Out here in the suburbs, you can rarely escape a sound made by human beings. Our house backs up to a fairly busy road – so busy that when you wake up at 3 a.m., you hear the silence – and take note of the absence of cars and pickup engines and booming dashboard radios.
This time of year, you also become familiar with the whine of power mowers and the roar of jets heading into or out of MSP. The more subtle sounds of backyard birds and the patter of daytime rain take an effort to discern.
During the environmental reform era of the 1970s, some legislative bodies enacted laws governing not only air and water pollution, but also noise pollution. In excruciating legalese, Minnesota law defines it this way:
“Noise pollution” means the presence in the outdoor atmosphere of any noise or combination of noises in such quantity, at such levels, of such nature and duration or under such conditions as could potentially be injurious to human health or welfare, to animal or plant life, or to property, or could interfere unreasonably with the enjoyment of life or property.
In other words, noise pollution is tricky to define, but you know it when you hear it.
Laws can help, but they aren’t our only resources for controlling the stress caused by noise. (Noise is known to increase blood pressure and may contribute to heart disease.)
There’s another solution, and it’s called the natural world. Specifically, it’s any park or forest large enough and far enough removed from noisemaking to promote well-being and peace. Sometimes even a medium-size local woodlot will do the job.
Not long ago, I escaped the city to take a weekend retreat on Elysian Lake in Waseca County. Although the glistening waters appealed to me, the monumental trees were the real draw. They shelter visitors from a world of sound. Even in a storm, their voice was a whisper, not a scream.
Among Minnesota’s 155 scientific and natural areas (http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/snas/index.html) are scores that feature forests. Some are near the heart of the Cities. They are protected in part as refuges from noise. It took foresight to set them aside.
“A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great or beautiful cathedral,” said conservationist and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. So should many of Minnesota’s forests. We are fortunate to have hundreds of these cathedrals of silence.