Cougar as stressor. Photo © Marie Hale, creative commons

You’re walking on Centennial Trail along West Saanich Road when suddenly a large, tawny animal leaps out of the bushes at you. The movement triggers your brain’s most ancient emotion-and-alarm system, deep in the most primitive part of your brain. Your amygdala, or fright centre, buzzes the nearby fear-processing centre in your hypothalamus, which instant-messages the alarm to your adrenal glands atop your kidneys, telling the glands to pump out stimulating epinephrine.

Almost simultaneously, your heart starts pounding, your muscles clench, your breath speeds up, you yell, you leap, pivot and crouch to face the animal with your arms raised defensively.

But, wait just a microsecond—your hypothalamus hasn’t finished with you. As you confront the threat, the hypothalamus recruits its nearby buddy, the pituitary gland, and goads it into sending its own alarm signal to the adrenal glands. This time, cortisol floods out, elevating blood-sugar levels and giving you energy to fight or flee—to save your skin.

And then—finally!—your prefrontal cortex kicks in. It analyses the visual data, it riffles through your memory index, and identifies the beast. The cougar about to sink its teeth into your neck… it’s a friendly house cat intent on winding its body around and between your tensed ankles….

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Some of Victoria's quieter places. Photo by Andy M. Smith

Quiet may be extinct, I thought atop the Highlands’s Jocelyn Hill. I was far from the nearest road, but the whine and hum of traffic climbing the Malahat drifted across Finlayson Arm.

And then a helicopter whirred into view below, drowning out pretty much everything else.

My friend Don tells me he found true quiet once. He had to climb to the top of the El Teide volcano on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, to find it.

That’s a long way to go to find absence—absence of sound.

For the record, I don’t classify sounds of nature as noise. There are exceptions: the shotgun-crack of acorns hitting the rooftop, or predawn choruses of birdsong … or monkey screams or jackal howls or Nature Boy’s snores, depending on where I’m trying to sleep.

Research indicates we humans find run-of-the-mill everyday nature sounds relaxing. Serenades of birdsong and squirrel chatter soothe our usual stress responses, lower our blo.od pressure and heart rate, and slow and deepen our breathing….

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Parks like East Sooke Park help make nearby residents happier and healthier. Photo by Logan C (flickr's LoganTech)Back when Nature Boy worked at a big California museum, I flew down to visit on a semi-regular basis.

I remember looking out over the city as the aircraft made its final approach to L.A.’s airport. Below me stretched mile upon mile of concrete: buildings, roads freeways, parking lots. Few trees and no green spaces relieved the sunbaked ugliness that extended from the mountains in the city’s east to the Pacific Ocean.

No wonder, I thought at the time, crime rates were so high. No wonder crazy people were using drivers on Los Angeles freeways for daily target practice—events which, by that time, were so commonplace, even the most reputable of the city’s news organizations no longer reported them.

With so many people living in Los Angeles, the absolute number of already-crazy people living among them was going to be high.

But packing so many people in so close together would surely compound the problem. Those conditions could easily push anybody unstable and close to the breaking point, mentally and emotionally speaking, over the edge into outright nuts-dom….

Continue reading at the Victoria Times Colonist