The Sound of Shelter in Place: Mill Valley’s Unanimous and Ominous “Howl”

With shelter in place orders stretching on for nearly two months now, our days have blurred together into a vast expanse of Zoom calls, screens, scrolling, and a grab-bag of hobbies that assist in passing the time.

For most of us, time as a concept has shifted; 11am just might be a perfectly acceptable hour to make yourself a margarita, mid-day showers are now commonplace, and “meals” are essentially just the larger helpings of food consumed amidst the smaller, incessant snacks throughout the day.

Living like this is weird, that’s a fact. And while this is a time we should certainly feel grateful for crucial tenets in our life: health, home, family, and security—it’s also a time to seek out new rituals that break up the days, filling the void of spontaneity that has abandoned our current lives. For the people of Mill Valley, a new kind of catharsis has emerged, occurring nightly at 8pm. 

“The Howl,” as it has come to be known, began in mid-March when a Mill Valley resident posted on NextDoor with a simple request: neighbors, come howl at the moon with me. A spontaneous proposition in a time of confinement and claustrophobia, the howl caught on quickly.In essence, it’s the call of the wild — but make it shelter in place. Something tells us Jack London would be quite proud. And surely so would Allen Ginsburg. This place takes well to howling, regardless of how dire our current circumstances may be. While the trend of singing from balconies and cheering for healthcare workers at sunset has been reiterated all across the world, this howl is different. It’s about community and resilience, and a level of much-needed silliness. 

Originator of the Howl, Hugh Kuhn, offered his insight on where the idea came from, and what a pleasure it has brought to his family and community at large. 

“As the originator of the Howl in Mill Valley my first thought was essentially ‘this is magical’ when others howled back from across the canyon on the first night,” Kuhn said. “I felt a deep sense of connectedness to my fellow MV residents.”

Mill Valley native Maddie Elias, a graduate student at USF and newly-minted howler, explained that the howl has quickly spread across the North Bay and beyond, echoing through canyons and bouncing back and forth across the bay. 

As the originator of the Howl in Mill Valley my first thought was essentially ‘this is magical’ when others howled back from across the canyon on the first night.

— Hugh Kuhn

“When I first heard about the Howl, I thought it was hilarious, and also oddly fitting—another note of absurdity in the crazy world we’re living in these days,” she said. “I was also a little surprised. I had trouble imagining my middle-aged and elderly neighbors doing something so wacky. But the first night I went outside and heard the howl for myself, I was amazed. The howl went on and on through the neighborhood and up into the hills. I could feel the cathartic effect of howling, even before I started to join in, and the way it seemed to connect the community from a distance.”

Rivaling the actual coyote population of the North Bay community, human residents now flock to their windows, door steps, porches, balconies, backyards, rooftops, front lawns—you name it. Together they elicit a long, bellowing wail, reminding each other of the sounds of human voices.

“Folks can make a lot out of this, but my simple belief is that singing from a balcony works wonderful in a dense city/town where sound only needs to travel to people in nearby buildings, but if we were singing [in Mill Valley] we would hear our immediate neighbors and no one else,” explained Hugh Kuhn. “The effect would be so much less than a howl, which can reach across and into/out of our deeply forested valleys and canyons. Ditto banging pots, clapping, cheering. The sound of a true howl is somehow deeply emotional in a way that these other forms of expression are not.”

Generally speaking, the Howl has been well-received. A handful of neighbors, however, have voiced their complaints at the excessive nightly noise disturbance. 

“Many have expressed that the five minutes provides their family with a positive “reset” before bedtime,” Kuhn said. “It is important to note that there are some, however, who are negatively impacted by the howl — it disturbs their sleep when they have to get up at 4am for shift work, or wakes their babies, or freaks out their pets. I feel considerable empathy for them, but also know that this is a small number of people and the disturbance is only for five minutes or so—though certainly longer for a woken baby. What makes me feel good about my community in these cases is that I know some “howlers” have adjusted their enthusiasm accordingly to accommodate nearby neighbors —though sadly not all.”

Resident Barbara Summers expressed similar dedication to the new ritual, noting that the mountainous setting makes the howl all the more appropriate and resonant. 

“The howl is quintessential Mill Valley,” she said. “An unspoken, yet very uniting force here, is the love and appreciation of how absolutely beautiful it is and what a wonderful place it is to experience the outdoors. I guess you could say we are a strong brand. Howling goes perfectly with the ruggedness of our surrounding canyons off of which sound bounces perfectly.” 

To be reminded of beauty and noise and disruption amidst monotony is, if nothing else, a commendable and hopeful thing. Spending this much time indoors, away from those we love makes us all feel like screaming. Hat’s off to The Bay, who takes that charged frustration and turns it into something else: a resounding, cathartic howl. 

// Check out the howl on our Instagram. Is your community finding new ways to stay loud and rowdy in quarantine? Tell us about it. Email stories and videos to Feature photo courtesy of Hannah Yoon.

The Sound of Shelter in Place: Mill Valley’s Unanimous and Ominous “Howl”
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