One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World

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Emmy Award-winning acoustic ecologist has written the next Silent Spring—and forever changed our conception of conservation and activism.
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One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World

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Emmy Award-winning acoustic ecologist has written the next Silent Spring—and forever changed our conception of conservation and activism.
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  • One Square Inch of Silence
    One Square Inch of Silence  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"The day will come will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague." Nobel Prize–winning bacteriologist Robert Koch bellowed those words in 1905, but in the ensuing years, no one has apparently heard him. Nobody, that is, except acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has taken upon his outdoorsman shoulders the daunting task of protecting silence, "that endangered species." His One Square Inch of Silence occupies a soundless space that most of us have surrendered without recognizing the loss. Hempton describes how his temporary hearing loss served as a catalyst for his new sensory epiphany. A quirky topic until you start to listen.
Nora Krug
Hempton…is an endearing, quirky narrator. His appreciation of natural sounds—"the wisp of a floating leaf," the "strumming-humming" of a river—will make readers prick up their ears and wish this book had come with a soundtrack.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Though many Americans may think their country abounds in places free from human interference, acoustic ecologist and professional sound recordist Hempton readily proves otherwise. Armed with sound monitoring equipment and a well-defined goal-to find a spot that has "no audible human noise intrusions of any kind for a minimum of 15 minutes"-Hempton drives his VW bus from Seattle to Washington, D.C., visiting national parks and other anticipated sources of silence. Along the way, he contemplates the intricacies of his vehicle, the decline in songbird populations and the effects of noise stress in hospitals, while filling readers in on the basics of audio science. From rural Montana, and what may be the nation's quietest town, to his final hike through the C&O canal, beneath Ronald Reagan National air traffic, Hempton's travelogue is filled with absorbing descriptions of the nation's natural treasures, inviting readers to consider the effects of rare silence against chronic noise, and the difference a single law, to "prohibit all aircraft from flying over our most pristine national parks," could make: "If a loud noise... can affect many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100 percent noise-free condition, will likewise affect many square miles around it.".
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Christianity Today
Silence will soon be routinely considered in assessing 'the environment' rather than consigned to the far-out fringe and given nothing more than lip service. What do you call the audio equivalent of a visionary? We lack a word, but we have a salient example: Gordon Hempton, who describes the 'soul hunger' . . . that animates his passion for natural sound. His account of a road trip across America, taking the measure of our soundscapes, may fundamentally change the way you listen.
Library Journal

Hempton, a self-described acoustic ecologist, is an Emmy Award-winning sound recordist who has been recording nature sounds for over 25 years. Disturbed by the amount and volume of unnecessary and disruptive sound filling our lives indoors and out, he created in 2005 the One Square Inch (OSI) initiative, marked by a red stone in Washington State's Olympic National Park. To promote his cause, he takes a road trip to Washington, DC, along the way meeting with friends and colleagues, hiking to "quiet" locations where aerial tourism via helicopters/planes or simply commercial airplanes flying their routes ruins the natural silence, stops at a newly constructed concert hall and library to discuss acoustics and sound with engineers, and visits a major ear plug manufacturer. The final chapter recounts his DC meetings with governmental representatives in which he attempts to discuss OSI in particular and sound pollution in general. The meetings are brief, superficial, and bureaucratic in nature and provide little reason to support a cross-country excursion. Although Hempton is in his fifties, he comes across as a rather naive "noise nut" rather than a sophisticated adult skilled in advancing his cause. For large environmental collections. [An audio CD of natural sounds recorded by Hempton will be included with the book.-Ed.]
—Michael D. Cramer

Kirkus Reviews
A "Sound Tracker" travels from Washington state to Washington, D.C., measuring and recording noise, ruminating, interviewing and fulminating. The description of this odyssey is rendered in the first-person voice of Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and Emmy-winning sound recordist who provides audio clips to various media outlets and sells CDs of nature's sounds of silence. (Freelance journalist Grossman makes an appearance late in the text as a companion and ally.) In 2005 Hempton established what he calls "One Square Inch of Silence" in Olympic National Park's Hoh Rain Forest. He believes it is the quietest spot in America and has been lobbying hard to maintain it, principally by working to have airlines alter flight patterns to avoid national parks. After a quick explanation of how he became interested in the science of silence, Hempton takes us aboard a 1964 VW bus on an eccentric road trip that zigzags here and there to enable him to introduce us to various people-both professionals and ordinary folks-whom he enlists to tell part of the story. Many of the verbatim conversations are stilted; people talk in thick, organized and often eye-glazing paragraphs. Comments such as "another blade of grass is a different poem" sound like "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handey. In addition, the authors' determination to mention the brand name of apparently every item used may lead cynical readers to wonder if they received product-placement fees. (Do we need to know that the alarm clock came from Radio Shack?) Like many a True Believer, Hempton frequently employs a grating tone of moral superiority. This invites readers to look for hypocrisy: Why did he drive such a noisy, gas-wasting vehicle? He did walkthe final 100 miles into D.C., where he lobbied some bureaucrats and one of his senators. An important message tucked inside an unappealing bottle. Agent: Diane Bartoli/Artists Literary Group
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416559085
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2009
  • Edition description: Book and CD
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 9.24 (w) x 6.24 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Gordon Hempton

Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist and Emmy Award-winning sound recordist. For nearly 25 years he has provided professional audio services to musicians, galleries, museums, and media producers, including Microsoft, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discovery, National Public Radio, and numerous other businesses and organizations. He has received recognition from the Charles A. Lindbergh Fund, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. He studied botany and plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. His sound portraits, which record quickly vanishing natural soundscapes, have been featured in People Magazine, a national PBS television documentary, "Vanishing Dawn Chorus," which earned him an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Individual Achievement.” Hempton has now circled the globe three times in pursuit of environmental sound portraits. His new audio series—Environmental Sound Portraits—is the first new work to appear in more than a decade. He lives in Port Angeles, WA.

John Grossmann has been a freelance writer of magazine articles and books for nearly all of his working career. He has written on as wide a range of topics as implied by the following list of magazines that have published his work: Air & Space/Smithsonian, Audubon, Cigar Aficionado, Esquire, Geo, Gourmet, Health, Inc., National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, Parade, Saveur, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, and USA Weekend. He ghostwrote the 2006 book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads (Ten Speed Press); and before that wrote the 100-year history of one of the nation’s oldest and most successful summer camps, YMCA Camp Belknap, which he attended as a camper and leader and where his two sons have also been campers and leaders.

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Read an Excerpt


Sounds of Silence

The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague." So said the Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch in 1905. A century later, that day has drawn much nearer. Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies — earplugs, noise cancellation headphones, even noise abatement laws — offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land. And the land is speaking.

We've reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis requires that we make permanent life-style changes. More than ever before, we need to fall back in love with the land. Silence is our meeting place.

It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may. Long before the noises of mankind, there were only the sounds of the natural world. Our ears evolved perfectly tuned to hear these sounds — sounds that far exceed the range of human speech or even our most ambitious musical performances: a passing breeze that indicates a weather change, the first birdsongs of spring heralding a regreening of the land and a return to growth and prosperity, an approaching storm promising relief from a drought, and the shifting tide reminding us of the celestial ballet. All of theseexperiences connect us back to the land and to our evolutionary past.

One Square Inch of Silence is more than a book; it is a place in the Hoh Rain Forest, part of Olympic National Park — arguably the quietest place in the United States. But it, too, is endangered, protected only by a policy that is neither practiced by the National Park Service itself nor supported by adequate laws. My hope is that this book will trigger a quiet awakening in all those willing to become true listeners.

Preserving natural silence is as necessary and essential as species preservation, habitat restoration, toxic waste cleanup, and carbon dioxide reduction, to name but a few of the immediate challenges that confront us in this still young century. The good news is that rescuing silence can come much more easily than tackling these other problems. A single law would signal a huge and immediate improvement. That law would prohibit all aircraft from flying over our most pristine national parks.

Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It lives here, profoundly, at One Square Inch in the Hoh Rain Forest. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature, and lets us know who we are. Left with a more receptive mind and a more attuned ear, we become better listeners not only to nature but to each other. Silence can be carried like embers from a fire. Silence can be found, and silence can find you. Silence can be lost and also recovered. But silence cannot be imagined, although most people think so. To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it.

Silence is a sound, many, many sounds. I've heard more than I can count. Silence is the moonlit song of the coyote signing the air, and the answer of its mate. It is the falling whisper of snow that will later melt with an astonishing reggae rhythm so crisp that you will want to dance to it. It is the sound of pollinating winged insects vibrating soft tunes as they defensively dart in and out of the pine boughs to temporarily escape the breeze, a mix of insect hum and pine sigh that will stick with you all day. Silence is the passing flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, chirping and fluttering, reminding you of your own curiosity.

Have you heard the rain lately? America's great northwest rain forest, no surprise, is an excellent place to listen. Here's what I've heard at One Square Inch of Silence. The first of the rainy season is not wet at all. Initially, countless seeds fall from the towering trees. This is soon followed by the soft applause of fluttering maple leaves, which settle oh so quietly as a winter blanket for the seeds. But this quiet concert is merely a prelude. When the first of many great rainstorms arrives, unleashing its mighty anthem, each species of tree makes its own sound in the wind and rain. Even the largest of the raindrops may never strike the ground. Nearly 300 feet overhead, high in the forest canopy, the leaves and bark absorb much of the moisture...until this aerial sponge becomes saturated and drops re-form and descend farther...striking lower branches and cascading onto sound-absorbing moss drapes...tapping on epiphytic ferns...faintly plopping on huckleberry bushes...and whacking the hard, firm salal leaves...before, finally, the drops inaudibly bend the delicate clover-like leaves of the wood sorrel and drip to leak into the ground. Heard day or night, this liquid ballet will continue for more than an hour after the actual rain ceases.

Recalling the warning of Robert Koch, developer of the scientific method that identifies the causes of disease, I believe the unchecked loss of silence is a canary in a coal mine — a global one. If we cannot make a stand here, if we turn a deaf ear to the issue of vanishing natural quiet, how can we expect to fare better with more complex environmental crises?

Gordon Hempton
— Snowed in at Joyce, WashingtonCopyright © 2009 by Gordon Hempton and John Grossmann

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Table of Contents

Prologue Sounds of Silence

1 Silent Thunder
2 The Quiet Path
3 Hitting the Road
4 Urban Wilderness
5 Endangered Quiet Beauty
6 The Earth Exposed
7 The Rocky Road to Quietude
8 NatureÕs Symphony in Decline


9 Toxic Noise
10 Seeking MuirÕs Music
11 Hundred-Mile Walk to Washington
12 Washington, D.C.

Epilogue Echoes

Appendix A Correspondence with James Fallows
Appendix B Indianapolis Noise Profiles
Appendix C Kempthorne Letter
Appendix D FAA Map of the Continental United States
Appendix E Sonic EKG of America
Appendix F Your Personal Quest for Quiet: A MiniÐUserÕs Manual


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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 2 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 19, 2009

    So compelling to me, a musician

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It has inspired me to be more aware of noise in my enviorment and to do something about it in order to protect my hearing and that of others. I am a teacher of music and a Nature lover and this book hit a sensitive spot.
    I hope to carry this book's lessons into my life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2009

    Amazing read! I tend to be a very picky reader, but my cousin told me about this new book so I decided to pick one up and check it out. When I saw the title I expected it to be boring, but I was engulfed in the story immediately. Highly recommended!!

    This book is not only a great read, but a compelling story as well. I am not generally interested in books of this sort, but when a relative raved about it I checked it out and loved it! The author, Gordon Hempton, does an excellent job with his descriptions and details. He brings his younger teenage daughter with him on his excursion and she is entirely horrendous towards him which also added a nice twist to this story. I found it to be very real and intriguing. 5 STARS!!

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