The town of Green Bank, West Virginia, is often presented as a signal-free quiet zone — no Wi-Fi, no cell phones, no radio. The 13,000 +/- square mile area was set aside as the United States National Radio Quiet Zone in 1958. It was chosen for its remote nature and relatively light signal traffic in order to have a clear patch to listen to the cosmos. But the reality of day-to-day life within the Quiet Zone is less clear-cut. Author Stephen Kurczy embeds himself in this unusual place by becoming a resident.
His neighbors include ‘electrosensitives’ who believe their health is improved by living in the Quiet Zone, a sheriff whose job oscillates between solving a string of murders and tracing unlawful electronics use, a failed Neo-Nazi camp director, scientists and researchers who work at the observatory, and more. He gets to know them at the local general store, backyard barbecues, and square dance socials.
This loss of radio quiet has coincided with a loss of audible quiet. In 2000, the director of the U.S. National Park Service passed an ordinance on “soundscape preservation and noise management” that called for parks to document and work to preserve natural sounds. … An acoustic ecologist named Gordon Hempton today believes that only a dozen places remain in the United States where a person can hear no man-made sounds for fifteen minutes. … Once a given aspect of nature, quiet is facing extinction. ~ Pg. 80
The author is able to experience life in the Quiet Zone for an extended period of time, rather than a day or two like previous reports had done. Over the weeks, months, and eventually years, he learned about the work arounds for getting cell service, or WiFi signal. He visited the highly technical and scientific observatory offices and the residences of electrosensitives, decked out with homespun remedies.
That’s what discovering the many layers of the Quiet Zone felt like. The vision that drew me in turned out to be a mirage. The Quietest Town in America was full of WiFi and smartphones. The astronomy observatory was partly a cover for a government spy facility. The electrosensitives seemed to be fleeing something in their lives aside from electromagnetic radiation. ~ Pg. 214
And although there are ways for the authorities to tell if you are using unapproved appliances, the enforcement is a bit haphazard.
The author also did significant research into the history and importance of keeping an area radio silent. Astronomers and cosmic radiation researchers set up camp in the zone looking for everything from alien communications and to star anomalies. At the very least, most find some kind of peace having an excuse to disconnect.
My thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.
Publisher: Dey Street Books (August 3, 2021)
Hardcover: 336 pages