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In Praise of Silence

I spend a good deal of time each month in the noisiest places in the world – big cities, airports, train stations, and hotels. Even where my wife Kayla and I live in Montana on a quiet and fairly out of the way street, with no street lights and little traffic, the hum of the refrigerator or distant trains pulling box cars up the pass can be heard. It’s nearly impossible to find quiet in our everyday lives.

Last week, while spending the last of the holiday season on American Prairie Reserve, Kayla and I walked or skied across miles of untracked, soft snow. This is incredibly silent territory, where sound, if there is any, is instantly absorbed by the endless undulating landscape.  We were looking for cougars, elk, mule deer, and coyotes, and we also spotted Golden and bald eagles, corvids, and the song birds that stay on the grasslands (unlike their migratory friends) and thrive in temperatures sometimes reaching forty below zero.

In the past twelve years, I’ve made many winter trips to this area of the Reserve and every time, when the wind calms, I’m still caught off guard by the lack of sound, any sound, for miles. It’s stunning to experience, combining a sense of wonder, worry and contentment all at the same time.

American Prairie Reserve could be one of the quietest places in North America, maybe the world — no easy feat in a world as crowded, busy, and technologically advanced as ours. Naturally quiet places are endangered these days (see Gordon Hempton’s work to find out more about the places that are still quiet) but sound is arguably our most used sense. We can’t turn it off, and in noisy environments, we experience higher stress and inability to concentrate. Pure quiet is a soothing balm for our hectic lives, and it’s important that we seek out these places from time to time.

Kayla and I are looking forward to another winter trip to the Reserve this year, where snow and an extraordinary quiet blanket the remote landscape of the Northern Plains.