Seeking Solace on Muswell Hill
I went for a walk this morning, from the round-a-bout at the top of Muswell Hill, London, along the re-purposed railroad / hiking trail, through Highgate Wood, and then across the road and into the less developed Queen’s Wood.
These now protected reserves are believed to be the remnants of the ‘wildwood’ of England which existed until about 5000 years ago. The literature at the entrance to Queen’s Park did not state if the woods were intentionally cut by humans for building materials and to clear land for farming, or if something out of human control occurred to cause a wane of the naturally wooded areas. I assume the former, as has been and continues to be the case where ever humans call home.
Queen’s Wood, in less than what I believe to be two or three square-kilometers harbors 90 species of fungi, 108 species of spiders, and dozens of species of birds. The maintenance crews are now placing cut logs and branches in piles to give safe harbor for certain bark beetle populations, one of which requires an undisturbed environment for several years before its larvae develop into mature adults. Some mammals too seek shelter in the wood piles.
These city parks and reserves, as maintained by the City of London, are needed anomalies to break the monotony of pavers, concrete, and three story buildings whose street-level shops beg that we fail to recall the difference between wants and needs. Niceties become must-haves in the spree of the moment.
On the edge of the parks, women with pink caps and scarves, black coats and matching knee-high boots push strollers with child. Dogs run off leash despite the signs, owners calling in shrill voices which remind me of Archie Bunker’s wife upon his turn from work. And those are the men. The women’s voices are nearly inaudible or easily mistaken for the squeal of a bus brake coated by wet pavement.
Where the Pavers End
As I walk deeper into the wood, further from the concrete / mud boundary, city structure gives way to something a little less organized but at the same time more comfortable. The number of mothers, strollers, and children is reduced. The source of light is no longer an ambient glow from a source hidden behind a ceiling of clouds, but the leaves themselves glow yellow and orange. The florescent green moss and lichens painted across the texture of the trunks of the English oaks gives a sense of life independent from the canopies overhead.
Even more than the change in light, it is the transition in sound which I noticed most. As though I passed through a doorway, there is a threshold where if I step back I hear only the engines and brakes of the red double-decked buses; one step forward and my audio space is filled instead with the call of birds, the wind moving in short bursts through the mostly bare branches, and the water from the morning’s rain falling to the wet leaves and damp soil in discrete drops.
I was reminded of the constant noise we as humans create, most of which add stress, not joy to our lives. There is no jet plane, no engine roar, no jack hammer, no nail gun, no police siren, no car alarm, no chain saw, no coffee grinder, no milk steamer, no vacuum cleaner, no garbage disposal; no opening of a plastic bag, candy wrapper, or styrofoam container which compels me to smile. And yet, this is what fills the majority of our lives.
The Song of the Human
While the human voice in song is the call of our species to be recorded, in the rest of our world, we make little more than noise. I cannot help but wonder what effect this has on our personal psyche, on the health of our species as a whole.
When the vast majority of our six billion people live in environments in which the noise of the city never ceases, not by night nor the early morning, never–what happens to the human mind when the stimuli is continuously eroding, chipping away at our sense of peace?
I have known people who lived their entire life in a city such as New York and cannot handle the silence of a farm or the woods. They have learned to accept the background clamor as the norm, and silence to them, is frightening.
Perhaps this is testament to the incredible flexibility of our species, the ability to reset the mind and body to a new, higher threshold which feels all right. Perhaps levels of ‘healthy’ are not relative to silence, but to our own personal threshold. Or perhaps silence from human generated noise is the key to reducing human stress, on a personal and societal level, and the complexities of tightly packed cities could be resolved with a greater emphasis on silence, both outside and in.
In my life, I need not moments of calm to balance the noise of humanity but the noise of humanity to remind me how much I need the calm of the Wood.