Excerpt from Richard Mahler's new book underway:

Decades ago, when novelist Edward Abbey was a ranger at Arches National Monument in the canyon country of southern Utah, most Americans were probably repelled by the windswept wilderness of eroded, sun-baked rock that dominates the area. Abbey's biggest fear, according to fellow nature writer Timothy Egan, was that some day visitors would run their motorized vehicles through such landscapes, which he considered sacred in part because of their silence. Some places should remain off-limits forever to motorized vehicles, Abbey reasoned. After all, he wrote, you can't drive a car into church. Nor, I will add, should you try.

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The ability to mold a healthful and life-affirming environment remains within our grasp, even though human-made sound and activity continue to encroach on our public and private space. As we continue filling the world with loud distractions, often unbidden, we will keep craving the oasis of serenity that inevitably shrinks with their arrival. Please join me on April 20 in celebrating the simple pleasure of silence. Please tell me, in a gentle whisper, what's so weird about that?

Richard Mahler lives in Santa Cruz, CA, and is the author of "Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude" (Red Wheel, 2003), a book about the importance of preserving (and enjoying) silence.

Classrooms too noisy

By John McCrank

Humming lights, loud ventilation and poor acoustics can make it difficult for children to concentrate. But a UBC professor has come up with a way to make students in the back row listen up, whether they want to or not. Prof. Murray Hodgeson, who's been working on better-designed classrooms for over ten years, has developed a programme called Class Talk, which allows architects and engineers to test acoustic levels in a virtual environment before the room is actually built.

"Most students are working in environments for which we know that people are going to have considerable difficulties understanding speech, in particular, younger children with English as a second language," said Hodgeson. Measured in decibels, noise levels in classrooms are typically in the mid-70s. To put that into perspective, if you walk in the streets in Vancouver at rush hour, the decibel level is probably in the high 70s or low 80s.

The U.S. has guidelines for noise limits in classrooms, while laws in Britain govern how classrooms are designed to reduce noise levels, but there are no such regulations in Canada. Noisy classrooms aren't good for teachers, because they have to speak louder, driving the noise level up further, said Hodgeson, who cites an increase in Workers' Compensation Board compensation claims by school teachers suffering from voice problems.

Hodgeson is not alone in his concern. A group called SNAG, or the School Noise Action Group, was originally formed by school teachers and UBC professors to address learning problems of hard-of-hearing students. For instance, the hum from fluorescent lighting common to many classrooms affects FM receptors in hearing aids, making learning especially difficult.

But after studying the issue further, SNAG expanded its focus to include all students, because excessive noise in classrooms creates communication problems for everyone, said Maureen MacDonald, health and safety officer for the B.C. Teachers' Federation. At University Hill Elementary, principal John Beach said while the school's seven-year-old building is an "architectural triumph", it's very noisy.

Beach is working with Hodgeson to reduce noise levels by adding sound-absorbing materials to the vaulted ceilings, and possibly carpets to the floors. It's normal for kids to be loud, Beach said, but if the building they are in amplifies the sound, it makes id that much more difficult to learn. "Environmental noise and environmental noise pollution are recognised factors in stress, no doubt about it."

- The Vancouver Courier

Right to Quiet Society Newsletter, Spring 2005
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