The Search For Silence
Do you ever have much of a chance in your busy lives, at school and with your families and friends, to think about… silence? Do you ever notice or long for silence? Just a few weeks ago, I heard an interview on national public radio here in New York City (a noisy place!), with a scientist named Gordon Hempton, who calls himself an “acoustic ecologist.”
Gordon Hempton looks for quiet places. In thirty years, Mr. Hempton has circled the globe three times, listening to and recording Earth’s rarest nature sounds. In addition to seeking the sounds of the natural world, he also tries to find nature’s quietest places. He is finding fewer and fewer of them. As it happens with so many scientists, Mr. Hempton’s journey has transformed him from an observer and a recorder, to an ardent spokesperson for conservation.
Mr. Hempton didn’t begin his life interested in silence and sound. But several decades ago, during a long drive between his family home and the university where he was studying plant pathology, he realised he was sleepy. Leaving his car by the side of a road, he lay down in a cornfield, rather than paying for a hotel room. “As I lay there, I heard crickets, and rolling thunder in the background, which captivated me. The thunderstorm came, and I truly listened. The storm passed on, and as I lay there, drenched, the only thought in my mind was, how could I be 27 years old and never have truly listened before? I realised how much we need to hear to survive – in evolution, earlids never developed, but eyelids did. And to those who know that true listening is worship, silence is one of nature’s most transformative sermons. I am filled with gratitude to have heard it.”
Gordon Hempton’s experience in the cornfield was a turning point in his life, bringing him alive for the first time to natural sounds he had taken utterly for granted. He became intoxicated, one might even say obsessed, with the sounds and silences of nature and with finding places where there is an absence of man-made noise. Hempton does not define silence as the absence of all sound. For Hempton, “silence is the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”
In his global travels, Hempton has recorded sounds on every continent except Antarctica, including butterfly wings fluttering, coyotes singing, snow melting, waterfalls crashing and birds singing. In Washington state, where he lives in a tiny town of just 100, he found 21 places with (man-made) noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or more. A couple of years later, he could find only three.
Concerned about the tidal wave of noise pollution, Hempton drove from Washington state to Washington D.C. in an old car, recording sounds as he went, and meeting with politicians and officials in the capitol to press his case for the preservation of natural silence.Hempton’s search for silence in the U.S. has led him to a place that he has called “One Square Inch of Silence.” It is located in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park in Washington. Gordon Hempton has petitioned the U.S. Forest Service and other environmental organisations in the U.S. to protect Hoh from noise pollution. He says it is special because it has a diverse natural soundscape and long periods of natural quiet. And unlike other national parks in the United States, such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or the Hawaii Volcanoes, air tourism is undeveloped over Olympic, and there are no roads dividing the park lands. The absence of air tourism is very important, since jets and helicopters leave enormous cones of noise behind them.
Gordon Hempton has written a book about his search for natural silence, and his discovery of the pristine one-square-inch in the Hoh Rain Forest. His book has led to increased visits by hikers, and he welcomes their longing to spend time in nature at this special place. When hikers reach it, they find a ‘Jar of Quiet Thoughts’, a depository of notes left by visitors. They are encouraged to read the notes, and leave their own quiet thoughts from a quiet place, but to respect the privacy of every note in the Jar.
Why care about protecting places from noise pollution? As Gordon Hempton says, to be in a place where one can hear “only the native sounds of the land… is an opportunity not only to heal but to discover something incredible – the presence of life, interwoven!”
Author: Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, January 2013.