The Sounds of Silence

11:33 p.m., Day 1: If New York City has a pulse, its heart is beating in Times Square. I listen to car horns, sirens, the rhythmic clatter of subway cars, steam hissing from vents, and people talking in dozens of languages. I give a thought to International Noise Awareness Day, April 29, when activists passed out earplugs and offered free hearing screenings. For me, however, the cacophony is fading: I am heading for Pine Cay in the British West Indies, a quiet getaway in the Turks.

Turks and Caicos' width=2:12 p.m., Day 2: After three transfers, I’m 560 miles southeast of Miami, flying co-pilot in a propeller plane above a turquoise ocean that flows between the tropical reefs, bone-fishing flats and deep blue abyssals. My ears are still ringing from a New York rock concert. I’m in sympathy with the World Health Organization, which declared noise a significant health threat in 1996; it’s said 20 million Americans are regularly exposed to psychologically or physically damaging noise levels.

On the ground, I am escorted to one of the Meridian Club‘s 12 suites—the only hotel rooms on the island, each with its own lounge and screened-in porch. (Rates range from $650 a night in the off-season to $825 during peak times.) I look out at two miles of white sand beach, lapped by water with a visibility of 200 feet.

I have my choice of activities, ranging from kayaking and sailing to snorkeling and shelling. Choosing to relax, I simply sit and listen to the crashing waves. They are a natural metronome beating everywhere on the island. I think the avant-garde composer John Cage, whose composition “Four Minutes, 33 Seconds’ was about the impossibility of actually achieving silence, would have liked it here. He spoke of the need for musicians “to become sensitized to environmental sounds around us
.Music, as I conceive it, is ecological.” Beethoven would probably agree; his “Symphony Number Six” includes musical renditions of bird song.

4:30 p.m., Day 2: I take a walk along the sands, free from the harshness of manmade noise. I hear the surf, the calls of native ospreys and the wind in the trees. It wasn’t music per se, but there was a harmony present.

“To go far out and not be affected by any human sounds is important,” says environmental researcher Jesse Lee. “In an unspoiled place, you”ll find a natural flow.” In the U.S., groups like Nature Sounds, Earth Ear and Wild Sanctuary are working to preserve areas free of human noise pollution. They’re also using new techniques to record natural sounds. The movement is headed by Jim Cummings, Lang Elliot, Bernie Krause and Hildegard Westerkamp, best known for her composition “Beneath the Forest Floor.”

“There are a lot of inferior recordings,” says Cummings. “You may have been bored by an hour of a rushing stream or some soft new age piano music repetitively blended with loon cries. Serious environmental sound artists are up to something deeper.”

5:15 p.m., Day 3: The sun is setting and I wait for the green flash, a brilliant image that appears on clear nights as the last light rays bend in the atmosphere. A few distant clouds speckle the yellow and red horizon.

Earlier in the day, I visited Little Water Cay, where I could hear the scuttle of endangered rock iguanas mixing with the waves. I swam above the reefs as sound shifted between the water and air, a crisp clarity that changed into an echoing reverb. The solitude on Pine Cay did not happen by accident. “At the Meridian Club, construction is not allowed in the winter,” says co-manager Beverly Plachta. “The quietness is one of our greatest attractions.” The crisp tone of a large bell rang across the island, calling people to the Saturday night barbecue, featuring fresh lobster and corn on the cob. For the first time since I arrived, I hear a stereo, playing Caribbean music.

7:30 a.m., Day 4: I feel totally relaxed. In fact, the power of natural sounds is being taken more seriously by modern medicine. “Natural sounds and images can effectively reduce pain and anxiety,” says Dr. Noah Lechtzin, who plays recordings of natural sounds when inserting bronchial scopes.

8:05 a.m. The stillness is broken by the buzzing plane swooping down onto the island like a preying insect. I leave Pine Cay with a strong desire to protect the harmony of natural sounds.

JONATHAN ROGERS visited the Turks and Caicos as an intern at E.