Gordon Hempton is fighting to save the sounds of silence in Washington state’s Olympic National Park — one square inch at a time.
Diane Daniel | July 2008 issue
Hearing the chirp of a bird in the distance, I expect our unofficial park guide to identify another animal resident here in Olympic National Park, as he had earlier with the call of a Roosevelt elk. “An intruder,” he whispers in a serious tone.
As Hempton whips out a hand-held sound metre from his bike messenger bag, I realize it’s not birdsong but the drone of an airplane in the far distance that has brought him to attention. “One nineteen,” he notes in an official voice, reporting the time while opening up the instrument that charts noise levels on the decibel A scale, the easiest way to measure sound. “Overpass duration: two minutes. 51 dBA, with a base of 42. That base is from birdsong and the river in the distance.”
The intrusion, he reports, is twice as loud as the natural sound. “I’m not going to do anything about it because it’s not in One Square Inch,” he adds.
Hempton is referring to our destination and his mission, a tiny spot in northwestern Washington state that he has deemed One Square Inch of Silence. It’s marked with a reddish rock and a “Jar of Quiet Thoughts”—visitors’ musings on what Hempton has declared to be “the quietest place in the United States.”
Hempton, a 55-year-old Washington-based natural-sound documentarian and audio ecologist, is one of the world’s top sound recordists. He’s measured the decibels in hundreds of spots across the country and the world, and has witnessed, painfully, a sharp decline of spaces devoid of mechanized sounds. “I don’t want the absence of sound, I want the absence of noise,” he says. “Listening is worship.”
Hempton’s professional credits include radio and television documentaries, a collection of 53 natural-sound recordings and an Emmy award for the 1992 PBS documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus. Next spring, Simon and Schuster’s Free Press will publish One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Save Silence in a Noisy World, a book Hempton is co-writing with journalist John Grossmann. He hopes others will pick up the mantle across the country and beyond.
“The logic is simple,” explains Hempton, who lives in the tiny town of Joyce, two hours northwest of the park. “If noise can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles. When you defend one square inch, in today’s world you help manage, to some degree, thousands of miles. Olympic National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a wilderness area. If we can’t save quiet here, don’t tell me we’re going to save it anywhere else.”
Had today’s offender been heard at One Square Inch, some three miles east of the visitor centre and about 50 yards off the Hoh River Trail, Hempton would have checked flight paths and airline schedules for the day and written a note asking the intruder to circumvent the park. (Only Alaska Airlines flies over regularly)
In this green rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula, Hempton relishes pointing out the instruments of nature’s symphony. Living in these mossy, fern-blanketed old-growth forests are some 300 species of birds, and we’re treated to the calls of many, including bald eagles, western winter wrens and the thumping bass beats from the wings of the ruffed grouse taking flight. The park is home to one of the country’s largest herds of wild Roosevelt elk, and these rivers hold some of the healthiest runs of Pacific salmon outside of Alaska.
Then there’s the almost-constant precipitation, with its percussive chorus of drips, drops, pings and poundings. The air feels so thick and rich that every few minutes of our walk, I stop and draw a deep breath through my nose.
Although I don’t carry a sound metre, I do relate to Hempton, and have been known to drive myself and others a bit nuts obsessing over mechanical sounds. I fly out the door if a truck is idling to ask the driver please to switch it off. “Do you hear it? Can’t you hear that car?” I’ll implore camping friends at the faintest engine sound off in the distance. Indoor noise bugs me too. Blow dryers, electric shavers, vacuum cleaners, bean grinders, blenders. They all make me crazy.
I can just as readily conjure a list of favourite natural soundscapes. There were the few days I spent in the Sahara Desert when I heard only the constant wind, or the July night when I sat on the edge of the woods in southern Illinois listening to crickets so deafening I couldn’t hear my friend talk. Last year, my husband and I spent a pitch-black night in a North Carolina swamp listening to owls screech and river otters splash without ever seeing them. My favourite sound in the woods is when the wind causes two branches to scrape together in a creaking groan right out of a horror-movie soundtrack.
The sounds that started Hempton on his journey came from on high during a muggy summer night in the Midwest. Armed with an undergraduate degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, he was on his way from Seattle to graduate school in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison when he took a break in Iowa. “I pulled out my bag to sleep in a harvested cornfield and a thunderstorm rolled over me,” he recalls. “I thought, How could I be 27 years old and never have listened before? I thought I was a good listener, but I’d never listened to anything without intention.”
Later, he says, when he tried out a store’s sound equipment outdoors, “Listening was a whole different experience. I walked out the door one person and back in another.”
Hempton is relaying this story while he drives along curvy Highway 101, which leads to a road that dead ends in the Hoh Rain Forest. When making a point, he fixes such an intense gaze on me with his clear green-brown eyes that I fear we might run off the road. That would be dangerous enough in a newer vehicle, but we’re in “the Vee Dub,” his pale green 1964 Volkswagen bus.
I don’t feel unsafe, just aware of the thin metal surrounding me, the lack of a shoulder harness, and the inefficient job being done by the van’s slow, squeaky windshield wipers. “They sound like a nice relaxing swing on the back porch,” Hempton says, perfectly nailing the noise.
Hempton also owns a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee, but prefers the bus when he doesn’t need to lock up $50,000 worth of recording equipment. “The Vee Dub forces you to slow down and really see things,” he says. “The only problem is it’s loud. It’s the loudest thing I own, at 80 dBA. That’s not healthy.”
Hempton has the bus retrofitted for camping, with a fold-out mattress (although he usually sleeps on the ground or up on a rack hung between trees), water storage and even a tiny wood-burning stove. Although he might sound like a pony-tailed holdover from the ’60s, he more resembles an Eagle Scout, with short hair and a clean-shaven, angular face.
Within months of discovering his calling, in 1980, Hempton had dropped out of school and returned to Seattle to become a “sound tracker.” To support his habit, he took a job as a bike messenger. “I was all about deliveries,” he says. “I got paid $1 for every delivery and I knew how many I needed to buy each piece of equipment I wanted.”
He married a fellow bike messenger and the couple, now divorced, started a family. (His son is now 23, and his daughter 18.) “That was really a transitional point,” he says. “I was absolutely convinced that the natural soundscape was disappearing.”
Hempton had plenty of time to ponder that when he became bedridden with pneumonia. “I had to file for unemployment. We had a 3-year-old son and I was burning wood from old furniture for heat. But there’s always the morning, and that’s when I heard the dawn. In my mind’s ear I imagined listening to the sounds of the sunrise as it circled the globe.”
That became the idea behind the 1992 documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus, for which Hempton recorded the sounds of sunrise on six continents. When he won an Emmy for that project, his life changed, he says. “I no longer had to explain myself as the bike messenger who did natural sound recordings.” Since then he’s worked on dozens of projects, some for recordings and documentaries and others for such corporations as Microsoft and The Relaxation Company.
We’ve now reached our first stop, the campground at the Hoh Rain Forest, the park’s most popular section. We pick a spot next to the rushing river. Clouds hang low, and in the distance snow covers the highest treetops. Outside the van, we add extra layers for wind and rain, but waterproof pants are frowned upon. “They make too much noise,” Hempton says. “Swish-swish-swish.” He’s the only person I’ve seen carry an umbrella in the woods.
As we head toward the visitor centre and the start of the trail, a gentle walk through the Hoh, Hempton stops abruptly. “Do you hear that?”
“That buzzing sound. Listen.”
Finally my ears lock in to the faint but irritating hum of a generator.
“Since they lost power in a storm, the park has used a generator for electricity. You can’t hear it from One Square Inch.”
Before heading into the woods I stop at the visitor centre, where two rangers stand behind a desk. “Do you have any information on One Square Inch of Silence?” I ask. One ranger looks at me blankly; the other says, “What information do you want? I don’t have anything you can take.”
He goes to a drawer and pulls out a magazine article about Gordon that’s kept inside a plastic sleeve. “It won’t be very quiet up there today,” he says, with what seems like a touch of glee in his voice. “They’re doing trail maintenance.”
As it turns out, the trail is quiet, very quiet: amazingly, wonderfully devoid of machine sounds. Only the river, birds, wind and raindrops are audible.
By the time we reach One Square Inch, volunteers with the Washington Trail Association are heading back. Mostly they’re carrying hand tools, but one person is packing a gas-powered chain saw.
After lunch, Hempton leads us into the thick forest following a closer but less direct route than he gives on his website, where he also lists GPS coordinates.
Within two short minutes, we’re there, in a nondescript but beautifully lush area filled with a jumble of vegetation. He points out the small rock he keeps atop a large felled tree limb, as well as the note-filled jar on the forest’s carpeted floor. Just as we arrive, a beam of sun appears for the first time that afternoon. We agree to fan out and walk back separately, so we can enjoy a conversation-free return.
I write a few words for the jar, thanking Hempton for bringing me here, thanking nature for existing. I read other notes too. Some are a few words, others are longer; some are poems. Hempton requests they not be quoted out of respect for the authors. Some note-writers, he says, have intimated they scattered loved ones’ ashes there. Truth be told, though I tried to feel the energy of the Inch, I was eager to return to the path where the sun could reach me—and where it was just as quiet.
Perhaps 50 or so people have visited the site since Hempton created it on Earth Day, April 22, 2005. What would happen if it really caught on? It’s easy to be alone there in early April, but what about in the summer, when most of the park’s quarter-million visitors arrive?
Later I speak with Barb Maynes, the park’s public information officer, about its official position regarding One Square Inch. “We’re grateful for the input Gordon has provided and we do appreciate the concept of natural quiet and soundscapes in the park,” she says, “but we don’t think it’s about ‘one square inch’; it’s about protecting the values of the entire park.”
What gets tricky is the path, or “social trail,” that veers off the official hiking trail. Those aren’t allowed in national parks. Hempton says he followed an existing elk trail. “We do need to monitor the impact to the site,” Maynes says.
And then there’s the jar. Human-made objects are prohibited in wilderness areas. Although the now-departed park superintendent visited the site with Hempton in 2005, until I speak with Maynes, she’s unaware of the jar and says it will have to be removed. (A month later, Hempton reports it’s still there.)
Hempton doesn’t believe the jar is damaging anything and has requested an application for a special-use permit, though he figures it probably wouldn’t be granted—if the form were sent to him.
“We’re talking to Gordon about how he can promote the concepts in a way that encourages people to go on an already established trail,” Maynes says. “Conceptually we’re on the same page, but we’d like to promote the value of soundscapes without devaluing other things in the park.”
It’s clear that National Park Service representatives feel the need to walk a fine line between honouring a noble cause and disagreeing with its methods.
Perhaps this job falls hardest on Karen Trevino, director of the park service’s Natural Sounds Program. “I’m very grateful and appreciative that Gordon is out there,” she says from her office in Fort Collins, Colorado. “He’s done an amazing job of raising the spectre of the issue itself. I totally support his work in general, not just One Square Inch, but his lifelong work. But my concern with One Square Inch is perhaps it’s a bit too gimmicky, and so it could stand to alienate people. It’s important for us to focus on a complete and robust soundscape program.”
Trevino doubts a strategy like One Square Inch alone could be effective anywhere it’s not already quiet.
While Hempton realizes the busiest parks, especially those with helicopter tours, are probably not ready yet for something like One Square Inch, he thinks his plan is “not only a viable way but possibly the only practical way of preserving natural soundscapes. Gobs of money are thrown at reducing noise pollution,” he adds. “The annual budget of One Square Inch is like $2,000. There’s every reason to think that in the future it doesn’t mean we can’t designate a handful of parks and restore natural quiet to those places. I believe that is definitely achievable.”
Of course convincing airlines to alter their courses is a mighty task.
When I checked with Alaska Airlines, its stance hadn’t changed since Hempton first contacted the company three years ago. “We encourage flight crews to avoid flying over for non-routine flights such as maintenance or test flights,” spokeswoman Caroline Boren says. “But routine flight patterns, such as passenger flights, are guided by preferred routing from the Federal Aviation Administration. Also, altering flight paths would mean a less efficient route and more fuel and emissions.”
When I said, in Gordon’s words, “but noise is an emission,” Boren replied, “they’re both important factors to look at when looking at the picture.”
Over dinner, a thick homemade chicken soup donated by a friend of Hempton’s, I asked what he would have said to the trail volunteers if they’d been using a chain saw. “I would have talked to them about using hand tools. A lot of people don’t know that a sharp saw can cut just about anything,” he says. “I’d inform them, and then respect whatever they did. I have been called an enviro-wacko, but I respect everybody’s right to their opinion.”
Hempton heard plenty of opinions last summer when, as part of the research for his book, he criss-crossed the country in the Vee Dub to talk to experts and regular folks about noise and quiet. Hempton initially was reluctant to take on the project, proposed by a literary agent, because of time constraints. “But this book is just one more opportunity to get the message to the reader that quiet is something special, one of life’s basic joys. This is one of the reasons One Square Inch was established.
“My assignment on the trip was to listen to America,” he says. “I admit that when I left to go across the country, I was a little confused. Have I become this eccentric connoisseur of silence in the quietest part of the country, living in my own little fantasy world, or is this something that really matters to other people? Well, what I learned was that, overwhelmingly, quiet has provided a profound experience in people’s lives.” Along the way, he “listened to the landscape” and recorded it, and the book will be packaged with a CD of soundscapes from the journey.
Hempton ended his eastward journey in Washington, D.C. He walked the final 100 miles on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal trail along the Potomac River. He met with as many government officials as he could, including Mary Bomar, the director of the National Park Service, and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state, whose office is “exploring the concept of a legislative vehicle to support One Square Inch,” spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton says.
When I suggest he’s becoming the national voice of silence, Hempton says, “It’s an interesting thing to speak for silence and not obliterate it. I do speak for silence but I hesitate to say I’m the voice of silence. All I can say is that I truly enjoy quiet. I don’t really like the attention.”
While he carries a sound metre the way a photographer carries a camera, Hempton says he’d prefer to leave it at home. “I do all these measurements for One Square Inch. I don’t want to measure it, but I do. Really, a quiet place is a quiet place.”
Diane Daniel is a freelance journalist who lives in Durham, North Carolina.