We live, most of us, in islands that have forgotten both silence and darkness. Although the earth still contains vast areas of both, more than half of humanity now lives in cities. In the industrialized world, far more than half of us live in large cities. The American West, that icon of individualism, sparse plains, and empty mountains is the most urbanized part of the United States. By 1990, 80% of all the people living in the American West lived in metropolitan areas. In eight of those states, the city population exceeded 88%! By any measure, westerners are city folks by a much higher percentage than anyone else in the United States.
And, in the places where most humans now live, it is never silent; never dark.
Some mammals and some birds have adapted to the light and noise. Pigeons, Starlings, English Sparrows, House Finches and rats all thrive in our environment. Others avoid us – please pardon the cliché that is coming – like the plague.
There is no use in decrying this urbanization of the species; we have evolved to it and it must be adaptive or we would not have thrived as we have. Nor is there any reason to suppose the trend will ever reverse itself.
We live in a transitional era. Still close enough in time to the jungle and savannah from which we came, we vaguely remember both silence and darkness. Recent studies have proven that we sleep sounder in absolute darkness and relative silence. We still fear the dark. We still yearn for a piece of nature. Anthropologists explain our little bits of lawn and garden – tyrannized nature – as remembrances of time past.
And, let’s face it, it is probably why so many of us are birders. We yearn to spend at least a little time in beauty, surrounded only by the sounds of wildness. Serenity lies in silent places and where better to find it than in a place where a bird call can lose itself in the silence of the world.
For more on the urban American west, try the blog of the well-known western scholar Carl Abbott. His book, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban change in Western North America is a good read and still available on Amazon. Any of the works of my American West professor, Gerald Nash are excellent introductions, especially his The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War.
For those of us still gamely hanging on to the value of wild experiences, see this post at Wild Resiliency.