Notes from the North Country

At a gathering of contented Upper Peninsula residents, we asked that each person describe his or her attraction to life here in one-word responses. Since most of our friends are quite used to our philosophical—and sometimes rather odd—approaches to conversation, there were a few moments of silence and then they dove right in.

The list included: space, beauty, remote, clean, safe, uncrowded, even cold(!) but one adjective kept emerging: quiet. Living up here, or visiting in the U.P., offers opportunities to savor the sound of silence.
We know that intimately. Since we moved to our home in the woods of West Branch Township fourteen years ago this month, we have remarked often that the quiet at night is so complete and profound that it almost has a sound of its own—sort of a deep murmuring hum.
Background noise—which all of us have in our daily lives—is one common source of stress. Even when not consciously perceived, noise has been related to increased blood pressure and adrenalin levels, as well as general tension and irritability.
Man-made noise also has an effect on wildlife: higher levels of stress (there’s that word again), prey that can’t hear approaching predators, even interruption in echolocation for animals which use reflected sound for navigation.
“We dwell in a world of noise…open a window, anytime, anywhere, and you’ll hear the clamor…Increasingly, even wild places are noisy with powerboats, jet skis, snowmobiles, trail bikes and ATVs…the silences of wild places are not yet gone, but they are vanishing.”

— Jack Kulpa, True North — Reflections on Fishing and a Life Well Lived

Eight years ago, the National Park Service established a “natural sounds” department in Fort Collins (Colorado). Its main task is preserving “soundscapes,” or places where visitors can “rest their ears.” Several national parks and monuments have been identified as among the quietest, including one in our own backyard: Isle Royale National Park.
Others are Great Basin in Nevada, North Cascades in Washington and Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana.
It’s not all about the simple pursuit of silence. By quiet, we don’t mean—nor does the Park Service—the absence of all sounds. Natural sounds can be an important part of an outdoor experience. Many of us are soothed by the sound of waves, thrilled by the rumble of a waterfall, delighted at the song of the Hermit Thrush on a spring morning and comforted by the distinctive sound of wind in the white pines.
It certainly is possible to become addicted to noise. Some people find the quiet of the Upper Peninsula to be ominous and disturbing. Coming into our more remote areas from the background noise of the city, they become anxious, saying they are not used to and don’t know how to be alone and quiet. They often try to dampen down those anxious feelings by lots of activity and lots of talk.
This brings us to the concept, that, in addition to external human-created noise, which stresses some and may comfort others, there also is internal noise—inner chaff that we carry with us. We can’t say it any better than did Henry David Thoreau, more than 150 years ago:
“I feel a little alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”
I would fain forget all my morning’s occupation, my obligations to society. But sometimes it happens that I cannot easily shake off the village: the thought of some work, some surveying, will run in my head, and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses.
“In my walks, I would return to my senses like a bird or a beast. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

—HDT, November 25, 1850

Do you have a favorite spot…a woodlot, old farm field, backwoods ski or snowshoe trail, a cabin deep in the forest, granite overlook, wild Superior beach? Leave your other world, with its noise, cares and talk, at the parking lot or trailhead. Immerse yourself in the natural world which surrounds us here. Go quietly.

— Lon and Lynn Emerick

Editor’s Note: Comments are welcome by writing MM or e-mailing marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org
Lon and Lynn Emerick’s Upper Peninsula books: The Superior Peninsula, Going Back to Central, Lumberjack—Inside an Era, Sharing the Journey, You Wouldn’t Like it Here and You STILL Wouldn’t Like it Here are available at area book and gift stores or by visiting their Web site at www.northcountrypublishing.com

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