A Different Kind of Connection in “The Quiet Zone”

As more and more technology influences every day human existence, the need for quiet spaces increases dramatically. However, where in the world — let alone the United States — does one go to find such a place? In Stephen Kurczy’s The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence, readers discover a corner of America relatively untouched by technology’s influence, or, as some refer to it, overreach. Nestled deep in the mountains of West Virginia’s rural Pocahontas County lies the Green Bank Observatory, which prides itself on being one of America’s few “quiet zones.”

Established over sixty years ago by the pioneers of American radio astronomy, the Green Bank Observatory has been the inspiration for scientific discovery, innovation, and education. However, its presence in not only Pocahontas County, but also West Virginia, has — over the decades — unleashed a series of conspiracy theories and wild speculations worthy of any TV series. The surrounding rolling mountains and farmland limit not only residents’ access to one another and the larger outside communities, and the area’s status as a National Quiet Zone restricts their access to technology, specifically smartphones and WiFi. As one of the few cell phone-less journalists in the industry, Stephen Kurczy set out to confront the complexities humanity’s reliance on cell phones presents as well as the benefits of a simpler life in an area where peace and quiet aren’t the only uniqueness to one of America’s most misunderstood and often stereotyped geographic and demographic areas.

What Kurczy adeptly highlights in the book’s first few chapters is the dominant force with which technology, specifically smartphones, has invaded every day existence, and perhaps not for the better. Kurczy’s research focuses on how reliant people have become on a simple device that they should be able to control, but instead seems to control them. From apps that open in a split second and offer food delivery services and social connections at a finger’s touch to providing the ability to make a simple phone call or send a text from (almost) anywhere in the world, Kurczy focuses on how cell phones and smartphones have ultimately reshaped how humans interact with one another and form communities. What Kurczy discovers in Green Bank — a place where residents are not even permitted to have WiFi in their homes because of the interruptions WiFi causes at the observatory — might nonetheless shock most readers. People in Green Bank, for the most part, seem perfectly content to live a life separated from tech. Kurczy observes, “Community seemed enhanced by the quiet. The lack of cell service created a greater sense of self-reliance, but also of reciprocity.” Thus, The Quiet Zone is more than just a celebration of one of the few quiet places the world might offer those seeking refuge from a tech-driven world: It is a celebration of the unique people and fortitude that shapes an area most outsiders would overlook due to its extreme isolation. At this point, the book transitions to a sociological study, one in which Kurczy discovers that behind the quiet, more noise exists than one might at first realize.

The Quiet Zone gives voice to many memorable people who reside in the Green Bank quiet zone. There are, of course, the scientists working at the observatory — many of whom have dedicated decades of their lives to maintain the area’s silence. There are the electrosensitives — a group of people who believe they are mentally and physically effected by electromagnetic waves that many of them have to sit in completely dark rooms because even a simple lightbulb might cause them illness. There are the farmers, the hunters, the shopkeepers, the teenagers — the every day locals who make the area tick.

Nonetheless, Kurczy maintains balance throughout the book, pointing out to readers that as idyllic as the Green Bank area is, especially for those seeking a low-tech life, everything that goes back to basics is not always simpler. There are the notorious white supremacists belonging to the National Alliance — an extremist organization founded by William Pierce, a man who transformed the area into a secret haven for some of the far-right’s most infamous members. Because of Green Bank’s necessity for quiet, educators struggle with the demands of an ever-changing educational landscape that relies more and more on technology. Kurczy also reveals that the area is not as “quiet” as many would like to believe — many residents manage to sneak WiFi and other “illegal devices” into their homes, despite the presence of a “radio policeman” of sorts who uses special equipment to detect unauthorized devices. Yet, with delicate attentive prose, Kurczy successfully places the community’s varying, diverse pieces into a stunning mosaic that leaves readers wanting to visit, and maybe, even to live.

One of the many beauties of Kurczy’s book is the respect and admiration the author gives the people of Pocahontas County. Unlike many texts which focus on rural Appalachia, The Quiet Zone does not revel in “poverty porn.” Instead, the text uplifts the innovative spirit of not only the scientists who make the observatory what it is, but also the community members who have learned that living simpler does not mean living without meaning or fulfillment. If anything, the residents of Pocahontas County, and specifically Green Bank, offer readers applicable and valuable ideas about what it means to truly function in a community.

Kurczy writes, “Contemporary language equates dysconnectivity with death” and that because of this language, humans live “with the implication that life only happens in places with connectivity.” The Quiet Zone reminds readers of the connections of a different sort — the kind that don’t require cords, touchscreens, apps, and dongles. Instead, it takes readers into a community where a kind word to a stranger looking for directions, a helping hand to the neighbor whose truck is stuck in a ditch, or a moment of pause as the sun sets over the mountains offer more than all the internet accessibility in the world ever could.

The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence
By Stephen Kurczy
Dey Street Books
Published August 3, 2021
Paperback August 23, 2022