Where silence is seen and heard

Below is a profile I wrote about Gordon Hempton, the creator of One Square Inch of Silence in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park in northwest Washington state.  It appears in the July/August of Ode Magazine, with photos by Wessel. The entire issue  is dedicated to silence and is well worth a read.

By Diane Daniel

Surrounded by towering Sitka spruce trees dripping with rain and bearded lichen, Gordon Hempton comes to a sudden halt, mud oozing out from the bottom of his tall rubber boots. He raises his right hand, points a gloved finger toward the gray sky and squints in the universal sign for “Listen!”

Gordon points up to listen

Gordon Hempton (left) points up to listen while Diane takes notes (Click to ENLARGE)

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.

Gordon holds his sound meter

Gordon holds his sound meter

As Hempton whips out a hand-held sound meter from his bike messenger bag, I realize it’s not a birdsong but the drone of an airplane in the far distance that has brought him to attention.

“1:19,” he notes in an official voice, reporting the time while opening up the instrument that charts noise level on the decibel A scale, the easiest way to measure the weight of 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, based on the logarithmic formula of decibels.

“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 northwest Washington state that he has deemed One Square Inch of Silence. It is 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.”

Although the claim is arguable, it is certainly plausible.

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 sound in hundreds of spots across the country and the world, and has witnessed, painfully, a sharp decline of spaces devoid of mechanized sounds.

Gordon's Emmy Award

Gordon's Emmy Award

“I don’t want the absence of sound, I want the absence of noise,” he says.
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.

“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.

Entrance of Olympic National Park

Entrance of Olympic National Park

“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.”

While Hempton keeps One Square Inch focused on Olympic National Park, he hopes others will pick up the mantle across the country and beyond.

Had today’s offender been heard at One Square Inch, some three miles east of the visitor’s center 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.)

Here, in the brilliantly green rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula, Hempton relishes pointing out the instruments of nature’s symphony.

Hoh Rain Forest

Hoh Rain Forest

Living in these mossy, fern-blanketed old-growth forests are some 300 species of birds, and we are 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, which we hear first and later see, and its rivers hold some of the healthiest runs of Pacific salmon outside of Alaska.

Then there is 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 inhale through my nose.

Although I don’t carry a sound meter, 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 of my house if a truck is idling to ask the driver to please switch it off.

“Do you hear it? Can’t you hear that car?” I’ll implore to 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 favorite 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 splashing without ever seeing them.

My favorite 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, 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.”

Gordon in his Vee Dub

Gordon in his Vee Dub

Hempton is relaying this story while driving us along curvy Highway 101, which leads to a road that dead ends in the Hoh Rain Forest. When making a point, Hempton fixes such an intense gaze on me with his clear green-brown eyes, one greener, one browner, that I fear we might run off the road. That would be bad enough in a newer vehicle, but we are 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’s not needing 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 dB. That’s not healthy.”

Gordon Hempton's 1964 Volkswagen Bus

Gordon's 1964 Volkswagen Bus

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 ponytailed 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 three-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,” in 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 fresh snow covers the highest tree tops.

Outside of 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 visitors center and the start of the trail, a gentle walk through the Hoh, Hempton stops abruptly.

“Do you hear that?”

I don’t.

“That buzzing sound. Listen.”

Finally my ears lock in to the faint but irritating hum of a generator. I’m relieved we’ve camped near the river.

“Since they lost power in a storm the park has used a generator for electricity. But you can’t hear it from One Square Inch.”

Before heading into the woods I stop at the visitors center, where two rangers stand behind a desk.

Hoh visitor center

Hoh visitor center

“Do you have any information on One Square Inch of Silence?” I ask.
One ranger looks at me blankly, and the other says, “what kind of 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 is 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 for the day. 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 toward One Square Inch following a closer but less direct route than he gives on his website, where he also GPS coordinates.

One Square Inch (Click to ENLARGE)

One Square Inch rock (Click to ENLARGE)

In 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 agreed to fan out and walk back separately, so we can enjoy a conversation-free return.

The Jar of Quiet Thoughts

The Jar of Quiet Thoughts (Click to ENLARGE)

I write a few words for the jar, thanking Hempton for bringing me there, 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 arrived?

Later I speak with Barb Maynes, the park’s public information officer, about its official position regarding One Square Inch.

Gordon reads notes from teh Jar of Quiet Thoughts

Gordon reads notes from the Jar of Quiet Thoughts

“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. Humanmade objects are prohibited in wilderness areas. Although the jar has been written about and the now-departed park superintendent visited the site with Hempton in 2005, until I speak with Maynes, she is unaware of the jar and says it will have to be removed. (One month later, Hempton reported it was still there.)

“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,” she 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.”

Hempton believes the jar is not damaging anything and has requested an application for a special-use permit to keep it there, though he figures it probably wouldn’t be granted — if the form is ever sent to him. What particularly galls him that a miles-long stretch of now-defunct telephone cable near the trail has never been removed.

Regarding moving the coordinates of One Square Inch, he says of the park service, “if the NPS is saying that they will assist me in this effort we can probably work something out.”

It’s clear that National Park Service representatives feel the need to walk a fine line between honoring a noble cause while disagreeing with its methods.

Perhaps this job falls hardest on Karen Trevino, director of the park service Natural Sounds Program.

“I’m very grateful and appreciative that Gordon is out there,” she says from her office in Fort Collins, Colo. “He’s done an amazing job of raising the specter 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.” She doubts that 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 for 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. The annual budget of One Square inch is like $2,000 a year. 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.”

Gordon prepares chicken soup for dinner

Gordon prepares chicken soup for dinner

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 had 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 research for his book, he crisscrossed the country in the Vee Dub to talk with experts and regular folks about noise and quiet.

Hempton initially was reluctant to take on the project, which was 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 to clear his head. He met with as many government officials as he could, including Mary Bomar, the director of the National Park Service, and Washington state Senator Maria Cantwell, whose office is “exploring the concept of a legislative vehicle to support One Square Inch,” spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton says.

When I suggest he is becoming the national voice of silence, he 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 meter 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. I just don’t want to hear it. Really, a quiet place is a quiet place.”

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4 Responses to “Where silence is seen and heard”

  1. Cynthia Says:

    Dear Gordon Hempton,

    I live in Manhattan, the most noise polluted city in the world. And you are most welcome to try and prove me wrong in that statement. Every thing here makes a noise and is competing to be heard, and thus every noise is elevated to the pitch of deafening. Come to our city. You will not need ‘intentional listening’ to hear the high pitch of the subway turn styles beeping each time you enter and exit the subway, instead it will bombard you like an alarm (I am guessing to keep you moving out of the way of the next person), same with the buses when loading and unloading, the trucks when they are backing up, and even the ATM buttons and the scanner at the grocery stores (is it necessary that we must alarm every time a food item or toilet is scanned?) and not to mention the fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, the car alarms, the elevators and even the smoke detectors in the public hallways of my apartment building, that beeped unceasingly until I got onto the building super to deal with this issue to only find out an new alarm in the public hallway starts to beep – you see I have been trying to ‘defend my one square inch of silence’ (in my tiny apartment) but have not been able to succeed. Then I figured that somehow that one square inch is somewhere in my head, so I wear ear plugs when I go out into the public and still find myself covering my ears when an ambulance goes by. I suspect that most of these alarms and sirens are at a deafening level. Which brings me to ask, how are you going to clean up this overflowing and perpetually out of control land field of noise pollution that may soon spread to other neighborhoods like yours. Not that I am wanting to know the details of your answer but more of saying that you have a large burden on your shoulders to solve such an issue, since that is, I have it in my heart that this is also part of your calling. But you are well into your calling now and have all this equipment and a network people and hopefully even PBS to assist you in this task and I am sure in the end you will be more famous for it even if you are only able to set it in motion to tone the city down a bit.

    Sincerely,

    Cynthia Vesser
    Photographer

  2. didaniel Says:

    From Duarte Ferreira
    E-mail dvarte@gmail.com
    Comment Hey! I was searching for the work of Gordon Hempton and i found this great article on him made by you. A little bit of curiosity guided me into here, this blog, and what a surprise! You’ve been in Portugal and even more exciting, in my home town, Madeira Island! That’s just great! It’s always like this when i read beautiful things about my home. Too bad Terry and David didn’t ate well while they were there. They should have tried the fresh tuna fish, carne vinho e alhos, espetada com milho frito, sopa de trigo, polvo de escabeche, lapas de escabeche, and many other… they just did not know! I wish i could guide them through this… Well, see you some time Take care Duarte Ferreira

  3. Art Says:

    Art…

    […]Where silence is seen and heard « Places we go, People we see[…]…

  4. threads of the week Says:

    Reference…

    You will find one or two references of this including…

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