The Quality of Silence

Last night I reread, in part, Sarah Maitland’s A Book of Silence, which made a deep impression when I read it three years ago. Kathleen Jamie captures the richness of Maitland’s book exceptionally well.

“Silence has its own weather. In silence, one’s mental states loom large and require constant vigilance,” writes Jamie. I think it is precisely that fear that has led to a depreciation of silence. Perhaps,  in the West, we never appreciated silence much in the first place.  Greek philosopher Pythagoras the Samian studied with both the Egyptians and East Indians, cultures where silence and listening where highly valued concepts.  Pythagorean initiates were required to be silent for five years.

In Book of Silence, Maitland writes, “Incessant noise covers up the thinness of relationships as well as making silence appear dangerous and threatening. The nervous chatter that is produced to cover even brief periods of silence within a group is one manifestation of this.” Speech is deemed the distinguishing aspect of humans, silence considered suspicious. Choosing silence as a deliberate choice is thought of as masked, secretive, or labelled pejoratively as ‘shyness’. Sarah Cain  in Quiet wrote, “If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain.”

Western culture values extraversion, what Sarah Cain termed the Extrovert Ideal – “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” (Jungian labels like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are useful in so far as they offer a conversational short-cut, they are widely understood and conceptually predate the field of psychology.)

Choosing silence is also expressing a preference for listening. I find that using silence to prepare my thoughts is essential preparation for speaking. Listening is an undervalued creative activity. (I’ve always loved that ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ contain the same letters.) Maitland writes in A Book of Silence, “Just as if you leave the door of the public bathes open the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of a person who talks a lot escapes through the door of the voice. That is why silence is a good thing; nothing less than the mother of wise thoughts.”

[This is a substantially updated post, originally from June 2009.]

Roger Deakin and the Natural History Section

I’ve reread Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, not cover to cover but leafed through and read the chapters that snag my attention. Deakin died five years ago, his literary legacy being three incandescent books normally shelved in the natural history section.

An urbanite by disposition, I’m not instinctively drawn to nature writing, but I became intrigued by Deakin’s Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (1999). Inspired by John Cheever’s sad, little short story The Swimmer, Deakin decided to swim the length of Britain, using whatever lake, river, rock pool, tarn or swimming pool was available. The concept was sufficiently idiosyncratic to persuade me to read the book, and to introduce me to the burgeoning open-air swimming community, greatly enthused by the attention gained from the success of Deakin’s book.

Frankly I’d read Deakin whatever his subject, for the man’s fierce, self-deprecating wit is the magnet. After Waterlog I read Wildwood , a stunning homage to the ‘fifth element’ of wood. Deakin travels through Britain and across Europe, Central Asia and Australia, unpicking our enchantment with woods and with trees. It is a remarkable book, my favourite chapters being those about his house and land in Suffolk.

It is Deakin’s posthumous Notes from Walnut Tree Farm that is his most personal book, and my favourite. Pieced together from his journals of the last six years of his life, it is an attentive and intense collection of observations about nature and conservancy.

Without Deakin’s incitement I’d never have explored the natural history section of my local bookshop. It is a section surprisingly rich in beautifully written, lucid books about nature and the wild. Two discoveries I recommend highly are Kathleen Jamie (with a recently published second book of essays: Sightlines), and Robert Macfarlane (his latest, The Old Ways, due soon).