Being a music teacher in the middle of a pandemic is tough. I teach at Sussex School, and count myself lucky that I work at a small school, in a relatively small city, in a state with a low population. Because of this, we were able to start this current school year in person. 

Emotions during the first days were a mix of excitement to see the students and get back to “teaching like normal,” and concern about not knowing how any of this was going to work. Fortunately, we all fell into a groove very quickly, with much of our teaching taking place outside.

One day, I taught a guitar class in a field just outside the school. The class went great for a while - we were able to socially-distance, the kids were having fun, and we were enjoying the fresh air. Things took a turn when a riding lawn mower and gas-powered weed wacker started up less than 20 yards away, drowning out my instructions and overpowering my students’ guitars.

This is not an isolated incident - with a number of activities, meetings, and workspaces moving outdoors, I’m sure many of us have experienced interruptions from airplanes, traffic, construction, and other anthropogenic noises. These interruptions are not just annoying, they are examples of an often overlooked form of pollution: Noise pollution.

Unlike our eyes, which can block out light via eyelids, humans have no natural way to block out sounds. Thus, we are vulnerable to the noises in our surrounding environment - which, in addition to being distracting, can actually negatively impact our health. Hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes have been shown to be associated with chronic exposure to noise pollution. In addition, we do not need to be conscious of the sounds for their health effects to manifest.

Though humans do not have a physical barrier to block out sounds, researchers have identified a sound gate function in our brains, allowing us to psychologically filter unnecessary sounds. This is really helpful when we are in a crowded room trying to have a conversation with someone, but also means we often do not pay attention to harmful noises such as the consistent hum of traffic or a bitcoin mining operation.

Despite not being consciously aware of these sounds, our nervous system still reacts by increasing levels of cortisol and inducing the fight or flight response, leading to negative health outcomes over time.

With the mounting evidence that noise pollution is linked with serious health problems, it is becoming increasingly evident that noise pollution is an environmental justice issue. Noise pollution is not equitably distributed throughout the population - it disproportionately impacts low income and majority BIPOC communities.

Studies have shown that on both a local and national level, lower income and minority populations carry a heavier burden of noise pollution than their whiter and more affluent counterparts. With increased national attention on the struggle for racial justice, it is as important as ever to acknowledge these inequities and work to implement policies and programs that address them.

Sound is all around us, yet it seems as though we have stopped listening. The environmental justice and health implications of anthropogenic noise pollution are real, yet sound is often not a consideration in environmental conversations. I believe it should be. We have manipulated sound in ways that no other species has, from composing music that can evoke strong emotional responses, to creating noise-polluting machines and industry.

We are able to understand the emotional subtlety in a beautiful composition of music; thus, we have the ability to mitigate the impacts of noise pollution and create beautiful city soundscapes that allow us to thrive.

In these uncertain times, I urge you to get outside - away from the city if you can - and listen. Listen to the wind in the trees, to the birds, to the fall of your footsteps, to your own breath. Listening is an incredible way for us to be present and build our connection to the natural world.

Click here to access A Walk Into Nature: An audio documentary by Joshua Davis

Joshua Davis is the K-8 music teacher at Sussex School. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

November 7 & 10. Pumpkin Reharvest. Soil Cycle is collecting pumpkins and “reharvesting” them at Turner Farms for animal feed! Drop off your pumpkins at the Southgate Mall entrance on Saturday, Nov. 7 between 10am and 2pm, or at Imagine Nation Brewing on Tuesday, Nov. 10 between 4pm and 7pm.

November 10, 12pm. Virtual ReCook Cafe. The virtual ReCook Cafe will feature a mix of live and recorded cooking demonstrations of four professional chefs who will be sharing their favorite tips, tricks, techniques, and more to help home cooks get the most out of their food, reducing waste while creating delicious dishes that are sure to make you go "Mmmm!".

November 10, 4pm. Saunter with a Naturalist. Bring your curiosity, questions, and your own naturalist knowledge and join MNHC Naturalist Ser Anderson on a naturalist saunter at the Fort Missoula Native Plant Garden. $5 for members, $10 for nonmembers. Purchase tickets and register here.

September 17 - November 14 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

Find more activities and events at and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar.