Phobic alert: If you don't appreciate certain slithery reptiles, you may want to skip photo #7 below.
One recent Friday afternoon, as the Wander Women hiking club set out on a segment of the North Country Trail, our leader Mary made a suggestion.
"What would you think about doing part of our hike in silence, just listening to the birds and other sounds around us?"
Now, we're a chatty bunch of women—so chatty that one name we considered for our group was the Walkie Talkies. But when Mary clarified that we could converse on the outbound part of the hike and be quiet on the return, we all thought we could manage that.
So we hit the trail and found ourselves talking about—not talking. Gina mentioned a silent meditation retreat she'd attended. Being quiet during meditation wasn't a problem, she said, but it was a real challenge at mealtimes. A zealous foodie, Gina likes to ask questions about what she's being served, especially when the food is as interesting as it was at the retreat. She held her tongue, though, and just let it savor the tastes instead of wagging to analyze them.
As we traveled on, passing by a lake and meandering along a stream, our topics of conversation covered varied terrain as well. We talked about books and movies, summer travel plans, the upcoming Enchanted Forest event, anything and everything that came to mind. When we reached the turn-around point, we paused to take a breather and tie up any loose conversation threads before starting the silent trek back.
Soon, the shuffle of leaves beneath our feet, the gurgle of the creek and the rustle of wind through the pines engaged us as fully as our trail talk had. We did find ways to communicate, though, silently pointing out trail blazes, tree roots to avoid stumbling over and a daring hognose snake that had stretched out across the path.
We did break our silence at one point, when we passed through a campground, and a camper made friendly overtures. But after exchanging pleasantries, we continued on in quietude.
At the end of the hike, we took a few minutes to share our impressions. We'd all heard sounds we might otherwise have missed—from the creaks and groans of a swaying tree to the gravelly call of some unidentified creature near the lakeshore. We speculated about what sort of animal might have made that sound. My guess was a rail—a secretive, ground-dwelling bird that lives in marshy areas. Mary, unfamiliar with that type of bird, thought I said "whale." The look she gave me suggested she thought the silence had unhinged me.
In fact, the silence had made me saner. Our weekly hikes always leave me feeling calmer and steadier, but this one gave me an even greater sense of peace.
There's a reason for that, I learned by looking into the science of silence. Researchers who set out to study the effects of various kinds of music on breathing rate, blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain found that two minutes of silence between musical tracks was more calming than even the most relaxing music. (Read the study here.)
In another study, scientists looking the effects of baby mouse calls and white noise on the brains of adult mice expected to find that the baby sounds spurred development of new brain cells in the adults. As a control, they also exposed some mice to two hours of silence a day. Guess what: the mice that got the silent treatment showed increased growth in the hippocampus, the brain area involved with formation of memories. The mice exposed to sounds, on the other hand, showed only short-term neurological effects, no long-term changes.
I can't say for sure that my memory was any better after our silent walk in the woods. Then again, I can't say it was any worse. Maybe with a few more wordless walks, I'll remember where I left my camera case.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.