Bass and Birdsong: Noise in Urban Green Spaces

Since COVID-19 became a tangible issue in Europe and North America, there have been many news stories and social media posts about the respite that nature is experiencing. As the story goes, when people stay home, the earth has space to breathe again, and what a relief that is.

I don’t mean to discount that phenomena. I think that it is a positive (if superficial) impact and has possibly offered some people proof that it is possible for us to back off our negative impact on the natural world by slowing down or halting our destructive industries.

However, we cannot stay home forever, and there is a new crop of stories circulating that demonstrates just how superficial the sustainable impact of quarantine has been. These stories show that littering in the form of gloves and face masks is already becoming a problem. This goes to show that the underlying problematic behaviour, where people use the earth like a giant garbage can, has not changed.

And so here we are. Perhaps shut away, perhaps spending more time in green spaces for those of us that have the option, but either way still very much an impact on the natural world. If human beings and human activities are not going anywhere, how are we to ease up our impact in a way that is actually beneficial?

I’ll tell you now, this blog post cannot answer that question. I’ve spent the latter half of my degree asking that question and only finding partial answers, but I think it comes down to attitude. We need to change the way that we view and engage nature both emotionally and energetically. Right now, I am of the belief that our current attitude is an extremely selfish one.

In our society, being inconsiderate is practically a currency. How can we help it? We live in a world that promotes the individual. It is possible that recent events have started people thinking more collectively. If so, I haven’t seen it to any meaningful extent. Part of why I take this slightly negative view, is that every day since quarantine began, my neighbourhood has been painfully noisy.

Small potatoes? Perhaps, but hear me out (if you can, over the din of the lawn mower outside my window).

The weather turned, things are warming up, the sky is blue, the birds sing (except for the Steller’s jays which scream), and with all this time on my hands I think that I might as well go sit under a tree somewhere and enjoy the sounds of nature. I am fortunate, because where I live on Ten Mile Point (in a tiny but lovely bachelor suite that is significantly smaller than the kitchens in some of these surrounding mansions), green spaces abound. There are at least four parks with trails within walking distance, not to mention two sandy beaches. What luxury. And it is. I am profoundly grateful to be isolated out here, and not in the downtown condo where I used to live.

That said, there appears to be two favoured pass-times in this area. The first is to perform endless upkeep on already manicured landscaping with the use of roaring and grumbling tools that belch smoke and foul air every few minutes and reach a frequency that sets my teeth on edge. The second is to make use of those enormous back decks and lawns and expensive audio systems and blast cheesy pop music with repetitive base lines for hours.

How far does the bass carry? Far enough. Far past the property from which in emanates. Far enough that in each of the four parks within walking distance, there is no quiet tree to sit under unless one brings along headphones and creates one’s own noise.

There’s my rant. And while I realize that this kind of noise may be considered inevitable within any city, and my neighbourhood is probably still quieter than many places, I think this unapologetic noisemaking is representative of a bigger issue of attitude. Why do people feel entitled to be so incessantly noisy? Why is it so difficult to find a little peace and quiet in any place where there is human activity?

I don’t believe that it is inevitable, I believe that it is intentional and avoidable. Quiet is, in itself, a show of respect. Respect for the auditory space of others, respect for both human and nonhuman voice and thought. Quiet is a way of being humble. Noise is a symptom of human activity that tramples and disrespects everything it encounters.

Now, I recognize that I speak as a writer and a musician for whom both sound and silence is sacred. I am sensitive to noise, I admit. Perhaps more sensitive than some. But I find it painfully ironic that in this wealthy area with access to all this green space, quiet is priced-out. What is the point of paying for these parks and then polluting them both physically and through noise? It’s a flaw in the attitude with which nature is approached. That attitude which places human activity, desire, economy, and yes, noise, in a superior position to the earth. Where one cannot sit and listen to the birds without also hearing the relentless thudding of the bass.

The experience of COVID-19 may be an opportunity to reassess the way that we do many things outwardly, but I think it must also be a time to turn inward and examine our own attitudes and entitlements. How we choose to move through the world as individuals will shape the way that our society grows, morphs, and functions. It is my hope that somewhere along the line we will learn to tread softly.

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