On Noise by David Higgins

Lately I dream of being underground. A basement; a bunker. No voices or vehicles. I’ll miss the birds, perhaps. It won’t be silent. My hearing generates its own whistles and buzzes. But I don’t much mind those sounds: they’re my own creations. And I’ll tolerate the groan of earth, the crack of stone, the whispering of worms.


Above, I’m exposed, transparent. In summer, the noise and brightness can be difficult to bear. On bad days, some sounds – an overpowered vehicle accelerating past the house; council workers emptying the nearby bottle bank; children playing nearby – are painful. The pain is hard to describe: it’s an intrusion; a burden; a feeling of something wrong inside my skull. The lockdowns haven’t helped. With few passing cars or planes, the quiet was broken mainly by croaking, warbling, cooing, trilling, and chiffchaffing. I quickly became used to it.


I’m lucky. I live in a house with a garden in a quiet area. But there is traffic, of course, and I sometimes wonder how as a society we tolerate its aural brutality. One parent of a child at the local primary school drives a sports car so teeth-grindingly loud that I believe he must have an aggressive hatred of people that puts my quiet misanthropy to shame. Whenever I hear the engine, I want to punch something, or someone. And yet we’re all guilty of aggressive incursions into others’ experience. Pedestrians are unlikely to enjoy the sound of my petrol-driven Corsa accelerating, and our neighbours are no doubt disturbed when my young son runs around the garden screaming.


I’ve once or twice lived in places with noisy neighbours, and have found it depressing. I would cope even less well now. Ours are quiet enough, but I still find things to annoy me. The suburban summer brings with it much mowing, chopping, and strimming. One neighbour has finally finished building yet another extension and is now improving his garden with the apparent aim of making it entirely devoid of life. The occasional hammering, cutting, and angle grinding grate on me more than is reasonable, probably because I connect them with the war on nature in which so many Brits participate so enthusiastically.


My noise sensitivity may be excessive, but I hope that it also makes me attentive to more nourishing sounds. In the last five years or so, my perception has changed from ‘nothing’s happening’ to ‘some birds are singing in the area’ to ‘these birds are singing and they are located here, here, and here’. I can now identify by call most common species and some uncommon. Presumably, birds were still singing for the forty or so years of my life during which I was oblivious, and I unconsciously filtered them out as noise. Natural sounds rarely irritate me; I relish the harsh rattle of a magpie or the raucous bark of a jay. And, even if it disturbs my sleep, I enjoy a blackbird’s song snaking through the window at dawn.


On a warmish June evening, I visit Stainburn Forest: a coniferous plantation a few miles north of Leeds. I get devoured by midges and irritated by pollen and it is great. I am hunting for nightjars and catch a few glimpses. They are best known for the males’ semi-mechanical churring song, but I have encountered them a few times now and associate them with four distinct sounds. The churring can continue for minutes, occasionally changing pitch, and sometimes ends with a set of descending, fading notes. I imagine that the bird is taking off from its perch, even though the sound is of a mechanism grinding to a halt. When displaying, the male’s wings sometimes come together with a loud ‘clap’ and both sexes also call with a short, high ‘oo-wik’. Trying to locate these noises in semi-darkness is difficult and exhilarating.


The soundtrack is multi-layered, too. Pine trees creak and whisper. From the rough pasture around the forest, cows low and sheep baa. Roding woodcocks, simultaneously graceful and ungainly, barrel along squeaking and grunting. Several song thrushes, seemingly in competition, are loudly improvising, creating surprising phrases that sometimes mimic other birds. Chaffinches, always perched at the top of a tree, rattle away before finishing with a sharp squelch. Wrens trill, linnets and goldfinches jargon, owls screech. Bats rustle as they fly past my head. Occasionally a sinister bark emerges from the darker parts of the forest; probably a roe deer, even if it sounds monstrous.


Despite their rich variety, the sounds of Stainburn feel harmonious. They gently envelope me rather than aggressively demanding my attention. (Except for the sharp whistle of a midge as it investigates my ear canal). Mechanical noises, largely made by motorcyclists enjoying the lanes of North Yorkshire, are distant. Increasingly, though, modern life not only pushes away nonhuman voices but also drowns them out. A few bird species have successfully adapted to urban settings; however, they tend to be more stressed than their rural counterparts and to produce louder, simpler songs. And, across the world, habitats are continually being destroyed by the relentless grind of noisy machinery.


It’s hardly good for us either. I’ve noticed the number of planes increasing recently as people start travelling again. I think of all those who live directly under busy flight paths and how our modern obsession with mobility must affect them. I’m unusually sensitive ­­– I’ve slept with ear plugs for years – but research shows that the chronic exposure to urban noise has adverse health outcomes. Those most seriously affected, of course, are the poorest inhabitants of the world’s megacities. Late capitalism generates endless noise, actual and metaphorical. This is partly how it sustains itself, by drowning out the thought and attentiveness that might lead us to question the status quo. I’d like to imagine a better future, but the ‘business as usual’ approach to net zero – a kind of magical thinking in which we do all the same stuff but with cleaner, quieter technology – doesn’t convince me.


I’ve been reading recently about noise disorders ­– misophonia, hyperacusis, phonophobia – and wonder if I could be diagnosed with one and if it would make any difference if I was. Certainly, my inconsistent mental health is a factor: anxiety makes me more sensitive to noise which makes me more anxious and so on. Winter is a time of psychological struggle for many, but I am starting to prefer its enforced withdrawals to the oppressively long and demanding summer evenings. This is despite the joy of being outside with my children: watching my daughter say hello to ants and bees; allowing my son the great pleasure of soaking me with a water pistol. Although I know I should savour this time, I can’t help dreaming of cool, windowless rooms.




David Higgins is an academic at the University of Leeds, where he specialises in Romantic literature and environmental humanities. His current research includes the Land Lines Project: a collaborative history of British nature writing to be published by Cambridge University Press next year, and a book on climate change pessimism.

The author would like to thank Pippa Marland for editorial guidance.


Photograph of Stainburn by the author.


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