An Unquiet Nation
By Julia Baird
"There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm." —Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
"The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague." —Nobel Prize–winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, 1905
Silence is something you assume you will always be able to find if you need it. All you have to do is drive far enough in the right direction, trek through quiet fields or woods, or dive into the sea's belly. For true silence is not noiselessness. As audio ecologist Gordon Hempton defines it, silence is "the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed."
And silence, Hempton believes, is rapidly disappearing, even in the most remote places. He says there are fewer than a dozen places of silence—areas "where natural silence reigns over many square miles"—remaining in America, and none in Europe. In his book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, written with John Grossman, Hempton argues that silence—a precious, underrated commodity—is facing extinction. Over the past three decades Hempton has circled the earth three times, recording sound on every continent except Antarctica: butterfly wings fluttering, coyotes singing, snow melting, waterfalls crashing, traffic clanging, birds singing. His work has been used in film soundtracks, videogames, and museums.
He has also trekked through both remote and urban landscapes, measuring decibels and rude interruptions to the noises of nature. In 1983 he found 21 places in Washington state with noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or more. By 2007 there were three. (One of them is Olympic National Park, which he is trying to save, and he will not reveal the names of the others, arguing that they are protected by their anonymity.) Whom can we blame? People, and planes. Hempton claims that, during daytime, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas has shrunk to less than five minutes. Think of the snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone, helicopters flying over Hawaii volcanoes, and air tours over the Grand Canyon. It is air traffic that Hempton seems to resent the most: in his book, he travels across the United States in a 1964 VW bus, recording sound as he goes, from Washington state to Washington, D.C., where he meets with politicians and officials to press his case for the preservation of natural silence.
I spoke to Hempton about his work, his mission, and whether he is just a cranky leaf-blower-hating hippie.
Why should we care about silence?
Have you always been interested in silence? Were you a child with acutely sensitive hearing?
At college I majored in botany, and I was outdoors in vegetation all the time. But I did not really start thinking of silence until I was a graduate student in plant pathology, when I was driving from Seattle to Madison, Wis., and decided to sleep in a cornfield for the night. I didn't want to pay for a hotel. As I lay there I heard crickets, and rolling thunder in the background, which captivated me. The thunderstorm came, and I truly listened. The storm passed on, and as I lay there, drenched, the only thought in my mind was, how could I be 27 years old and never have truly listened before? I then took my microphone and tape recorder and went everywhere, obsessively listening—freight trains, hobos—it was a flood of sensation. I realized how we need to hear to survive—in evolution, earlids never developed, but eyelids did. And to those who know that true listening is worship, silence is one of nature's most transformative sermons. I am filled with gratitude to have heard it. Max Ehrmann was right-on when he wrote: "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence."
Could too much silence make you mad?
What can we do to save natural silence?
What has been the response to this campaign to reroute aircraft, which you outline in your book?
How do we find silence?
What would you say to people who might dismiss you as a mad hippie?
© 2010 Newsweek, Inc.
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