Audio ecologist Gordon Hempton says Rialto Beach in Washington state is the world’s most musical beach. So Diane Daniel, who writes about his life’s work preserving “One Square Inch of Silence” tried to cipher the symphony by poking her head into the hollowed-out driftwood logs there. What did she hear?
Diane Daniel | July 2008 issue
For several years, audio ecologist extraordinaire Gordon Hempton taught a course called “Joy of Listening” at the Olympic Park Institute, near Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington. The highlight was a trip to Rialto Beach—“the most musical beach in the world,” according to Hempton—where students would poke their heads into hollowed-out driftwood logs to listen for the vibrations. After learning about that, I wanted to hear what the logs had to say.
Still in the confines of Olympic National Park, I meet Hempton at LaPush Beach before heading to nearby Rialto on my own. Hempton is bodysurfing in the Pacific when I get there. Wearing a wet suit, he blasts over the seven-foot swells like a human cannonball. He finishes up, dries off and meets me near the beach’s giant piles of driftwood. “I’m blissfully hypothermic right now,” he says with a wide smile and a face red from spending two hours in 40-degree water. He points out a breaching grey whale I hadn’t noticed on my own.
After walking over jumbles of stacked logs, he finds a suitable Sitka spruce for us to check out. He dips his head in first. “I definitely hear it vibrating,” he says. “Think of the shape of musical instruments. Sitka spruce is the uncarved violin. If your head is inside, you’ll hear.”
I crouch down on the sand and put my body halfway into the log, inhaling its earthiness and appreciating the variety of beach pebbles lodged in its crevices. I hear waves crashing on the shore and then I hear… nothing.
“Feel like you’re a trombone, and slide in and slide out,” Hempton advises. I do so, glad no strangers are watching. I start to pull my body out, straining to hear something. I know I’m trying too hard.
“Come back in, about like that,” he says as I move forward again. “Listen to the wave breaks, the crash of the wave and after that hear the crescendo of the vibration, like wind going down a wire.”
At another log, Hempton hears “a little kettle drum roll after a crashing wave.”
On my own at Rialto Beach, where the logs are even bigger, I think I maybe might be hearing bass-like thumps in the last log I shove my head into. Or maybe not. Listening is a joy, like Hempton says, but it’s also an art. I guess I need more practise.
Diane Daniel is a freelance journalist who lives in Durham, North Carolina.