By Tim Porteus

I WAS in my favourite wood last weekend: Butterdean. It’s getting busy these days, often with families, which is great to see. Even still there is enough space amidst the trees to quickly find solitude if you need it.

I can never visit this wonderful place without whispering a word of thanks to Gregor Neil Robertson for his role, along with others, in saving this precious and magical wood, which my family has almost literally grown up in.

I have got to know Gregor, who still lives in East Lothian, and the world is made a better place by caring and thoughtful people like him.

We arrived at the wood in late afternoon, knowing that we wouldn’t have a lot of time before nightfall. The ground was literally carpeted with orange and yellow, and autumn colours still hung on the trees.

But there was a nip in the air; a cold crisp reminder that summer is now long gone and the fingers of winter are about to grip us. So we kept on the move to keep warm.

As we ventured deeper into the wood I noticed something. “Stop,” I said to the kids, “and listen”.

There was not a breath of wind, it was deathly still. The trees stood in absolute silence. I couldn’t even hear any traffic, or the usual distant murmurings of modern day life. There was no noise, only the sound of nature.

Bird song was above us. I was surprised to hear such a chorus on a late autumn afternoon.

We stood, listening. It was as if the birds were suddenly singing for us, and the children were genuinely enthralled, as was I.

We decided to continue our walk, but our mood had now changed. The silence could have been eerie but it wasn’t, it heightened our awareness that the wood had life we couldn’t see.

It was as if our inner senses had been aroused. The kids wanted to walk silently, so they could continue to listen. So we practised “walking like a Native American hunter” as taught to us by Chris Yule, another East Lothian environmental luminary.

We crept through the wood, looking for deer, and faeries, now acutely aware of any faint sound that the absence of noise made possible to hear.

Finally we reached our favourite place, and sat, still listening. I have to tell you, seeing my two youngest being so quiet for so long was a unique experience.

Then it began to get dark, and the bird song faded away.

We headed back to the car as the trees turned into shadows. But we still stopped every now and then to listen and peer into the undergrowth. We were convinced at one point we could see a deer hiding from us.

We got to the car as the last glimmering light in the sky vanished, and the moon came out from behind the clouds. It was a magical experience, not a scary one. We’d had an unexpected connection with nature, that wasn’t visual, but something deeper.

I turned the engine on, breaking the silence, and we returned to our world of artificial light and constant noise. But the whole walk had had a meditative effect on us, and I reflected on the fact that we are replacing sound with noise, and we are the poorer for that.

We are so constantly surrounded by human made sounds that we don’t notice it. The noise has become the background to our lives. Few of us probably reflect that we need to connect to the sounds of nature anymore, or true silence itself.

Our inner selves do however. Call it what you will, our soul, our spiritual self, our primeval awareness. The truth is we need the absence of noise every now and then so the sounds of nature can be heard. It replenishes us, reminds us who we really are, and lifts our mental health. No matter how much we pave nature over with cement, we cannot avoid the fact we are part of it and need it.

Yet, we are increasingly separated from it, including the sounds and the silence that comes with the absence of our noise. Is there a connection between this and the mental health crisis we now face?

The neon lights of a shopping centre, and the constant buzz and noise we fill our everyday lives with may seem like progress, but it isn’t for our well being. We need places where such noise is absent – where only nature is heard. No, actually, we need many more of these places, but sadly we are going in the reverse direction; destroying the ones that survive.