Disturb the Sound of Silence

What’s the longest period of minutes, hours or days you’ve ever gone without seeing another human? How did it affect you? Was it a good experience or an unpleasant one? The reason I ask is that I might just set a new personal record this weekend.

I started to ask about “seeing or hearing” but it’s almost impossible these days to be out of range of voice communication–be that for good or ill. And I’ll use the phone over the next 96 hours–more than normal, likely–to stay in touch with family and friends while I’m snowed in, expecting Ann home sometime Monday. Or Tuesday. But I’m not likely to see anyone driving down our road until the lone VDOT snowplow driver comes through maybe on Sunday, as likely in the dark of night as in the daytime.

We are social animals and tend to find and be with each other, some of us more needful of being in groups and crowds than others; and there are so many of us now that alone-ness is not easily come by, even if it is necessary at certain moments and periods of one’s life.

I once sought solitude by occasionally taking overnight backpack trips alone–maybe once or twice, I’d be gone two nights and three days while walking the trails. But even then, I was never more than a few hours between passing campers or day-hikers. For that reason, I’d often leave the path for those places no other person of sound mind would want to go.

I want to think more about the benefits of silence, solitude and freedom from faces. An opportunity to do just that is falling flake by flake and foot by foot just beyond my window glass, a beautiful, terrible emptiness in which to immerse myself, as I have no other or better thing to do.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Floyd, I think I’ve gone a week without seeing, hearing or talking to another human being. in 1978 I took a long backpacking trip of multiple months, and at one point my hiking companion was injured and went home to recuperate for 6-8 weeks. I hiked on alone during that time. I usually reached a town about once a week where I could resupply food but where I was hiking I didn’t run into anyone else in between times. Since then? A couple of days is likely the record.

    Carolyn h.

  2. While I was teaching, I needed a break from human interaction very urgently. My wise husband encouraged me to use the Spring Break to go camping alone. Some years I managed to talk to virtually no one, although I saw people on the roads and in the campgrounds. Some years, the campground would be almost empty except for the camp host. I reveled in the quiet freedom to not talk or listen to anyone!

  3. Way back when I was a fresh kid of 17, I was living with my grandparents for a while. They went away with another couple and I stayed on their south Texas ranch for about a week…alone.

    The ranch was a little primitive at that time. No indoor plumbing, no running water…We did have electricity and a AM radio on the refrigerator. I think in all that time I made one trip to town to pick up something at the little gas station there. For the rest of the time it was me and the two dogs…Without the phone.

    Actually, since I was always a bit of a loner, I really enjoyed the week. Of course, I wasn’t snowed in and could go to town if I really wanted to.

  4. Coincidentally, a book I’m reading (“Sonata for Miriam”) starts off with the following poem that I can’t stop thinking about:

    A Lesson of Silence

    Whenever a butterfly
    happened to fold
    too violently its wings-
    there was a call: silence, please!

    As soon as one feather
    of a startled bird
    jostled against a ray-
    there was a call: silence, please!

    In that way were taught
    how to walk without noise
    the elephant on his drum,
    man on his earth.

    The trees were rising
    mute above the fields
    as rises the hair
    of the horror-stricken

    Tymoteusz Karpowicz,
    translated by Czeslaw Milosz

  5. I once bushwacked across a section of the Allagash, about 70 miles if I remember correctly. My course was altered by large wetlands and lakes. With only my dog Max as company we traversed the boreal forest in about 11 days if I remember correctly. Somewhere around the fifth day I realized if something happened no one would ever find me, but somehow that was OK.

    Upon exiting the deep woods and after a 3 hour drive I stopped at a general store, I talked to the woman at the counter for about an hour before I realized that I had been enormously verbose for the past 60 minutes or so. She just politely smiled and let me jabber on!


  6. Two longest periods of isolation: 27 alone in a far-off country where we weren’t supposed to be nearly 40 years ago and 31 days alone in an igloo in the Northwest Territories two-and-a-half decades later.

    After a while you lose track of time, days and weeks. Neither experience is something I would do willingly again.

  7. I’m catching up on my back issues of Orion – there was an article in one of them about a square inch of silence in an Olympic rain forest. Very interesting how it is almost impossible to get away from human-caused noise.