The Sounds of Silence
Jill Rennicke, Alumni Coordinator

For Majenta Stuntebeck, one of the favorite sounds of Conserve School was silence – the silence to hear the loons, to listen to the waves lapping on the shores of Big Donahue, or listening to the music of silence atop the Sledding Hill. The CS15 Alum remembered that silence and an assignment completed in the Conserve School English class in an essay that recently won the "The Robert M. Schuster Short Prose Award." Named for an alum of La Follette High School who loved writing, the award offers a $3000 prize. This year's theme was "Imagine." Read Majenta's essay "On Behalf of Silence" below:

On Behalf of Quiet

By Majenta Stuntebeck

Rain droplets cracked across the nylon of my rain jacket and pants as I studied the inside of my eyelids, trying to stretch my hearing past the hollow popping. There was a splash from the lake and a bird wailed overhead, left alone by its brothers and sisters to brave the trip south by itself. I marveled that I could hear the distress in its calls. My classmates breathed beside me, in a beautiful mismatched rhythm, hollow, deep, short. The unmistakable sound of a car in the distance synchronized our breathing into a collective gasp, and then groan. Two minutes and forty-three seconds of silence. Our teacher sat still for a moment before he moved his sad eyes to meet each of ours. Two minutes and forty-three seconds. We sat quietly on the lake of a large campus miles outside of a scantily populated town, many more miles outside of anything that could be considered a city. The illusion of our isolation was shattered by the brief sound of a car, though I was able to maintain my appreciation for the respectable amount of quiet that our home in the woods was able to provide. It was not until returning to the city that I realized the impact that this had on my well being, and what it could do for the world. If for only two minutes and forty-three seconds, cars stopped, planes landed, construction workers went home and all power went off, then for two minutes and forty-three seconds people could hear the wind in the trees, and the birds in the sky, and the waves washing upon the shores of the lakes.

After four months in the Wisconsin Northwoods my adjustment back to my normal life was difficult for many reasons. My new family, to whom I had grown so close to over the past few months, was now scattered across the country. After a semester at a private "tree school," where we kept hiking boots and a compass in our locker, I was returning to public school where I would spend seven hours without feeling the sunlight, or rain, or snow on my skin. I was able to prepare myself for these changes before facing the transition, anticipating the challenge and preparing remedies for the hurt. I kept in contact with my friends across the country: skyping, mailing letters, sending gifts. I made more time for myself outside of school to spend time under the sun, going for hikes and bike rides and traveling abroad. I inhaled fresh air with the desperation of an asthmatic after a marathon, throwing myself into battle against the post-wilderness depression that so many Conserve School alumni spoke of. I was determined to not let such a beautiful experience be the source of such an ugly pain in my life. Despite my best efforts I struggled. I felt constantly stressed and uptight, fighting a restless mind to form cohesive thoughts.

As I walked to my bus stop in the rain one day a car sped past me, splashing cool water onto my jeans when its tires ripped through a puddle. Two minutes and forty-three seconds. I remembered how pitiful that number had sounded when my teacher read his watch to us; the sadness it brought to his face. I thought about how impressive two minutes and forty-three seconds would be here. After school I biked to a park and picked a spot near the lake similar to the one I sat at with my classmates only a few months ago. I pulled out a stopwatch and waited. And continued to wait. Cars hummed in the distance and jets shook the sky above me, threatening to send shards of blue crashing down to my feet. I waited for almost an hour for a break in the sound, huddled next to a tree attempting to shield myself from the wind. I waited for the cars to stop, the planes to land, the construction workers to go home. They never did. For the rest of the day everything was loud. Coffee makers shrieked, heaters growled, televisions laughed and cried and moaned; I fell asleep with a headache and tears attempting to escape my eyes.

It was an unfortunate realization. My thoughts were being chased, in a perpetual attempt to escape the destructive noise that was always around me. In school I watched and listened as my peers yelled and laughed and mouthed lyrics to songs spilling from earbuds tucked haphazardly around their ears. I observed as people attempted to shove their voices into even the tiniest gaps in conversions, packing meaningless words into silence like it's an overstuffed suitcase, not realizing that some things are better left behind. Belongings in a light suitcase have room to breathe, and are easier to carry. I recognized many of these behaviors as things I did myself, in an effort to keep the quiet away. I - like my classmates - feared silence like it was dangerous, not understanding that it only helps our thoughts to settle down. My four months of quiet gave me time to thoroughly assess what I needed from myself. I knew exactly what I was stressed about, and why, or when I was upset about something, or curious, or hopeful. In the silence, I was introduced to myself.

In a blind push to make everything bigger, better, and faster we have unknowingly deafened everyone to their own thoughts. This sound based imperialism has grown so out of control that we have all but driven quiet completely out of the country. Gordon Hempton, founder of the One Square Inch of Silence foundation believes that a small spot in Olympic National Park may be the the quietest place in the US. Hempton describes silence as "not the absence of something, but the presence of everything" and thinks of the Earth as a "solar powered jukebox." As human-sourced sound makes its way into every corner of the country, muffling the sounds of this jukebox, we must imagine what quiet would do for our society, even if it's only for a few minutes at a time.

Two minutes and forty-three seconds would allow each individual to be introduced to themselves. A student stressed from the seemingly endless list of high school pressures may perform better on a test if given time and quiet to think about what they need from themselves beforehand. The need to sleep, eat or vent about a problem may be lost under the constant fuzz of noise, forcing students to grasp randomly at afflictions suggested by self help pamphlets hoping that one of them holds the remedy to their struggles. A short silence, allowing this fuzz to dissipate briefly, gives one the opportunity to understand clearly what ails them. Two minutes of silence could be the deep breath needed before a recklessly impulsive decision: a pill popped, a window smashed, a trigger pulled.

It is a wonder, how we have managed to function our entire lives with so much loudness around us. How our brains are able to effectively tune out so many noises so often to the point that we no longer realize that they are there. It obviously takes effort from our mind to do this, brainpower that could just as easily be going towards brilliant thoughts and creations. There is no telling how many illnesses could have been cured or how much political strife could have been avoided had we only allowed our minds even the shortest break from pushing out sounds that we have allowed to reach our ears in the first place.

I am writing this on behalf of quiet, as she cannot speak for herself. I write in the hopes that we will stop our attack, and learn that she is guiltless. Quiet will show us a world not of the hums and buzzes of motors and lights but of the sounds of our feet as they crunch over gravel, or squish over mud, or swish through tall grasses. I want to know the sound of my own heartbeat, and the rhythms it creates when I am joyful, or frightened, or in love. I want to be tied to a community by nothing more than our breath, uneven proof that we are all alive together.