways to minimise your impact when you engage with the environment. One of the points is to be considerate of others, and another is respecting wildlife and farm animals. I can’t help but think that beyond the irritation of sound to our ears, we are doing broader damage to the species in our ecosystems.We all saw in lockdown how the birds came back, venturing into backyards and onto balconies, splendid in the silence. It’s sad to think we have forgotten about them, and about other people, in our efforts to have a good time.