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This spring will not be silent

March 13, 2012

The adjective “silent” can have positive and negative significations. The noun “silence” can mean quietness, peaceful silence, sacred silence, it can also mean secrecy, menacing silence, deadly silence. The adverb “silently” can describe a peaceful scene like: “The owl silently lifted off and flew away,” or a terrifying situation: “The poisonous dust settled slowly and silently, covering everything.”

The presented examples hopefully made clear, that “silence” can be ambiguous, and the headline of this blog post is ambiguous. I will come back this later.

It is mild and sunny here and the first green leaves and sprouts are coming out. We are at the verge of spring and when I walked with the cat family through the forest this morning I felt enchanted and at ease. The cats and I and probably all other creatures in the forest are faithfully looking forward to this most wonderful time of the year that is called spring.

Everybody loves spring — at least everybody whom I know.

The walk today took longer than normal because my little friends looked around and sniffed at the bushes and the new sprouts and they were joyfully rolling on the soft forest floor. I didn’t mind waiting, I just looked for a spot where the morning sun was shining through the trees and then I stood quietly, warmed by the sun. 

While I was watching my cat friends as they were strolling around, exploring the underbrush, and occasionally playing hide and catch, suddenly a cascade of thoughts went through my mind. But as I was not in the mood to consider complicated philosophical arguments I let the thoughts just ebb away after figuring out the main points and storing them for later evaluation.

One point of this flow of associations that I had just let run dry was the striking contrast and the disparity of this peaceful scene with the steady stream of disheartening news that is pouring into my email inbox day in and day out.

For instance:

Heavily armed poachers have just slaughtered 480 elephants in Cameruns Bouba Ndjida National Park, thereby significantly increasing the possibility that one of the world’s most intelligent and social animals will become extinct in the not too far away future.

Drug-resistant bacteria (MDR), which developed on factory meat farms because of routine prophylactic use of antibiotics, not only kill more and more humans but also marine mammals like seals and sea otters.

The acidification of oceans (- 0.1 pH units in the last century) kills coral reefs and threatens all marine life in the long term.

According to a new review by BirdLife International, seabird populations have declined rapidly in the last decades and several species are close to extinction. Overfishing by commercial fisheries is the main reason, but pollution and plastic garbage (north pacific trash vortex) are contributing factors.

The forest that my cat friends and I chose to roam doesn’t show signs of ecological destruction. The birds are singing like always, though is seems to me that there has been a slight decline of the bird population in recent years. I’m not sure if this decline is for real, it could also be that my rather pessimistic outlook into our ecological future makes me believe that. But as I read everywhere, that bird populations throughout the world continue to decline, why should this place be an exception?

I haven’t heard a cuckoo call for a long time, thats for sure.

Today the birds are celebrating the warm sun and they are twiddling ecstatically. Sometimes they get excited (or maybe annoyed, who knows) and there is a crescendo of twiddling till it reaches a climax and suddenly drops back to the usual volume. I don’t mind, when my feathered fellow animals twiddle at the top of their little lungs, even at the loudest level they are not as loud as a starting car or a tractor.

The birds are only loud in comparison with the majestic silence of the forest.

In the day time the silence is occasionally disturbed by loud noise from surrounding areas, tractors on the fields, trucks or motorcycles on the roads, hammering or machinery on the farms. Depending on the topography and the vegetation, some areas can be very quiet, one could say pleasantly quiet, yet just 20 meters away suddenly there is the slight hum of constant traffic noise from an adjacent road. Walking another 20 meters in the same direction brings you to a point where it is completely quiet again.

In the night there is normally no far away traffic noise and also no hammering and no noise from farm machines and tractors. There is also no bird chatter, though there are always mysterious sounds from the nocturnal animals of the forest. I’m not frightened by the mysterious sounds, I’ve heard them a thousand times before and though I cannot classify them and I don’t know which animals make them I know that these sounds don’t signal a threat. The animals of the forest are my dear friends, I like and respect all of them and they know it!

The animals of the forest will not hurt me and therefore the mysterious sounds of the night don’t indicate a looming danger. I have heard these sounds so many times, they are familiar to me, they even soothe me and enchant me.

It can happen during our walks in the night that suddenly there is a faint hum and I was curious for some time about its origin till I realized that the hum comes from airplanes flying high above in the sky. When the sky is clear I can even see the position lights of the planes blinking. The position lights of the aircrafts are roughly the same brightness than the stars and one only can distinguish them because they move.

In a clear deep night one sees a million of stars and looking at the sky is a deeply moving experience.

Standing still and just listening to the animals of the forest and to the whispering of the leaves will tell you many things about life. Even the casual visitor can gain some insight though the experience will be limited and tainted by the multitude of pictures and sounds from the outside world (the civilized and technology driven world) which constantly will flash through his or her mind.

If the visitor is carrying a cell phone or an iPad with him or her the hours in the forest will be just wasted time. Not only that, it will also be a sacrilege, a desecration, because nobody should pollute the few remaining islands of pristine nature with vain and frivolous technology.

To learn the most precious secrets of life one has to spend a long time in the forest. Just a few years will probably not be long enough even in the most fortunate circumstances. Will ten or twenty years be long enough?

I don’t know yet.

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Forests are very robust ecological systems. Hundreds of species compete with each other and balance each other. In winter the moss is taking advantage of the coldness and darkness and is covering and protecting the ground, in spring the grass is overgrowing the moss and is providing shadow from the sun which otherwise would kill the moss. Each species has its little niche and if an unfortunate climatic constellation or a fierce predator diminishes a species there are many others which instantly will fill the vacant position.

The forest floor (on which my feline friends are joyfully rolling) is one of the most distinctive features and the richest component of this ecological system, it serves as a bridge between the above ground living vegetation and the soil and is a crucial component in nutrient transfers through the biogeochemical cycle. The floor consists of leaves, needles, branches, and bark, all in various stages of decomposition. Though the floor is mainly composed of nonliving organic material, it is also inhabited by a wide variety of fauna and flora. There are many decomposers and predators present, mostly invertebrates, fungi, algae, bacteria, and archaea.

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Forests showed me, why ecological diversity is important and forests made me also aware, how sick — one could even say, perverse — our present agricultural practices are. Industrial agriculture is based on monoculture which first has to be achieved by the poisoning of all undesired species and then has to be constantly defended against invading pests with fast amounts of additional poison.

This place here where my cat friends and I spend to much of our time is a mixture of boreal coniferous forest and temperate deciduous forest. It is not a monoculture and there are no pesticides used. The owner of the forest regularly checks the trees for bark beetle infections and the infected trees are cut down. He told me that a few years ago there was a dangerous infestation with leaf pine wasps and he seriously thought about buying pesticides but after two years the leaf pine wasp population suddenly collapsed and since then never recovered. 

Nature obviously applied her own biological pest control. 

Woodpeckers are prominent here, their rattling sound is an integral part of the local soundscape. They not only look nice and funny, they also are the most useful helpers and defenders of the trees.

This place is not a monoculture, though there are patches dominated by spruce trees, a species which was popular in the first half of the last century because they are most profitable. Spruce trees are not popular anymore because it came out that they are vulnerable to pests (especially bark beetles and leaf pine wasps) and can be easily uprooted by storms because of their shallow horizontal root system. 

Spruce monocultures also degrade the soul.

The younger parts of this forest are mixed and broad-leafed trees like ash, birch, elm, maple, blend with conifers which can be fir, pine, or spruce. The owner of the forest told me that the new trees which develop naturally from spread seedlings are mostly pine. Two-thirds of this forest have grown naturally, only one-third was planted. The owner is a very nice old man who bought the land 60 years ago from his inheritance and since then lives from cutting a few dozens trees every year and selling the wood to sawmills. His son is studying media technologies but seems not to object taking over from his father. He will be a highly qualified lumber worker.

Working in the forest being surrounded by trees is probably healthier and more fulfilling than sitting in an office surrounded by computers (a debatable assumption of course — people could have divided opinions about that).

Not everybody cherishes pristine nature.

When I moved to this place and started exploring the surrounding woods I met quite often fellow wanderers but my encounters with other people became more and more rare over the years. Every now and then I see the owner or his son and as we are always chatting a little bit we also talked about this point and they confirmed my impression that nobody except us three seems to be interested in the forest.

They also told me that in former times young people occasionally had parties in the wood and left the place littered with beer cans, liquor bottles, and cigarette butts. Fortunately there are no parties anymore.

Illegal waste dumping is also not a big problem as it stands now. Some guys (or gals) still throw their garbage into the wood as they pass the surrounding roads but they are too lazy even to make a few steps away from their cars so the problem is confined to a few roadsides along the outer edges of the forest.

It seems, that people have no time left for walks in the wood. They apparently are all busy with their Facebook and Twitter accounts. In January, the 800 million Facebook users spent an average of 406 minutes on the Facebook site. Recent surveys indicate that in the USA children from age 8 to 18 devote nearly 8 hours a day to entertainment media (including computer and video games).

According to InMobi, on a global basis the average mobile + web user consumes 7.2 hours of media every day, with mobile devices taking 27 percent share of this time (117 minutes), ahead of TV (98 minutes), but behind computers (140 minutes).

According to Nielsen in 2011 video game use increased 7 percent and in January this year 56 percent of US households owned at least one current-generation gaming console. Mobile, handheld and tablet gaming continued to grow as well.

Another Nielsen report showed that American children aged 13 to 17 received and sent an average of 3,417 text messages a month. This breaks down to seven texts “every waking hour,” or roughly one every 8 1/2 minutes. Mobile phones in general, and texting in particular, have taken over the minds of  young people, heavy texting has even been linked to a growing problem of sleep deprivation.

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We have to cope with more and more distractions, an increasingly hectic life, and a relentless bombardment with information. We have to interact constantly and react immediately, we have to make instant decisions with no time left for weighting the pros and cons.

Bertrand Russell wrote a marvelous essay on the subject, titled “In Praise of Idleness.” Russell’s point was that when we are idle, the brain, if properly trained, is following its own path. Only when we spend time in reflection (in idleness) we are able to think thoughts of our own.

In todays technology driven world we are forced to respond instantly rather than reflect, and as young people increasingly fill their free hours with texting, gaming, social networking, and other similarly fast-paced, attention-absorbing activities, the opportunities for sustained reflective thought disappear.

This is not a time where the silence of a forest is cherished, this not a time of quiet contemplation, this is not a time for far reaching and yet well considered dreams and visions, and accordingly the public debates are characterized by standardized sound bits. There is no social and political dialog, there is no exchange of ideas, there is no dialectic discussion, there is only the attempt to drown opposing voices by the sheer power of mainstream media propaganda.

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I opened this text with examples demonstrating the ambiguity of the adjective “silent.” Silence can be frightening, it can symbolize death and destruction, it can forbode a looming disaster. Silence can also mean the end of deafening noise or the end of turmoil and pandemonium, in this case silence will be a relief, silence will be comforting and soothing.

The positive aspects of “silence” are probably better represented by the word “quietness,” and the headline “This spring will not be silent, but hopefully will be quiet” would have fitted better and would have been more descriptive.

I choose the short version nevertheless.

This spring will for sure not be silent, because there will be the roar of cars and trucks, the humming of airplanes, the clanging and thudding of machinery, the noise of building and renovating, the chatter of radios, cell phones, computers, and TVs in cars, houses, shopping malls, and all other places reached by human civilization. This spring will for sure not be silent, because there will be pop music blaring from billions of loudspeakers.

People will not experience perturbing, frightening, eery silence.

I remember a total eclipse in August 1999 (btw the last total eclipse of the century). I lived in another village then, but also in a house at the edge of a forest, where bird chatter was a constant background sound, so familiar that I didn’t even realize that it was there. A few seconds before the solar eclipse took place the singing and twiddling suddenly stopped and it became completely quiet.

The total eclipse itself was not that impressive, it simply became dark like on a rainy, cloudy day and after a few moments the sun appeared again. The total eclipse was not impressive but the uncommon total silence was something I will never forget. The birds stopped singing because they were frightened to death. The humans had stopped all activities because they watched the eclipse.

I choose the title “This spring will not be silent” in reference to Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, which was published in 1962 and is regarded as one of the starting points of the environmental movement. The book documented the devastating effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds, and its title was meant to evoke a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, because the birds had all perished as a result of pesticide use.

Spring will not be silent in my forest refuge. Spring will maybe quiet and the air will hopefully only be filled by the voices of the inhabitants of the forest.

But spring will also not be silent in even the most polluted places. Tractors, bulldozers, trucks, and industrial machines will fill the air with their noise and should there ever be an uncommon and uncomfortable lull, people will turn on their iPhones, IPods, IPads or whatever gadget is at hand.

Constant traffic noise will also significantly reduce the danger of silence, and should traffic noise ever fall below acceptable levels and be deemed insufficient, drivers will crank up their car stereos, thereby banishing silence in the whole neighborhood.

The younger generations don’t seem to miss the majestic silence of the forests. The majority of young people ostensibly don’t fear that nature becomes silent and they also don’t mind the constant noise from machines and loudspeakers. They grew up with this noise, they are used to it, they certainly would miss it. They probably would be desperate if the machines would stop and the loudspeakers would fall silent.

I read that rain forests and coral reefs, the most efficient and productive ecosystems, will be gone soon. Forests like the one where my feline friends and I roam are threatened too, but they are expected to last a bit longer. Hopefully they will last long enough that the cats and I can enjoy them till our end.

The majority of young people in all likelihood will not miss the rain forests and the coral reefs. They would miss video games and TV shows, they would miss Facebook and Twitter, but they will not miss nature. Young people would miss the twiddling of their smart phones, they will not miss the twiddling of birds, they most likely will not even realize it, when the birds finally stop singing.

Every time before I start writing a blog post, I inculcate myself and tell myself: don’t be pretentious, don’t be presumptuous, don’t be patronizing, don’t be smug, don’t be arrogant and assuming! Every generation has its own way, how can I assume, that my way of life is better than theirs?

I don’t mind if people spend their life in front of a screen or are busy all day fiddling with their iPhones and iPads. I leave them alone if they leave me alone too. Yet laissez faire goes only that far and tolerance has its limits when the actions of my fellow humans endanger my life. Todays consumer oriented lifestyle evidently causes the depletion of resources and the destruction of nature — and this is not a trivial matter!

It is not a trivial matter, because the destruction of nature could have certain negative implications, like for instance: MRSA epidemics, until now confined to hospitals, prisons, and military barracks, could become more widespread, cancer could increase, allergies, asthma, and other pollution caused illnesses could increase. 

But people would still have an average life expectancy of 40 to 50 years, more that in the middle ages and all historic times before. Who am I to tell the following generations how to life their lives? Do I have any right to shame them and to accuse them of ignorance?

I don’t shame them, I only tell the kids what they can expect — that is the reason why I write this blog. I don’t think that one could call this patronizing or label it as overbearing, lofty, smug. 

I will for sure also use all other available means to preserve my world (the environment that I’m familiar with) as good as I can until I die. I will try to hold off the destruction and warn about the consequences.

I will die without guilt and worries.

=======================

Remotely related information tidbits:

There has been a staggering increase in gas prices in the last month in my idyllic and until now peaceful home country here in the middle of Europe. Prices were high before, up to three times higher than in the USA. But now prices go through the roof and people are desperate. If gas would be that expensive in the USA, there would be open rebellion, with millions of SUV drivers descending on Washington and whole police departments as well as military units defecting to the rebels.

People are hurting, thats for sure, but they don’t drive less. Last year personal transport increased one percent, truck traffic nearly four percent! I always hoped that high fuel prices would significantly reduce traffic to the benefit of nature but the equation higher prices = less driving doesn’t work. I think this is called “price inelasticity of demand”.

People rather let their children starve than reduce driving.

That is exaggerated of course. Nobody is starving here, in one of the most affluent countries of the world with an unemployment rate of only 4 percent (the lowest in whole Europe) and a still functioning social security system, comprehensive public health care, and comparatively secure public pension funds.

There are no homeless people, there is no poverty, and crime rates are the lowest in Europe (probably also the lowest in the world). But citizens of younger age are nevertheless grumbling and are flocking to right wing parties, gangs of young unemployed men are rioting and vandalizing public and private property (though this is not yet a widespread phenomenon).

It seems that a comfortable and carefree life, functioning social services, and an easy access to education do not necessarily guarantee happiness.

It seems that even the most abundant amenities of modern life, the high-tech gadgets, game consoles, smart phones, tablets, the DVD movies and TV shows, are not able to completely satisfy, pacify, or at least soothe and sedate people.

What could be wrong and/or who could be missing something?

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As I wrote already in the first part of this blog post, there is a striking contrast and a disparity of my personal life with the steady stream of disheartening news that is pouring into my email inbox day in and day out.

My personal situation has steadily improved in the last years, I’m happier, healthier, more content than I ever was. I have more savings than I ever had and I could afford to buy many things that I dreamt of in former times. My past dreams though will remain unfulfilled, because I have stopped spending and I intend to keep it that way.

This gap between my fortunate and privileged personal situation and the dismal state of the world, as it is reported in the news could be “cognitive dissonance,” or “cognitive disequilibrium,” reflecting a subconscious urge to dwell and indulge in doomsday scenarios.

To rule that out, I double check, triple check, cross check all news, I apply common sense and logic, I use a variety of sources. I wrote about this already in an earlier blog post and cited there some observations that I could make with my own eyes.

For instance: 

A gang of young men every now and then are vandalizing private and public property even in this peaceful area.

The 17 year old son of a neighbor makes no attempt to learn a profession or to look for a job. He watches TV and listens to loud music all night long, he sleeps in daytime (fortunately I don’t hear the music but the immediate neighbors are bothered and frequently call the police).

Two little boys, 13 and 14 years old, did set a school ablaze, causing severe damage.

A husband severely beat up his wife, causing her to flee the house with two children on her arms, blood running from her face.

Several relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances suffered and died from cancer.

Comparing all infos and taking local/regional differences into account I come to the conclusion that there is no contradiction between my personal observations and the world news.

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Life is suffering (the Four Noble Truth), it was always that way. Life is a struggle, as it was always a struggle.The world is not perfect and never will be perfect. The Garden of Eden is a religious myth and paradise on earth will never be achieved.

Why not live this imperfect and bothersome life as good as we can, why not enjoy it and make the best out of it? Why not help each other to enjoy life and make the best out of it? Why not end this text on a hopeful note?

The future may not be as bleak as it looks right now. Many things can happen, there are many possibilities — some more likely than others.

Just a few examples:

The financial system in Europe could crash, bringing down the plutocracies in many Western countries and giving the opportunity for a fresh start. (very likely)

The plan to destabilize and destroy Syria could be thwarted, dealing a sever blow to US-strategies. (too hard to tell)

The oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries may indeed be grossly overstated and the end of the fossil fuel based economy could be near. Fuel prices are already rising but fuel could soon simply not be available anymore. (likely)

A global movement, driven and represented by a paradigm shift and including a network which is connecting millions of tiny cells with between eight to sixteen activists could gradually transform societies around the world and establish a sustainable economic system. (too hard to tell)

Human fertility could decline due to EMF exposure (cell phones, wifi), and due to the contamination of food and water with xenoestrogens, octylphenol, and other organic chemicals (PBDEs, POPs). (likely)

Diesel fuel bugs (fungi and bacteria that live from fossil fuels) could spread and the bugs could mutate and become more aggressive. They could contaminate the whole system, leading to the destruction of machines, infrastructure, and refineries. (remotely possible)

New emerging microorganisms could randomly ignite explosive materials, causing the explosion of weapons and ammunition depots and the self destruction of tanks, drones, rockets, jet fighters, war ships. Soldiers, militiamen, terrorists, hunters, criminals all over the world would subsequently throw away their guns and their ammunition which could go off at any time. (not likely but possible)

People could come to their senses. (remotely possible)

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My furry friends astonished me again. Sumo, the 14 year old lady is now hardly missing a walk in the wood. She always was frightened and avoided close contact with the other cats, but suddenly she is self confident and doesn’t mind walking side by side with her fellow felines.

How comes? I don’t know for sure but I have a suspicion: Ma Xi, a feral cat who joined our family recently, is for sure friendlier and more agreeable since he was neutered but he has not yet completely shed his habit of bullying other cats. Two weeks ago he suddenly had a deep scratch on his nose. At the same time Sumo left her old lonely place in the sitting room, she resides now in my bed room together with some other cats (don’t ask further questions, this is after all a private matter).

Well, it seems that Ma Xi was taught a lesson and Sumo suddenly discovered, that she is a strong and valiant cat — her six kilogram weight makes a difference for sure. Sumo is a heavy cat but she is loosing weight now because she not only participates in our walks but also spends more and more time in the forest together with the other cats.

Who said that old cats can’t learn new tricks? Maybe old dogs can’t learn new trick, but cats are different!

My dear Lizzy became a house cat after some ten years in the wild, Ma Xi after approximately four years. Sumo left her old family for a new home after twelve years and now with fourteen drastically changed her lifestyle. I never expected that cats could have such a potential for change!

Could humans have a similar, until now undiscovered potential for change?

One comment

  1. What a wonderful, hopeful post! Yes, I do not give up hope that we humans can also learn new tricks, bleak as the world seems of late. My next post will be about violence again…but I write in hope of change. When I give up hope, I will stop writing.

    Also, so appreciate your descriptions of your forest! I too spend a lot of time walking in the silent forest, and try to get away from the roads so I can hear the wind in the trees unobstructed…with my dog friend at the moment….

    Reconnecting with the natural world is something we humans MUST do if we are to reclaim our rightful place as stewards of the land, instead of destroyers….



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