In Praise of Quiet Places

by | Nov 21, 2021

When was the last time you heard…. nothing? It’s entirely possible that you’ve never had that opportunity. Real silence is more elusive than you might think.

In 2015, my husband and I left Toronto for the rolling hills of the Frenchman River Valley and Grasslands National Park in SW Saskatchewan. We’d purchased an 80-acre property on the western edge of the park just south of the village of Val Marie (pop.100).

I knew we were moving to one of the darkest Dark Sky Preserves in Canada, where the night sky is protected from ambient, human-made light, and the Milky Way takes on a whole new presence. Once here I found another gift, a gift that made my heart sing and my body relax.

I found quiet.

Not just quiet relative to the Toronto home we’d left behind, but the kind of quiet that most Canadians have never experienced, even those of us living, camping or cottaging in natural settings.

A quiet where the only sounds that fill the air are from nature, be they sounds of water, bird song, wind rustling through the grasses, or even coyote howls.

By contrast, the vast majority of people living today experience a constant background hum of “white noise” created by traffic outside their homes, airplanes overhead, boats, equipment, people talking, car doors slamming, and even our household appliances. We might notice an engine revving or construction noise nearby, but by and large, most of the sounds in our spaces recede into a general white noise. Until it’s not there anymore.

Quiet. What happens when human-made white noise disappears?

Our bodies relax, our senses open up, our shoulders drop and we can breathe more deeply. Our nervous systems, brain and body chemistry find a new balance. All of our senses wake up. We can think more clearly, body pain lessens, we feel better and, for everyone’s benefit, we’re a lot easier to be around. This kind of quiet is no longer available for most people living in the world today. 90% of children will never experience quiet in their lifetimes.

When we moved to the edge of Grasslands National Park, we stepped into a world that opened up our senses long shut by the constant barrage of white noise. Human-made noise was always around, even in the remote places we’d lived and visited, kayaked and hiked.

When we stand in the middle of our yard and look up at the vivid glory of the milky way and watch planets navigate the night sky, we hear not a single engine, piece of equipment or human voice; just the howls of coyote calling to each other across the hills. When dawn breaks, a racket of birdsong fills the air. (I have to admit, this took a little getting used to. Birdsong is cacophonous the stillness of 4:30 in the morning…)

Quiet Parks International (QPI) recognizes public spaces around the world where it’s still possible to experience the quiet I’m talking about. Audiologist Gordon Hempton formed QPI from an earlier American movement he founded to protect just “one square inch” of land where quiet exists. He drew attention to the value of protecting the areas around these precious places from human development. With a mission to “save quiet for the benefit of all life” QPI “recognizes the immediate need for identifying and protecting endangered locations because quiet places are quickly becoming extinct.”

By focusing on parks that already have a certain level of protection, the organization is helping to quantify and value land and water management choices that take into account the experience of sound, not just for us humans, but for all the natural world. The award process is rigorous, requiring measurements of sound over time and in different spaces.

Currently, there are no certified Quiet Parks in Canada, and only a handful in the US.

A number of years ago, as part of a worldwide research project, Gordon Hempton travelled to Grasslands National Park. At that time, he measured the park in my backyard as one of the quietest places on earth.

The organization is now piloting a certification program for privately owned properties called Quiet Stay, recognizing accommodation properties offering a Quiet experience. Certification helps validate the precious resource we rarely even think of.

Quiet Stay certification has been awarded to very few places around the world. The program is still young and is led by Vikram Chauhan. He writes in a private email:

The number one quality of a Quiet Stay is “Do I feel quiet within?” After a few days of a stay, you should feel quieter inside compared to the first day when you checked in.

Chauhan provides a list of hallmarks of a Quiet Stay experience to guide the certification process. They include measurements of any external noise intrusions below 45 decibels, short in duration and infrequent. Staff and owners must be committed to preserving the outer and inner quiet where the sounds and sights of nature predominate. External and internal noise as well as visual noise are all taken into account. It’s a daunting list as much of it is outside the control of private landowners.

And yet, here on the edge of Grasslands National Park, we do experience this inner and outer quiet. Our place, The Crossing at Grasslands, is deliberately kept small so that each person staying can experience the natural beauty and quiet that still exists here.

Neil and I are still discussing whether or not we’ll seek certification from Quiet Parks International. We hear from our guests regularly how much they appreciate the quiet they find here. We can see the changes as they relax over the course of their stay: smiles deepen and bodies relax. We value this quiet and our ability to immerse ourselves in nature. And we’re lucky enough to be able to offer this experience to others.

Please visit our website to find out more about staying at The Crossing at Grasslands, and see the beautiful photos Neil is taking of our space.