The Sounds of Silence

Just as I sat down to a late supper this evening, the power went out. Arlene was attending a conference over in San Francisco and the cats were asleep somewhere, so it was just me. Other than the occasional car passing outside, there was no sound. I lit a few candles and was reminded how rarely we modern humans sit in silence. During a Sierra Club hike in 1998, I was alone for a whole day in a secluded valley at 11,000 feet, while the others went on a day hike. I spent much of day sitting and listening, as it were, to the silence.

How did Americans occupy their evenings before the coming of electricity? I’m reminded of this every time I go camping: after the dinner chores are over and I settle down in front of the fire, I look at my watch and discover that it’s only 7:30. What am I going to do between now and bedtime? And that’s why campers gather ’round the fire, sing songs and tell stories. What else is there to do? Before electricity, people made their own entertainment: they took walks (in Italy the evening passegiata is an important social activity), played music, read books, attended neighborhood clubs. The percentage of households with pianos was higher than it is today.

Arlene and I used to run a Scottish dance camp at the Mendocino Woodlands. One night, in the middle of a dance, the power went out. What did we do in the pitch dark? We all sat down and started singing songs. Mostly silly songs, as I recall — very much the kind of songs we sang at summer camp when we were kids. It was almost a disappointment when the lights came back on half an hour later: we all knew that we had shared a special moment.