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Hempton’s Opus: A Quest for Silence

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An AEI book review of:
One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest for Natural Silence in a Noisy World
Gordon Hempton and John Grossman
Free Press, 2009

After a quarter century of listening to and recording the sounds of the world around him, along the way becoming one of the most respected natural sound producers on the planet, Gordon Hempton has written a book-length reflection on the perilous state of our natural soundscapes.  The story is shaped around a cross-country journey during which Hempton visits a variety of American landscapes, visits allies old and new in his quest to raise awareness about the insidious expansion of human noise, and finally arranges a series of meetings with “movers and shakers” in Washington, DC, to press his cause of creating the nation’s first noise-free zone in Olympic National Park.

Hempton is, of course, a sensitive listener.  The book is best read, it seems to me, as three related but distinct threads, interwoven throughout the telling.  The first is the raison d’etre for the project: to make a case for actively protecting natural quiet (rather than simply reducing noise); here Hempton draws on the voices of a dozen or so other careful listeners, some “experts” (staff of the National Park Service Natural Sound Program and Aero, a leading earplug manufacturer), and some are moderately well-known naturalists and fellow writers living simple lives in relation to the earth (Doug Peacock, Jay Salter).  This excellent variety of external voices gives the book a welcome breadth, as Hempton recapitulates their conversations in some depth. The second thread is an at times overly-detailed litany of noise intrusions he hears along his way from Washington State to Washington, DC; while the details are certainly informative (for example, noting that a power plant creates an acoustic footprint many miles in diameter), and the accumulating diversity of impacts is an important element in the narrative, this aspect of the book could perhaps have been honed or trimmed in places. 

The final thread, and to me, the greatest virtue of the book, consists of Hempton’s many lyrical descriptions of our sounding planet.  These segments may each only last for a sentence or at most a paragraph, but they trigger the sorts of expanded moments that make reading so worthwhile, bringing us deeply into a vicarious experience the soundcape being addressed, and, cumulatively, sparking our consciousness in ways that might later foster such profound listening experiences during our own rambles in the wild.  Many of these segments describe places and moments that Hempton encountered; as an unexpected bonus, though, he has included copious quotations from other listeners, mostly well-known writers, sharing what are doubtlessly the highlights of his own years of noting the most compelling descriptions of listening that he has come across in his own reading.

I’ll share a few of these, to give a sense of the reasons you may want to pick this book up for yourself:

I will look for a place that has both pine and sweet grass, seeking deep roaring tones from the pine needles and the faint, almost hallucinogenic, swirling sounds from the tall thin stems of sweet grass.  Imagine listening to a roaring river at the point where a stream trickles in.

The wind and the quiet take me to a profoundly peaceful place: aural solitude.  Words fall short of capturing this deep listening experience.  Even a recording does not do it justice.  Emerson got close when he said, “Listen to what the White Pine sayeth.”  He did not say what the white pine said.  You have to listen to the white pine for yourself.

This Crazy willow has not yet leafed out, which I like, because the deep tones will be pure, not cluttered with leaf slaps…swaying and singing, (it) held me spellbound for more than two hours with a wide range of fine-toned vibrations.  The longer I was there, listening, taking it all in, the more I heard.  At first I noticed only the larger patterns, simple gusts and lulls, but then my mind dug deeper and discerned the individual wind torrents weaving through the branches.  After 15 minutes, the details were countless; the tree was a congregation chanting a hymnal to the sky.

Doug Peacock: “Once you realize how good your senses of smell and hearing are-we modern people have no notion of how good they are and what they can do for us.  There’s a total acoustic and olfactory universe out there that we totally shut down to. I think it’s because of all the racket.”

Skip Ambrose (former National Park Service Natural Sounds Program director), speaking of a flight from Denver to LA: “We flew over Colorado National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, and Mojave.  We had noise meters in every one.  I thought, God, I’m flying over all my noise meters.  And it’s such a line.  If you moved that flight path twenty miles, you could avoid all those parks.”

The sun climbs higher in the sky, and the warming of the air creates enough turbulence to make the aircraft noise much less obvious.  This is one of the reasons many tourists report on park exit surveys that they were not annoyed by aircraft; they visit during the time of day when plane noise doesn’t reach them.  Just as we can see farther to the bottom of a pond when the water’s surface is not rippled, sound travels best when the air is calm.  That’s why birds sing and other wildlife vocalize mostly at dawn and dusk.

Always on the go, most people walk through nature never stopping to escape the wake of their own disturbance.

Friday, around 3 a.m. I get up just to record the silence.  The night-flying moths sound like those large rubber bands on balsa wood gliders when they unwind.  I hear the small footsteps of rodents scampering all over the valley.  Far off, a rock drops from high up on the canyon wall, another of the millions of events that, added together, have formed and continue to shape this place.

Kurt Fristrup, head researcher, NPS Natural Sounds Program: “When a jet is flying overhead, your auditory horizon shrinks, and it’s affecting the very frequencies that travel the farthest… The loss of quiet is literally the loss of awareness.  Quiet is being lost without people even becoming aware of what they’re losing.  It’s tragic.”

John Muir: “I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter or to gaze and listen.  Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees-spruce and fir, and pine, and leafless oak. . . . Each was expressing itself in its own way-singing its own song, and making its own peculiar textures. . . The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf-all this was heard in easy analysis when the attention was calmly bent.”

Max Picard: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.  The invention of printing, technics, compulsory education-nothing has so altered man as this lack of relationship to silence, this fact that silence is no longer taken for granted, as something as natural as the sky above or the air we breathe. Man who has lost silence has not merely lost one human quality, but his whole structure has been changed thereby.”

On the way to the FDR Memorial we stop at the Korean War Memorial, a striking set of GIs cast in bronze on patrol through a landscape of trees and short shrubs; each soldier has a battle-weary stance that suggests the personal trauma of war.  Now the overhead noise is from a helicopter: 78dBA.  One can only wonder about the effects on veterans standing here, their service memorialized, while the air above them beats with an aggressive helicopter whack-whack-whack-whack-whack capable of resurrecting ghastly war flashbacks.


The core of Hempton’s quest is to spread the word about his pet project, which is to move the only three FAA flight paths that travel over Olympic National Park, and thus establish the nation’s first no-fly zone that is designed specifically to eliminate noise impacts in keeping with the National Park Service’s founding principle to protect nature “unimpaired for future generations.”  His clever angle, which has proven to be appealing to the media, though a poor fit with traditional public lands management processes, is to advocate for absolute sonic protection of “one square inch” the park; to do so, flights would have to remain at least 20 miles away in every direction, thus offering a much-improved acoustic experience over many hundreds of square miles.  By focusing on One Square Inch (he has in fact installed a square-inch stone at a specific point in the Hoh Valley of Olympic National Park), Hempton is acknowledging that any formal “aural protected area” will need a large buffer of no-fly zones; he is simply illustrating this by starting with the smallest possible protected area.  His One Square Inch, with an attendant “Jar of Quite Thoughts” for visitors to leave reflections, has attracted both many grateful visitors, and some criticism for being so outside the “normal” way of pressing the issue.  Olympic Park rangers have long offered him begrudging support, though in recent months the superintendent there decided that the stone and jar were causing visible impacts, and the jar has been removed several times as Hempton has been thrust into the research permit application process. 

While he longs for more widespread protection of natural quiet, he realizes that societal and legal hurdles preclude more system-wide efforts, at least for now, and so he has zeroed in on what he calls “the listener’s Yosemite,” because it has far fewer flight paths over it than most National Parks.  In writing this book, Hempton clearly wants to spur more popular appreciation for these issues, so that perhaps, over time, noise pollution will follow in the footsteps of other environmental impacts-such as air pollution or chemical waste-that have eventually been addressed, despite being initially seen as insignificant. 

Toward this end, several passages in the book share some of the latest research on the effects of noise on both humans and wildlife.  I was aware that human stress responses to noise persist even after we acclimate to the noise; Hempton shares this as well as an overview of research into the surprisingly high noise levels in hospitals.  I was surprised to hear that endangered birds being raised in captive breeding programs are singing songs that are no longer characteristic of their wild counterparts; as Hempton notes, “Captive native bird species (are) reproducing, but their native language (is) not.”  While visiting the nation’s largest hearing-protection product factory, we learn that OSHA’s definition of hearing loss that must be prevented applies only to the frequencies used in human speech; losing our ability to hear delicate high-pitched birds or the rich low-frequency swirls of a waterfall or a valley in the wind are not considered important enough to protect against (which is convenient, as many industrial noises that cause hearing damage are centered on lower or higher frequencies).  In a culminating meeting at the end of the book, Hempton struggles to make sense of the FAA’s focus on a 65dBA standard for aircraft noise, designed to protect airport neighbors from health effects of constant take-offs and landings, but clearly inappropriate for considering impacts on wildife or humans enjoying time in the wilderness.  Along the way, Hempton also shares small surprises, such as discovering that AmericInn’s promise of “a quiet night’s sleep” is actually backed by enhanced architectural details that gave him a sound reading inside his room next to an interstate that’s as low as in many remote wilderness locations!

In the end, this unique book is well worth spending some time with.  While Hempton’s travelogue can at times be a bit meandering, with perhaps more details of his daily habits than are necessary, even these indulgences serve a purpose, in bringing the reader a little closer to moods of the journey being taken by the author.  Some readers may find themselves skimming over repeated evocations of Hempton’s devotion to his famously-and anomalously, if not conspicuously incongruous-loud, rattly old VW van, or yet another moment of whipping out his decibel meter to tell us exactly how loud some new noise intrusion is, the meat of the book keeps asserting itself in his visits with other people along the way, and in those moments when he shares the pleasures of active listening to this stunningly vociferous planet of ours.  I think we can forgive Hempton for falling a tad short as a writer, and thank him for bringing together such a diverse set of voices to share in his quest to assure that we humans realize the stakes before we entirely divorce ourselves from the voices around us. 

The accompanying CD, which includes five extended tracks from different regions, including both natural and human sounds, reminds us of Hempton’s true gift to us.  Longtime Hempton listeners may be surprised at the engaging edits, which include many segments of the human soundscape, some appreciative, and some of which illustrate the ways that even subtle human noises can fundamentally alter the listening experience.  This disc moves along faster (i.e., more rapid appearances of crossfades to new aural subjects) than Hempton’s traditional work, but perhaps in so doing offers a more authentic sense what he call’s America’s “sonic EKG,” given our societal propensity for multi-tasking and channel and audio surfing. Since the 1980’s, Gordon has been one of our most sensitive and prolific natural sound recordists and producers, crafting aural portraits of place that reflect his passion and mastery of both the technical and artistic elements of this creative medium.  For those who know his work, this book and CD will offer a window into the man and his dreams.  For those who do not, I highly recommend that after reading his words, you seek out a few of his audio works to fully appreciate what he’s been up to all these years; as an Amazon reviewer noted, Hempton’s work is now available via download, including “an inexpensive one of Rialto Beach.”  I must admit that after working for years to help sound artists receive the due they deserve, I had a burst of mixed feelings reading this, since Rialto is one of the places closest to Hempton’s heart, and source of some of his most compelling work, worthy of fine arts status, rather than cheap online grabs!  Such is the state of our current world; no doubt some buyers will even enjoy Hempton’s now easily-accessible work on the ubiquitous iPods that he mocks and endures throughout the book.  In the end, all he is really asking us to do is listen.  It’s up to us where, and to what, we do so.
One Square Inch website, links to buy book online
Samples of sounds from One Square Inch in Olympic National Park
Sounds from his cross-country journey

Hempton interview on Living on Earth
Read transcript
Hear MP3
Contact new ONP superintendant, re: OSI permits
Kathleen Dean Moore essay on Hempton, from Orion magazine
Amazon page for the book; includes 4 minute video introduction by Hempton

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