In film and video production there is something called the “noise floor”. It is literally the sound of silence. Except that it isn’t really silence, it’s that little bit of sound left after the assistant director has called “quiet on the set!” and everyone on the set or location becomes perfectly still and silent. In some places, like a city street, the “noise floor” is a din, while on the best sound stages you can hear a grip’s stomach growling across the stage. But everywhere there is always some tiny intrusion of sound. Whether it is the barely perceptible sixty cycle hum of a light high in the studio rigging, or the far off murmur of an engine–there is always something that the indiscriminate sensitivity of the microphone picks up–except in the White Mountains.
In much of the Whites there is virtually no noise floor. Nothing. And in a sense it is truly deafening. It is an eerie sensation, as if a burden of our modern reality is lifted from your whole being and you suddenly become aware of the presence of a different world. One’s ears strain to pick up some sound, and when conditions are so silent, one is usually rewarded with only the silent hush of a gentle breath of wind, or the sound of your own blood coursing through your ears as your body works to capture every bit of precious oxygen it can at this altitude.
Even in the process of reviewing tapes for editing, I often found myself double-checking to make sure the headphones were plugged in or that the tape was running, because between statements from the interviewee, or calls from a distant Clark’s Nutcracker that were inadvertently recorded, there wasn’t the usual signal of an indistinct murmur of sound anywhere on the tapes.
I don’t exactly know why this is so. For one thing you are pretty far removed from the onslaughts of all those things technological that like to make noise, however faint. Another is that the air is thin and dry–there is just less material for sound waves to travel in. And except for communicating danger or territory the animals here are fairly elusive. There isn’t usually the gleeful din of birdsong typical of other mountain habitats, or even the occasional nighttime wail of a coyote. But one thing is certain–it is a quiet I have never heard anywhere else, even far out at sea. It is also something that the program will never be able to re-create for you, for wherever you will be when you see In the Shadow of White Mountain will surely be noisier. The sound of silence there is something that you must experience for yourself, and is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.