Silence is at an all-time premium in this day and age. In fact, ninety percent of children are expected never to experience natural silence in their lives, and 97 percent of Americans are exposed regularly to highway and air traffic noise. It is so pervasive that many hardly notice it anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.
Exposure to incessant noise has a toll. It can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment, tinnitus, and low birth weight. It harms wildlife as well, driving away bird populations and causing them to become malnourished because they cannot hear well enough to communicate or hunt. One man is on a mission to change this, or at least to create oases of silence where people have the opportunity to escape the noise and relearn the value of quiet.
That man is Gordon Hempton, and he’s an American acoustic ecologist who has spent years traveling the globe in search of the rarest sounds, which can only be fully appreciated in the absence of manmade noise. He created One Square Inch of Silence, a tiny stone cairn in Washington’s Olympic National Park, which he monitored for years while trying to keep the sounds of the world at bay. Now he has embarked on another project called Quiet Parks International (QPI), which has the ambitious goal of identifying and certifying some of the quietest places on Earth in an effort to preserve them for future generations.
The very first quiet park just attained certification in April 2019 in Zabalo, Ecuador—and more are expected to follow. According to Hempton, spending time in these silent places changes a person profoundly. He says it takes a week for a person to stop feeling disoriented by the silence, then the brain starts to develop new neural pathways to hear things it couldn’t before. And with that, time seems to slow down.