Life

How to hear the sound of silence | Erling Kagge

It's oh so quiet

At school I learned about sound waves. Sound is physical and can be measured in decibels, though I find it unsatisfying to measure sound with a number chart.

Sound, of course, is not only sound, and silence is something more than the absence of sound. The silence I am writing about is more of an idea. A notion.

On a sailing trip in the spring of 1986, pushing towards Cape Horn off the coast of Chile in the South Pacific Ocean, I was reminded of this. Early one morning, while alone on watch between midnight and 4:00 a.m., I heard a sound that seemed like a long, deep breath just west of the boat. I had no idea what it could be. I turned ninety degrees in the direction of the sound and spotted a whale just off the starboard side. A mere calling distance away. I estimated that the creature was as long as our boat, about twenty meters. Judging from its length, I guessed that it was a fin whale, a cosmopolitan mammal on a life-long hunt for crabs, krill and fish. Blue whales are about the same size, but as we have managed to nearly exterminate them, I figured the odds of the world’s largest animal swimming alongside us were rather slim.

The sails were well trimmed, the boat was almost steering itself, and there was not much for me to do but watch that whale. Narrow, streamlined, a bit like a torpedo, with a greyish black spine. The rule of thumb for large whales is that they weigh one ton per foot in length, so I guessed that the whale’s weight was around sixty tons. He or she swam alongside the boat. For a few minutes we travelled the same course, my whale and I.

A few more times I heard that deep sound coming from the blowhole on its back, slowly in and out of the lungs, before the whale eventually vanished into the ocean. The world was not quite the same. I remained standing there, my hands on the wheel, listening and watching for that dark spine with the single fin, but I never saw my whale again.

When we came into port three days later, I heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner. That sound and the breathing of our whale were on nearly the same frequency. But whereas the one reminded me of normal, essential duties, something that I do as a chore to get rid of dust at home, the other sound is unusual, authentic, a primal force. I sometimes still hear that deep, majestic mode of expression; it’s a source of enrichment for me even today.

Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge is out now

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