Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist. He has traveled the globe three times recording the vanishing sounds and silences of nature—from the songbird chorus that greets the dawn to the crash of waves on a rocky shore; from the call of a whale in the ocean depths to the drip of rain on a forest floor. After 30 years recording the natural world, he reports that “There are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the United States. Even in our wilderness areas and national parks, the average noise-free interval has shrunk to less than five minutes during daylight hours.”
Hempton makes his home in Joyce, Washington, so as to be near Olympic National Park, the place he calls “the listener’s Yosemite.” There he finds not only relatively long periods of undisturbed quiet, but also the greatest diversity of natural soundscapes of any national park he has visited. Covering more than 1,400 square miles of the Olympic Peninsula, the park encompasses three distinct ecotypes: the longest wilderness coastline in the lower forty-eight states, the largest temperate rain forest in the western hemisphere, and a rugged interior of alpine valleys ringed in glacier-capped mountains. The park is home to more than three hundred species of birds, including northern spotted owls and bald eagles, as well as cougars, bears, salmon, Roosevelt elk, and at least eighteen species of animals found nowhere else in the world, such as the Olympic marmot, the Olympic snow mole, and the Olympic torrent salamander.
Hempton is the co-author of a book, One Square Inch of Silence, which describes his campaign to create One Square Inch of silence in the Hoh Rain Forest of the Olympic National Park as a test case for protecting other wilderness areas from noise intrusions. He is passionate about protecting quiet as a means for enticing humanity to “fall in love” with the natural world again—so that we will protect it. “We save what we love,” he says.
For this interview, a version of which was originally published in The Sun magazine, Hempton spoke with me on several occasions by phone. – Leslee Goodman
Goodman: There’s a beautiful line in the prologue to your book that reads, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.” Please tell us what you mean by that.
Hempton: That is the line of my book I receive the most comments on. Writing the book was a tremendous challenge for a lot of reasons. One was to convey a lot of information, and two was to do it in layperson’s language. I remembered the words of my high school mentor: Do not speak until you can improve upon the silence. So I sat there staring at the blank screen of my computer, hesitant to write until I could improve upon the silence. Because this is a subject that is deeply meaningful for me, I wanted to write at a soul level. A stroke of luck came with a winter storm that blew through the Northwest, knocking down a tree that took out the power line. Without a computer, I went and sat by the woodstove and wrote the prologue by candlelight.
It was an important experience for me to unplug from everything and really be in my own silence and write in the old way with paper and pen. At various times in the book, when it was not about facts, or about digesting the research or recalling the journey, when it was time to write about the meaning of it all, I actually went over to the breaker switch and cut off electricity to the house and wrote with pen and paper.
To elaborate on silence being the presence of everything: When you’re in the presence of natural silence you’re not alone, and you can feel it. Whether it’s the distant sounds coming from miles away, or the close proximity of a giant tree whose warm tones you can feel, there’s a presence, a definition of the living space, which is conveyed through the natural amphitheater that amplifies the sound. It’s a quieting experience.