by Vince & Mary Palermo

Recently, as we were sitting in the Hazlerig House listening to a piece of music by Arvo Part, Vince was reminded of a question asked Mozart about what is the difference between an ordinary music performance and a good performance?  His answer was, “It’s the space between the notes.”  In this particular composition there was continuous musical string tones from the beginning to the end.  The musical sounds were sustained as the various instruments kept the flow of the melody without interruptions.  This is unusual in music and that is what brought the thought into my mind about  “the space between the notes.”

The very nature of sound is characterized by loud sounds and quiet—a modulation of up and down like waves on a shore.  For instance, we communicate with words which are acoustic symbols separated by a space in time.  How well a message is communicated is highly dependent on the space between the words as well as how the words are said.  Which leads to the very essence of sound:  the purpose being communication.  This is not to imply sound and hearing exist only so we can talk.  Sound and communication go way beyond our conversations.  Sound enables us to fully experience our environment.  Sound is necessary for Nature to communicate with itself, for music to be created, for birds to sing, for bats to catch their food, and for dolphins and whales to navigate.

Vince recently heard on the radio a statement from a musician saying that sound to him is the physical manifestation of the soul.   He was referring to voice and music.  We need the quiet between the sounds to fully appreciate these experiences.  In fact, we need quiet to literally hear ourselves think, to reflect, and to bring forth creative ideas. Often, our deepest experiences are found in the quiet of our mind.

We, and the rest of our environment, are bathed in sound.  There are very rare places on earth where there is no sound.  Only in outer space is absolute quiet the norm.  So, it becomes the quiet, the relative low levels of sound between the important or significantly louder sounds and modulations of sounds that makes hearing intelligible and life a healthy, meaningful, and enjoyable experience. Our senses all work by contrast to provide us with necessary information to live our lives successfully:  loud/quiet, bright/dark, and pain/pleasure.

So then, what are the qualities of sound that are important to us?  We each through personal experience chose what we call pleasing sounds and other sounds we call unpleasant. For unpleasant sounds we use the word “noise”:  for example, machine noise like banging and clanging.  By contrast, most of us like and enjoy the pleasure of bird songs, the gurgling of a brook, music, etc.   “Loudness” is also a quality that determines how pleasant or annoying is a sound.

In the Crestone area many of our residents came to be here because of the predominance of quiet natural sounds and the relative absence of man-made city noise.  It is conducive for reflection, meditation, and making possible a stress free way of life and a healthful state of mind.  Our soundscape is purposefully chosen. We like it here!  Quietude is a high value to us.

With this in mind, we set about to determine by objective measurement, just how quiet is our immediate Crestone/Baca living environment. With the help of an environmental acoustic specialist who provided a professional sound level meter in the summer of 2008, we took 77 sound level readings in Crestone/Baca and around the perimeter of the Baca Wildlife Refuge (BWR).  We began on August 7 and finished November 1.  These were sound baseline recordings intended to reflect our degree of quiet.  Readings when a car was passing or an airplane was overhead were excluded.  In making the readings, it immediately became apparent while listening and observing the meter that we live in a very quiet space.  A passing fly or bee became very noticeable.  It was remarkable how the quiet became a palpable pleasant experience!

Technically, sound level is measured in decibel (dBA) units.  The quietest readings, well below 20dBA, were around the BWR, and were close to the readings that were simultaneously being recorded at the Sand Dunes National Park.  The Sand Dunes readings were some of the lowest level sounds recorded in natural spaces in the USA.  Typical sound levels in the Crestone/Baca, including Casita Park, were 22 to 25dBA.  Incidentally, this study was done in the summer when background insect sounds are at their highest.  Winter is even quieter!

For information, the decibel measurement scale and the human ear respond in a logarithmic curve and are not linear.  For instance, the difference between 25dBA and 55dBA is one thousand times increase in sound pressure energy.  Typical city sounds are 55dBA and ordinary conversation is around 45dBA.

The human ear is an organ of incredible perception, and like the eye, is a marvelous design of Nature.  It is exquisitely sensitive to the lowest levels of sound.  And yet, the difference between the smallest sound (3dBA) and the loudest, when sound becomes intolerable (120dBA) and when one’s ear says “Ouch”(pain threshold) is a trillion times increase of sound pressure energy.  We are generally comfortable in the 25dBA to 45dBA range and above that, sound can become annoying unless it is preferred sound such as speech, music and natural sounds.

We undertook the baseline sound level study at a time when there was a serious concern about drilling on the BWR (for gas and oil).  The noise associated with drilling and gas production would be intolerable to many residents, we felt.  Now here we are faced with the possibility of a solar electric complex (Tessera) in the San Luis Valley (SLV) using the Sterling engine technology.  The noise generated by these engines is harsh, annoying, and because of its frequency spectrum, will be transmitted long distances.  A current study (by HDR Engineering) from the Maricopa Tessera plant that consists of 60 Suncatchers, indicates noise levels of 70dBA at 100 feet from the complex. The proposed Saguache plant of 8000 Suncatchers would be much much louder. This situation would be unacceptable to most residents in Saguache County.

To get an appreciation for the quietude in the area of the proposed Tessera site, on 12/11/09 we took nine sound level readings similar to the Crestone/Baca study around the perimeter of the proposed site.  Average of those readings was 27dBA—which is very quiet. We repeated the study with 13 readings on 7/14/10, and the average was again 27dBA (10,000 times less sound pressure energy than 70dBA).

We never thought we would oppose a renewable solar electric generation plant, but this particular technology is felt to be inappropriate anywhere near residences and sensitive wildlife.  Distributed PV generation, both small and large scale, is more appropriate both visually and acoustically.   It is currently the most environmentally benign technology for electric generation in this county, and we feel it is more appropriate.

Quietude in the SLV is one of our most valuable assets, and is a most beneficent gift of Nature.  It behooves us to sustain and protect it with our highest degree of commitment.

It is a natural treasure!