In Search of Silence

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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.”

For love of sounds like these, Gordon has begun a campaign to protect the silence of the national parks. Even though silence and the natural soundscape are listed as natural resources in National Park Service documents, and even though park officials are charged with managing the land so as to protect its natural resources, no park has a plan to protect its stillness. So Gordon took on the responsibility himself.

He calls his project One Square Inch of Silence. Following leads, crisscrossing the country, he searched for one square inch where he could listen for 15 minutes and not hear a human sound. In Olympic National Park, where 95 percent of the land is protected as wilderness, he found the “widest diversity of soundscapes and the longest periods of natural quiet of any unit within the national park system.”

On Earth Day 2005, Gordon marked the site with a small red stone and vowed to defend this tiny space of silence. He hopes that the effort will inspire the designation of square inches in other national parks as well. “Think about finding one place in a park that you can visit where there will be no trucks heard, no planes flying over, no man-made machinery, no human noise,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?”

It’s a powerful idea. Sound travels. If he can protect the silence of even an inch, Gordon calculates that, in effect, he will be protecting the soundscape of approximately 1,000 square miles of surrounding land. It’s a first step toward his goal of preventing the extinction of silence.

Past the first milepost toward One Square Inch, we cross a glade that borders the Hoh River. After so many days of rain, the Hoh is in full flood. Gray water roars over torn-out root wads, ramming logs against the shore, undercutting the banks, and rolling rocks downstream. Gordon pulls out his sound-level meter, a machine that looks like a handheld radio.

“Sixty-three decibels.” The river has the same sound level as ocean surf in a storm. This, Gordon says, is one-tenth the volume of the traffic noise outside the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Seattle Public Library.

Cities drown us in sound. Buses grinding gears and motorcycles grumbling, woofers thudding, endless engines combusting, trucks beeping, and street-corner preachers calling down damnation on it all–what does it do to the human being, whose ears evolved as a warning system? In daylight, our eyes can warn us of danger in front of us. But our ears alert us to opportunity and danger 24 hours a day, from every direction, even through dense vegetation and total darkness.

When predators are on the prowl, birds and frogs, even insects, fall silent. No wonder humans are drawn to places where the birds feel safe enough to sing. No wonder we smile to hear a frog chorus in the dark. But in the cacophonous city, Gordon believes, we are always on edge, always flinching, the way deer tremble when they drink from a noisy river. Studies have suggested that people who are continuously assaulted by high levels of traffic noise may have suppressed immune systems and increased risk of high blood pressure and heart attacks. A city will be comfortable for a human, Gordon says, only when it’s quiet enough to hear shoe leather touch cement, only when people can talk without shouting at each other.

I know what he means. I’m still on edge from the noise of the drive up I-5 through Portland. When trucks roared past me, they threw rain with such a thud against the windshield that it drowned out even my shirring tires, the smacking wipers, and, on my CD player, Pink Floyd’s bass guitar.

It’s not noise in the cities that most concerns Gordon, however, but the extinction of silence in wild places. It’s the way that human sounds drown out the sounds of the natural world that breaks his heart–and gets his back up. Even national parks are not always able to protect the music of a morning wind in pines, the echo of a woodpecker tapping a hollow trunk, the thrum of distant surf. Dawn in a national park often begins with the brown noise of automobile traffic and swells with the awakening sounds of RV generators, jets flying over, sightseeing helicopters, and “It’s a Small World” playing in the next camp over.

Human noise also damages animals, whose behaviors are tuned exquisitely to songs and other auditory signals they use to hunt and to escape, to establish territories and to find mates. Scientists have documented the harmful effects of passenger jets on bald eagles, the Navy’s submarine-hunting sonar on dolphins and whales, and roaring dune buggies on kangaroo rats trying to avoid sidewinder snakes. Just as animals have ecological niches, they have aural niches, defined by the soundscapes they live in. The onslaught of noise destroys that aural habitat. Birdsong is lost along highways, which are, in effect, wide swaths of loud, low-pitched noise reaching deep into the forests and meadows, reducing bird habitat–and sometimes eliminating it entirely.

It’s a loss to humans too. Just as artificial lights drown out the stars, our engines drown out the birds, and our experience of the world’s beauty is that much more impoverished.

At milepost 1.4, we turn off the trail to check a possible campsite, but the hollow where we would pitch tents is a muddy puddle. We hike on, splashing along the trail, past dark skunk-cabbage sloughs, over trickling rivulets, under boughs of cedar so tall their crowns are lost in fog. I’m glad for my rubber boots because the trail has become a stream and the rocky steps are small waterfalls. We stop often to listen, putting our ears close to the dark decaying hollow of a stump, or a green carpet of bunchberry, or a fallen log whose crosscut shows more than 300 growth rings. Gordon stops next to an enormous tree and listens intently.

“Do you hear the thrum of the river resonating in the trunks of the Sitka spruce?” he asks. “This is a tree whose wood is chosen for the finest violins.”

I try, but all I hear is the noise of my own mind: What I should have done; what I shouldn’t have said; will I ever be warm or dry again? And this gray noise, the static that comes from my own ears. Gordon is sympathetic. He knows from experience that when people are away long enough from the “chemical whining” of caffeine, aspirin, and alcohol, and from the damage done to their hearing by the noise of the car that brings them here, their ears will silence themselves–and so will my mind.

“Silence is like scouring sand,” he says. “When you are quiet, the silence blows against your mind and etches away everything soft and unimportant.” What is left is what is real: pure awareness, and the very hardest questions.

Many years ago, Gordon was a botany student in Wisconsin. As he was driving back to school from the West Coast, night came on, and he stopped to sleep in an Iowa cornfield. Lying on the ground, he listened to crickets scratch their crisp fiddles and corn stalks rasp against their leaves. He heard thunder rumble. The crickets and the corn went silent, and the storm rolled over him. He heard raindrops smack into soil and hail rattle the stalks. Then the thunder was growling far away and the crickets were singing again.

How could it be that he had never before heard, really heard, the sounds of the earth? From that time forward, how could he do anything but listen? How should he live his life? “Whatever came next,” he told me, “had to measure up to the honesty of that night.”

Gordon dropped out of school and took a job as a bike messenger in Seattle. Everything he earned went into the microphones and tape machines that would train his ear. Now he travels the world, recording sounds with a microphone that has the shape and acoustic characteristics of a human head. He produces CDs from these recordings–the pure sounds of the natural world, unadorned by human music, uninterrupted by the human voice. He has become the Sound Tracker, whose recordings caught the attention of composer John Cage, earned him an Emmy award, and landed him contracts to record the soundtracks for PBS specials, movies, and computer games.

His most famous project is the Dawn Chorus. As dawn slowly erases the darkness with light, birds cry out, tentatively at first, insects chime, melting snow strikes stone, a light wind rises, and the whole planet begins to sing. To Gordon’s ears, it is a song of astonishment and gratitude.

Astonishment and gratitude are an important part of what the future stands to lose under the shouting engines of human ambition. When humans silence nature, drowning out the small voices, we subordinate it to our own presumed power. Anyone who has felt the oppression in a classroom or boardroom or relationship when only some are free to speak understands what it means to be silenced–to have no voice, to be seen and not heard, to be told to “pay attention.” Human noise is yet one more oil-fired expression of modernity’s claim of sovereignty over the natural world.

But silence? Silence creates an opening, an absence of self, which allows the larger world to enter into our awareness. It brings us into contact with what is beyond us, its beauty and mystery. Silence is not the absence of sound, but a way of living–an intentional awareness, an expression of gratitude, to make of one’s own ears, one’s own body, a sounding board that resonates with the vibrations of the world.

When wind plays across the maple leaves and sets them in motion, it’s we who are most deeply moved. No one knows why natural sounds speak so directly to the human spirit, but it’s possible to imagine what they say–that we are not separate from the world, not dominant or different. Like stone, like water, like wrens, we carry the shape of the world in our rustling. We are all matter in motion, all of us, together sending our harmonies into a black and trembling sky.

At milepost 2.3, we sling off our packs and pitch tents. The rain seems to have let up, here under the shelter of a Douglas fir whose trunk is nine feet across. We’re not far now from One Square Inch. As I tighten the ropes on my tarp, Gordon tells me about his efforts to defend the silence of that place.

Every month, Gordon sits by the stone to listen. If he hears a human-created sound, he documents its volume, locates the source, and makes an official complaint: On April 16, 2006, an aircraft later identified as a Boeing B767 with tail number N582HA flying at an altitude of 36,972 feet and registered to Hawaiian Airlines produced an audible noise impact of 44 decibels at One Square Inch. Hawaiian Airlines wrote back, explaining that the offending flight was only a test flight and promising to avoid the area in the future.

Alaska Airlines has not been quite as forthcoming. Thirty-seven Alaska flights fly over Olympic National Park every day, dragging cones of noise through the forest. “It’s physically impossible for a jet to fly high enough that its engines can’t be heard on earth,” Gordon says, but that’s not the point. The point is that these flights are still gaining altitude, so their thrusters are roaring as the jets power over the 7,000-foot peaks of the Brothers Wilderness in the heart of the park.

Alaska has agreed to “enact a policy” that encourages flight crews to avoid the park on nonroutine flight operations such as maintenance and test flights. But it will not reroute passenger jets. “Deviations from [the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) preferred routing] would increase delays,” the airline wrote to Gordon, “causing higher fuel burn and increased emissions.” The airline doesn’t explain why this has to be so. Alaska passenger jets still pour noise onto the glacier-etched peaks and deep forests of the Olympic peninsula.

Even so, Gordon sees progress in soundscape management. The FAA has rerouted planes from runway 25 at Denver International Airport to avoid disturbing bald eagles. In August 2007, in response to a suit by the National Resources Defense Council, a federal court prohibited the Navy from conducting sonar exercises off California without making accommodations to prevent harm to whales and other marine mammals. Although the Supreme Court overturned the decision last November–citing national security–the case substantially heightened awareness of the ecological impacts of noise pollution.

And Olympic National Park? Public information officer Barbara Maynes believes the park’s management has for many years been aligned with Gordon’s goals, although they are not working together. “Protection of natural soundscapes is part of everything we do,” Maynes says. She points out that while Gordon is protecting one square inch of silence, the park is charged with protecting 5 trillion square inches and a host of sometimes conflicting values. The park welcomes the visitors who come to experience One Square Inch, even though Maynes expresses concern for “possible resource damage” caused by that concentration of attention. But Maynes affirms the park’s commitment to strive in everything they do for the least impact on natural sounds.

It seems that Gordon has tapped into a wellspring of human yearning for stillness and concern for the commonweal of natural sounds. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC), a nonprofit group working to raise awareness of noise pollution and curate resources to combat it, cites several hundred organizations aiming to prevent the harm that noise causes, from the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition to the World Health Organization. The NPC argues that the air is a commons, a public good, shared and cared for by all. Like secondhand smoke or elevated mercury levels, noise damages the well-being and health of the many, in order to benefit the few.

At 3.2 miles, Gordon steps onto a path that leads to the left through an arch formed by the straddling legs of a great cedar. From here, we follow an elk trail into the woods. We’re approaching One Square Inch now, and Gordon asks only one thing of me. Silence. We walk in–not far, maybe 75 yards–through a shallow swale, over shaggy hummocks, to a shoulder-high log fallen so long ago that its bark is coated with moss and hemlock seedlings root in the duff on its back. Here, at 47°51.959′ N, 123°52.221′ W, is a square red stone.

How shall I describe the beauty of this place? It’s an open glade, like the nave of a cathedral, carpeted in deep green moss and deer ferns. There are huckleberry bushes, their bare green branches standing in the rosy litter of their fallen leaves. The bunchberry leaves have turned red, but the wood sorrel is intensely green. From the forest floor, the columns of the trees rise impossibly high, closing at last in a vaulted green ceiling. Everything glitters with scattering rain. Even the air twinkles, as if it were champagne.

I hear a tiny lisp–a bushtit maybe. The tick, tap, pock of water drops, different sounds for every surface they strike. I hear a drop of water pop when it hits a maple leaf. The faraway rustle of the river. Time passes, unmeasured. Then the clatter of a bald eagle, a sound like stones shaken in a tin pot, fills the quiet. Sitting on his heels in the damp moss, Gordon grins, but doesn’t speak.

Next to him, almost hidden under the log, is a small canister. This is the Jar of Quiet Thoughts. Gordon put it here, an invitation to people who visit One Square Inch to record their responses to silence. I open the jar and pull out crumpled scraps of paper. Many wrote of love. One couple came here to be married, one person came to pray, another found deep connection here, in the call of a thrush. Others wrote of wonder, to hear the voices of the deep quiet. I realize that One Square Inch has become a sacred place–silence made it so.

A small wind shakes a huckleberry bush. A crow calls from the crown of an alder. A hemlock needle falls on my shoulder, and I turn, astonished to have heard it land.

Kathleen Dean Moore is a professor of philosophy at Oregon State University and serves on the Orion Society board of directors. Reprinted from Orion(Nov.-Dec. 2008), a magazine about environment, culture, and spirit;

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