Much of modern life takes place in conditions of toxic noise-overload. According to the Noise Awareness organization, noise over 70 to 80 decibels causes gradual hearing damage, while at 120 decibels it causes immediate damage. The organization lists the dB level of various garden implements here. Power-saws and drills create 100–110 dB, chain-saws 120-25, leaf-blowers 110, snow-blowers 105, and power lawnmowers 65-95. Rustling leaves, by contrast, are 10 dB. Part of the problem with gardening machinery is that it masks the sounds we enjoy: breezes in treetops, chirps of birds, insect buzz, the gurgle of our water feature. The other problem is that loud noise causes stress, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems, as itemized here.
The word “noise” is related to the Latin-derived “nausea” (from “nauta” – sailor), which originally meant the sickness felt on a stormy sea. How does noise cause sickness? Sound waves enter the ear canal and travel to tiny bones in the middle ear where minute hair-like cells convert the vibrations to electrical signals, which are sent along neurons to the brain. Strong sound waves damage this apparatus, causing deafness and disturbance of balance. “You could hear the grass growing” goes a popular idiom. We’ll never have hearing good enough for that, but in many contemporary suburban gardens we can barely hear the birds singing. Gardeners can mitigate the problem however. We can choose to go low-tech, creating an oasis of peace in a cacophonous world.
Gardeners have so many jobs to do—create beauty, grow food, expand green space and wildlife habitat—and now we have yet another job: make quiet zones in a noisy world, places where we might even remember the sound of rustling of leaves. We might aspire, like poet W. B. Yeats when he arose to go to Innisfree, to “… a bee-loud glade … and I shall have some peace there … and evenings full of linnets’ wings.”.
In city (and countryside) gardens we could lay down our mechanized tools and pick up humble hoes and spades. John Steinbeck too wrote about that: “there is nothing pleasanter than spading when the ground is soft and damp … and you go for hours without thinking of anything.” There’s something about writers and gardens. Jenny Uglow in her Little History of English Gardening (Chatto & Windus, 2017) mentions the popularity of writing huts in eighteenth century private gardens for authors such as Alexander Pope. Pope wouldn’t have got much writing done had someone started up a leaf-blower next door.
In the small suburban garden you can get a healthy workout with a push mower, which was adapted in 1831 from the cloth shearing machines used in textile factories, a great labour-saving advance on the scythe. Hedging is another great silencer of course; we know that good hedges make good neighbors. They are a gift to the neighbor next door who wants to hear not only birdsong, but the very mist rolling in over the hills.
We tend to emphasize the visual and scented aspects of gardens but they are also soundscape. Maybe, in a world getting too loud, some gardeners can learn the error of their noise and strive to hear the mist.