The Sound of Silence: Historical Perspectives on Natural Quiet at Grand Canyon


When I worked at the Grand Canyon in the early 1990s, one of the many pressing issues facing the National Park concerned the diminishing resource of natural quiet. In 1993, a team of aviation, acoustic, and Geographical Interface Systems (gis) experts came to the Grand Canyon to help Park staff devise a plan to substantially restore natural quiet over large areas of Grand Canyon, as mandated by the “National Parks Overflights Act” of 1987. Because there was no office space anywhere else, this team set up a temporary office and conference space in a hallway at the back of the Grand Canyon clinic. The hallway happened to be directly outside the archaeology laboratory where I worked, so it was virtually impossible not to overhear the discussions and sometimes passionate debates as they unfolded outside my office door. Those conversations got me thinking about the origins of this relatively new and apparently ill-defined concept of natural quiet. Who were the first people to dream up the phrase “the resource of natural quiet”, and what justified the definition of natural quiet as a “resource”? Did anyone truly appreciate the natural ambient sounds of the Canyon before motors and other modern intrusions threatened our 20th century vision of what a national park is or should be? To put it bluntly, did anyone even care about quiet at Grand Canyon before we didn’t have any?
It turns out the answer is yes. Quite a few people cared. They didn’t call it “natural quiet” back in the old days, though. The term “natural quiet” seems to have come into vogue in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The first legal use of the phrase in reference to Grand Canyon appears in the language of the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act of 1975. Section 8 of this Act states that whenever the Secretary of Interior has reason to believe that any aircraft or helicopter activity is occurring which is “likely to cause a significant adverse effect on the natural quiet and experience of the park”, the Secretary must submit information and make recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration and the responsible land managing agency (the National Park Service). The nps, in turn, was legally required by the Act to take “appropriate action” to protect the park and visitors from these adverse effects. This mandate was considerably strengthened twelve years later with passage of Public Law 100-91, the National Park Overflights Act.
Decades prior to passage of these legal mandates, however, and long before airplane noise and other mechanized intrusions threatened to destroy the natural quiet of Grand Canyon, the remarkable silence of the Canyon was a key focus of many visitors’ experience. The stillness was not simply remarkable. It was actually viewed as an essential quality—a key defining characteristic—of the Grand Canyon.
The first clue to how significant the quiet of Grand Canyon was in the minds of earlier visitors came to me while I was trying to educate myself about yet another controversial Park issue—wilderness. Thumbing through an out-of-print book called The Wilderness World of Grand Canyon, I stumbled upon a series of recollections written in the late 1960s by Ann and Myron Sutton. Recalling their first hike below the rim in 1948, the authors recounted their initial impressions of Grand Canyon as follows:
“We had been granted the most glorious of days…. Urban images and sounds lay far above and behind. Here everything was sharp and clear. Here everything came into focus. And here we came to reaffirm the one great fact of the Canyon land. It was a quiet land. The trees, the cliffs, the very gorge itself made no noise save for some imagined hollow breath of hugeness, perhaps an industrial illusion derived from the thought that anything so big must make some kind of noise…. We had entered a world in which we were masters of our thoughts, but happily mastered and conquered by the immensity around us. We wanted nothing to change it—no sound of horn or engine or whistle, no shrill siren, no ring of telephone…. Quiet, a rare commodity, overwhelmed us.” (Sutton and Sutton 1970:5)
At first, I tried to dismiss the significance of the author’s words by noting that they were written when the modern concept of wilderness was already well established. Quiet, solitude, and the sounds of nature were obviously important to wilderness advocates of the late1960s, just as they are today. But what about before then? Did visitors care about the quiet of Grand Canyon before the age of the Wilderness Act and motorized tourism? As I started digging farther back in the historical record, I found out the answer is unequivocally, “Yes!”. Lots of people cared. They not only cared about the quiet, they were truly awestruck by it. Even before they had reason to be concerned about losing it, early visitors to the South Rim frequently remarked on the stunning silence of the Canyon. Sometimes they expounded at length about the incredible stillness of the place. Quiet was not just a passing impression but a defining feature of many early visitors’ experience, as the following three quotes clearly illustrate:

'There was in this immensity…a silence so profound that soon all the noises from the life around us on the Rim were lost in it, as if our ears had been captured forever, drowned in these deeps of quiet.” (Priestly 1937:286)
“The huge taluses under the upright walls indicate that blocks of limestone and sandstone are continually falling—being pried off the face of walls by frost and heat. They keep gathering upon the slopes below, but you seldom, if ever, see them fall, and quite as seldom hear them. In the Alps one wakens in the summer nights with the slide and roar of avalanches, but at the Canyon one feels no shock, is conscious of no sound. The stillness seems like that of stellar space.” (Van Dyke 1920:21–22)
“From the rim one gets two impressions—so strong that they seem almost too big for the soul to hold—like the soul-smiting terror that comes to one who gazes long at the stars. The two impressions are of numberless infinitely-reaching horizontal lines and of eternal silence…” (White 1909:64)
Priestly was a British travel writer, Van Dyke a naturalist, and White a newspaper publisher from Kansas City. Aside from sharing a passion for the written word, they had little in common. Yet each man came independently to a similar conclusion: silence was a remarkable natural feature of Grand Canyon and a key element of the visitors’ experience.
There are a number of other memorable quotes by early travelers that graphically describe the mind-numbing quiet of the Canyon (e.g., Holmes 1914:141–142; Stoddard 1898:174; Grey 1906), but my all-time favorite one comes from the 1912 journal of Charles Sheldon. A successful business man, wildlife conservationist and hunter, Sheldon came to the Grand Canyon to collect desert bighorn sheep specimens for the US Biological Survey. Writing in his private diary on the evening of November 11, 1912, after spending all day tracking sheep across the upper terraces of the Muav Gorge, Sheldon recalled his impressions of the day as follows:
“Besides the magnificent views of perpendicularly walled canyons and cliffs, I was most impressed with the profound silence—not a breath of wind today, not a sound, not a rustle of grass or weeds, not an insect murmur, not a falling rock. Silence absolute. Only my lifelong habit of hearing insects kept the sound in my imagination.” (Carmony and Brown 1993:11)
Today, absolute silence is an exceedingly rare and increasingly threatened commodity in Grand Canyon. The ongoing loss of natural quiet is significant for all of us and for future generations because an essential attribute of the unique place we call Grand Canyon has been significantly degraded and is in the process of disappearing altogether. The testimonies of many early visitors to Grand Canyon clearly demonstrate that natural quiet was a dominant feature of their experience, an essential quality that defined the Canyon, along with the stunning visual scenery. If we continue to allow modern sounds to overwhelm the natural quiet of Grand Canyon, we will be sanctioning destruction of an essential dimension of the Grand Canyon. Imagine the canyon as Sheldon, Grey, Holmes and others experienced it and ask yourself, “Have I ever had the opportunity to hear ‘silence absolute’?” And then ask yourself, “What if I never can?”
Helen Fairley

References:
Carmony, Neil B. and David E. Brown, editors 1993. The Wilderness of the Southwest: Charles Sheldon’s Quest for Desert Bighorn Sheep and Adventures with the Havasupai and Seri Indians. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Grey, Zane 1906. Entry in the visitor register at El Tovar Lodge, Grand Canyon, dated January 18, 1906. (The original source of this quote could not be independently verified.)
Holmes, Burton E. 1914. Burton Holmes Travelogues, Volume 12: “The Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Cañon of Arizona, Moki Land.” The Travelogue Bureau, Chicago.
Priestly, J. B. 1937. Midnight on the Desert. William Heinemann Ltd., London.
Stoddard, John L. 1898. John L. Stoddard’s Lectures, Complete in Ten Volumes. Vol. 10: “Southern California, Grand Cañon of the Colorado River, Yellowstone National Park.” Balch Brothers Co., Boston.
Sutton, Ann and Myron Sutton (with photographs by Phillip Hyde) 1970. The Wilderness World of the Grand Canyon. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.
Van Dyke, John C. 1920. (reprinted in 1992). The Grand Canyon of the Colorado: Recurrent Studies in Impressions and Appearances. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
White, William Allen. 1909. “On Bright Angel Trail.” In The Grand Canyon of Arizona: Being a Book of Words from Many Pens, about the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River in Arizona, published by the Passenger Department of the Santa Fe.
Note: Many thanks to Brad Dimock of Flagstaff and Mike Ebersole, and Ken Weber of Grand Canyon National Park for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this article. Special thanks to Brad and Jelly Roll for directing my attention to several historical quotes.