Students descend a staircase after leaving class in Mason Hall Monday, October 31. Jeremy Weine/Daily. Buy this photo.

At times, Ann Arbor grows restless: Students pass one another carelessly and in a hurry. Each bustles noisily, but none pause to listen. Sights and sounds of half a hundred comings and goings whittle me down to the bone. Feeling buried in the anarchic sounds of a tireless campus, I endeavor to make some time for myself; time to unwind and decompress in solitude and silence.

As far as solo endeavors go, Forest Hill Cemetery is the place to visit. Its tone is somber, of course, but also imbued with the joy of lives that have crossed the finish line; it’s joyous in a content way that only a burial ground can be. In addition to basic information, some choose to inscribe their headstones with verses and simple artwork. Poetry and other such non-name inscriptions come few and far between, but they come with the assurance of importance: A lifetime’s meaning etched into rock. Standing on the old cement walkway, I can still make out the sounds of traffic on Geddes Avenue, but they fade to a distant hum as I press on deeper into the trees.

The acreage of Forest Hill Cemetery is much smaller than that of the Nichols Arboretum, and the sounds of the city lie closer, but the crowds are fewer. I do pass other souls during my walk; one woman wears headphones. Quite a pity. She doesn’t know what she’s missing. She can’t hear the silence.

My ears acclimate to the forest after a time. The cemetery is its own sort of loud. Farther along the path, the most hidden sounds emerge: those of birds and squirrels or perhaps a frog. Undercurrents to it all are the sweep of the wind and a great clatter of dry, fallen leaves, near and far.

If Forest Hill Cemetery grants me the gift of the sound of silence, then a Mason Hall stairwell 10 minutes to the hour grants me the exact opposite stimuli. It’s 12:50 p.m. on a Tuesday. A myriad of students hold the doors eternally open, passing the responsibility hand to hand, furthering the camaraderie as each person hurries along their way. Scattered laughs and tired coughs reverberate up through the communal abyss, a cacophony of auditory updates on the human condition.

Soles of shoes scuffle and smack down on each step. The walls echo with indistinguishable chatter like an elementary school gymnasium during basketball practice. In the dry heat of half a dozen radiators, coats unzip, freshly arrived from the chill outside. The cold burns into warmth as heart rates climb with each stair.

As suddenly as it came, the flurry of energy fades, punctuated by the hastened pace of the stragglers. By 1 p.m., students have shuffled into classrooms. Again, silence. Deafening silence, artificial silence. The herds of horses have trampled away, leaving only a cloud of dust in their wake.

The emptiness brings relief but only somewhat. The quiet between these narrow walls was sorely won and evoked a sense almost of desolation, standing in contrast to the restlessness found in an expanse of open air.

***

Many people are in search of more silence in some aspects of their lives. The New Yorker magazine writer Jane Brox laments the replacement of silent time, first through the family radio, then through headphones and the ceaseless playing of music.

She explains the crucial role of quiet in her day, saying, “The quiet feels spacious — a place in which my thoughts can roam as I work.”

To Brox’s point, silence can have a marked positive effect on a work environment, particularly the sorts of environments in which students often find themselves: prolonged desk work that is sedentary and stress-laden.

Atalanta Beaumont writes for Psychology Today on the health benefits of simple silence, listing “low blood pressure,” “brain growth” and “relieved tension” among the proven advantages to working in silence rather than with noise like background music.

Though the mental and health benefits of simply working without a commotion are powerful, I argue that the spirit of silence, more so than just a literal absence of noise, would best be found in solitude, in places like the Forest Hill Cemetery. At this stage in fall, the trees blend together, standing so perfectly in patterns of yellow and red that they seem to have been arranged that way deliberately. Solitude affords a view — an empty landscape that’s all yours — and a gratitude to the space left untarnished by the touch of humankind.

And yet, an absence of company indoors, such as in a room or empty home, though a privilege, risks loneliness. Personally, I need space to roam in my quiet moments, to feel active and evade depression. I’ve often fallen into the trap of inviting physical or digital company every time I go for a walk or head out to lunch. Two birds, one stone — right? I often jump on the opportunity to check up on that old friend from Bursley Residence Hall, call my family, peruse discussion boards about that new Star Wars show as I enjoy down time in an overly-packed schedule.

But to me, it is so much more fulfilling to sit alone at night with a movie or a book than it is to lie alone, scrolling endlessly on social media or rewatching even a cherished sitcom. Perhaps a book, or even a movie, constitutes a more deliberate, lengthy undertaking, much like a walk in the cemetery.

Holly Burns, writing for the New York Times, explains the difference between deliberate solitude and loneliness well. Burns spoke with a lighthouse keeper who had spent much of the last 19 years alone on an island. From her conversation, she concluded that “Solitude is much more enjoyable if you’re in control of it.” Further, psychologists she spoke with cited overall more positive mental health for teens who were self prescribing alone time. 

Notably, she found that the positive effects of time spent alone were observed regardless of whether an individual considered themself an introvert or extrovert. Therefore, many who don’t often recognize the importance of silence to them personally could be suffering the side effects of social burnout all the same. Burns was careful to note, however, that time spent absorbed in social media does not count as beneficial time spent alone, as it neglects the essential aspect of solitude that constitutes an individual undertaking. An avalanche of direct messages and texts and photos of friends evidently muddles one’s sense of solitude.

While I feel fortunate to witness a bustling community of young, like-minded students around me, alone time and individual independence are absolutely crucial, and the increasingly-crowded campus hallways remind me of this fact.

The University of Michigan’s student body is expanding considerably each year, and all the commotion seems poised to easily overwhelm even the most social individual. As such, it’s crucial that each student recognize his or her own capacity for company and the sorts of stifling, artificial silence we so often settle for.

An abandoned library floor or an individual study room isn’t enough to embody true calm. Ann Arbor’s tucked away quiet spaces provide a different experience: The unencumbered noises of a natural scene and a peaceful day.

Because true silence doesn’t quite sound silent at all.

Statement Columnist John Jackson can be reached at writejpj@umich.edu.