In Search of Silence

One man’s quest to find the quietest places on earth and keep them that way

| March-April 2009

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.”

Ajai Hegde
5/30/2013 4:33:12 AM

I got really curious about this article because i live in India, and i feel very strongly and am very disturbed about the noise pollution in my life. I yearn for quiet and peace everyday. For an article that boasts of Moore's search for silent spaces around the world, i am very disappointed that the "world" here once again means the West. The world! Really?! I lived in Kashmir for two years and i can tell you that most of the valley is so peaceful and silent, you can hear yourself think. And am sure there are a lot of other places outside the U.S and Europe that are not polluted by the noise of capitalism in the guise of progress.

3/29/2009 4:01:57 PM

I live on a barrior island off the coast of North Carolina, and while there are many people here in the summer, during the winter months I can walk on the beach for miles and not see another person.

Rick Raab-Faber
2/28/2009 10:43:33 PM

Before I read this article – when I’d just seen the title – I thought about a place I’d hiked in back in the mid-1970s while a soldier at Ft. Lewis, Washington. It was a govt. sponsored backpacking trip up the beach in the wilderness area near La Push, in the Olympic Peninsula. No traffic, no paved trails. Only way in or our, was the trails to the beach. you couldn't bring a boat ashore, or land a helicopter. It was one of the most stunningly beautiful and pristine places I've ever been in my life. On the last day, as we were hiking back inland to the trailhead, I stopped and lay down beneath four massive conifers, looking up at the sky. There was no sound. No humans, no human created sound. No birds, no water, no ‘nature’ sounds at all, save a very soft rush of breeze through the tree tops. I’ve never experienced that close to total silence before or since. I admit to being one of these goons who constantly have the iPod earphones in, but that is only because the music helps got over the random, pointless noise that life in modern society generates. Though my hearing is close to being shot at 50, I still hear enough traffic, jet noise, conversation, and construction to drive me to distraction. Kudos to Gordon! Let’s keep these places quiet.