Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in an enclosed vehicle. This is bad news considering the many studies published in recent years which prove that excursions in the outdoors are essential to our health. Time in a wild setting, removed from modern noise, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves cognitive function, and generates a brilliant quality of aliveness.
One study out of Germany examines over 1 million people living near an airport. The findings show those plagued by background noise (jet engines, leaf blowers, cars) face an increased risk of kidney failure, cardiovascular diseases, and dementia compared to people who lived in quitter settings.
Never has it been more vital to re-charge in the mountains, to hear the wild soundscape. This is not some new-age plea, this is an urgent public health crisis.
I remain hopeful. Americans are beginning to see nature as medicine — entering wilderness to absorb sights, smells and sounds that foster mental and physical health benefits. This explains the growing number of hikers and campers wandering Utah's lands each year. However, it is not enough to just go outside. We must navigate Utah's wild space with intention and reverence — listening not yelling.
My wife and I spend a great deal of time hiking in the Wasatch and, frankly, we are stunned by the ignorance and blatant disrespect we encounter. Hikers blare music from backpacks as they meander up trail. Groups of people bark, shriek and belt personal affairs as if their volume must match the big terrain. Earlier this year, while fishing a small mountain stream, a small crowd of walkers crashed through brush and stood within feet of me without regard. They first yelled at each other over the trickle of the water, played music aloud from a phone, then plunged rocks into the very pool in which I cast my fly. I was speechless. National parks receive weekly complaints of high-pitched drones that disrupt the wilderness experience by screaming overhead. Campground managers across the country constantly respond to "noisy neighbor" complaints.
If we are going to restore balance to our spinning lives, we must respect each other's time in nature. Whether it is deep in the backcountry or on the popular trails of Millcreek, how about we turn off the music, be mindful of our shouts, and offer each other the gift of deep-silence? Talk with soft voices, exchange warm smiles. Hear the gurgling stream, the chatter of a territorial squirrel, and distant knocks of woodpeckers. Pause for the long woooosh of the canyon winds against swaying, creaking pines.
Josh Wennergren is a Salt Lake City local and recent graduate from the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities Graduate Program.