In Search of Silence
One man’s quest to find the quietest places on earth and keep them that way
image by Gordon Hempton
Two years ago, discouraged by human noises intruding at One Square Inch, Gordon Hempton embarked on a road trip to "take the sonic pulse of America." For more, listen to sample tracks of sounds recorded on his trek.
Rain pounds against the open tailgate of my car, where I’ve taken shelter from the worst of the storm. Water pours from the hemlocks onto the devil’s club. From maple bole to bole, raindrops bounce, splattering salmonberry and sorrel. I shrug into my rain gear, shoulder my pack, and splash across the parking lot. Rain bells off cars, smacks against my hood, beats on my shoulders, and drums on the garbage bag covering my pack. Against all instinct, I’m going to backpack into the clattering teeth of this North Pacific gale, in search of silence.
It’s not easy to find silence in the modern world. If a quiet place is one where you can listen for 15 minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River. And in the American West? Maybe 12. One of them is in the temperate rainforest along the Hoh River in Olympic National Park.
At the Hoh River trailhead, where a path disappears into the gloom under giant, lichen-draped Douglas fir and western red cedar, I meet up with Gordon Hempton. He stands calm and dry under an umbrella, comfortable in the wool and cotton clothes he has chosen for their silence. Middle-aged, limber, and weather-tanned, Gordon is on a mission to record the natural sounds of the world before they are drowned out by human noise. For years, he has searched for the quiet places where falling water and wren song can still be clearly heard. This weekend, he is taking me to one of the few remaining quiet spots in the United States.
Gordon leads me into the dense forest where rain and wind are muffled by moss. Even so, on the path to this silent place, the natural sounds are deafening. “In a forest like this,” he says, leaning close to my ear, “a drop of rain may hit 20 times before it reaches the ground, and each impact—against a cedar bough, a vine-maple leaf, a snag—makes its own sound.” He crouches beside a fern-banked stream. “You can hear the treble tones,” he says, “but do you hear the bass undertones as well?” I kneel on the moss beside him, soaking through the knees of my rain pants.
I’ve never listened to water quite this way before, with such close attention to its music. “You can change the pitch of a stream by removing a stone,” Gordon says. I lift a cobble out of the water. The chord picks up a drone I didn’t hear before. “A stream tunes itself over time, tumbling the rocks into place.” A channel gouging through the mud that remains after a hillside has been logged is “only noise. But an old mossy stream? That’s a fugue.” Once, he tells me, he heard wind move up the Hoh valley, knocking dry leaves off the bigleaf maple trees: “It sounded like a wave of applause.”
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