You might think you know noise pollution: trucks screaming down the freeway, car horns honking, construction sites and their requisite hammering and clanking. You might also think you’ve experienced true quiet: camping in the desert, resting atop a mountain peak, wandering through a dense forest. Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, is here to burst your bubble. There are less than a dozen truly quiet places in the United States, and the only one he’ll share with you—Hempton’s one square inch of silence—rests in the Hoh rainforest in Washington’s Olympic National Park.
To be clear, Hempton isn’t talking about dead silence, like you might find in a padded recording studio. His quest is to find places that have no man-made noise—no airplanes passing overhead, no vehicle noises leaking from a distant roadway. Someplace you could sit for 20 minutes and truly listen, without a single man-made sound breaking your meditation. He calls this “natural silence.”
As an Emmy-award winning sound artist, Hempton has spent more 30 years traveling the world in search of unique natural soundscapes. His work, which involves creating lush recordings used in television and film as well as scientific research, made him acutely aware of the many intrusive noises that break the spell of quiet. So, he took it upon himself to save silence.
For his 2010 book One Square Inch of Silence, Hempton road-tripped across the United States in search of quiet places. He found that even in vast wilderness areas, silence, free from the clamor of humankind, was nearly impossible to find. After extensive research, Hempton dubbed the Hoh Rainforest the quietest place in the United States (thanks to a dearth of roadways and air traffic overhead), and made it his mission to protect it.
The impending extinction of silence may sound like a philosophical threat rather than a physical one, but the possibility of a country without a single unadulterated soundscape is very real. In Europe, Hempton says, there are no longer any quiet places at all. Hempton ended his cross-country road trip with a visit to Washington, D.C., to lobby for protections against sound pollution in our national parks. His work as an activist continues with his non-profit, also named One Square Inch of Silence.
Hempton’s big on the spiritual impact of quiet. To him, unaltered soundscapes have soothing, eye-opening, and grounding effects. More importantly, though, noise pollution has a huge impact on animal populations, particularly those known for song: echolocation-dependent whales have been adversely impacted by the mechanized noises of boat traffic, and songbirds have literally changed their tune to adapt to roaring vehicle traffic. Hempton’s cause isn’t purely aesthetic.
As you’ll see in the video below, Hempton has created, in effect, a shrine to silence on that square inch of quiet ground he discovered in the Hoh rainforest. He monitors the area for intruding sounds, and if he hears anything un-natural—a chainsaw, a vehicle, a helicopter—he personally identifies and reaches out to the perpetrator. He sends along a recording of the soundscape they’ve compromised, asking in the gentlest of ways: please, be quiet.
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