One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet


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In the visionary tradition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, One Square Inch of Silence alerts us to beauty that we take for granted and sounds an urgent environmental alarm. Natural silence is our nation’s fastest-disappearing resource, warns Emmy-winning acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has made it his mission to record and preserve it in all its variety—before these soul-soothing terrestrial soundscapes vanish completely in the ever-rising din of man-made noise. Recalling the great works on nature written by John Muir, John McPhee, and Peter Matthiessen, this beautifully written narrative, co-authored with John Grossmann, is also a quintessentially American story—a road trip across the continent from west to east in a 1964 VW bus. But no one has crossed America like this. Armed with his recording equipment and a decibel-measuring sound-level meter, Hempton bends an inquisitive and loving ear to the varied natural voices of the American landscape—bugling elk, trilling thrushes, and drumming, endangered prairie chickens. He is an equally patient and perceptive listener when talking with people he meets on his journey about the importance of quiet in their lives. By the time he reaches his destination, Washington, D.C., where he meets with federal officials to press his case for natural silence preservation, Hempton has produced a historic and unforgettable sonic record of America. With the incisiveness of Jack Kerouac’s observations on the road and the stirring wisdom of Robert Pirsig repairing an aging vehicle and his life, One Square Inch of Silence provides a moving call to action. More than simply a book, it is an actual place, too, located in one of America’s last naturally quiet places, in Olympic National Park in Washington State.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416559108
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 03/02/2010
Pages: 356
Sales rank: 298,266
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

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.

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

Table of Contents

Prologue Sounds of Silence 1

1 Silent Thunder 5

2 The Quiet Path 12

3 Hitting the Road 41

4 Urban Wilderness 56

5 Endangered Quiet Beauty 86

6 The Earth Exposed 121

7 The Rocky Road to Quietude 157

8 Nature's Symphony in Decline 180

Interlude 203

9 Toxic Noise 207

10 Seeking Muir's Music 244

11 Hundred-Mile Walk to Washington 252

12 Washington, D.C. 274

Epilogue Echoes 316

Appendix A Correspondence with James Fallows 323

Appendix B Indianapolis Noise Profiles 328

Appendix C Kempthorne Letter 329

Appendix D FAA Map of the Continental United States 332

Appendix E Sonic EKG of America 334

Appendix F Your Personal Quest for Quiet: A Mini-User's Manual 336

Acknowledgments 343

Index 345

What People are Saying About This

Ken Burns

"After a while we begin to sense that it is silence that is our greatest teacher. The interval between musical notes. The pauses in a play or speech or conversation. The awe-inspiring cloisters of our civilizations. But it is in nature, as this wonderful gem of a book reveals, that we find the real blessing of silence."

From the Publisher

"After a while we begin to sense that it is silence that is our greatest teacher. The interval between musical notes. The pauses in a play or speech or conversation. The awe-inspiring cloisters of our civilizations. But it is in nature, as this wonderful gem of a book reveals, that we find the real blessing of silence." — Ken Burns, filmmaker

"This superb book by the world's finest listener will change forever the way you hear both the natural and unnatural sounds of our planet. Hempton's continent-wide search for peace and tranquility in the music of nature is a cause to which we should all rally." — Donald Kroodsma, author of The Singing Life of Birds

"America's magnificent landscapes define us as a people and shape us as a nation — they feed us body and soul. Conserving these lands, and the silence they afford is one of our greatest national challenges. Hempton has done us a great service by calling us to action — saving one square inch of silence should not be a spectator sport." — Lawrence A. Selzer, President and CEO of The Conservation Fund

"Silence is the wellspring of creation. A feast of silence is the only way into the understanding of nature. To listen to silence is to expand the spirit and cure the soul. Gordon Hempton takes us by the hand to visit this idea in his One Square Inch of Silence." — Diana Beresford-Kroeger, author of Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest

"Visitors to America's national parks come for peace and inspiration. But as Hempton shows, this fundamental experience is increasingly rare. Hempton does a fabulous job of detailing the challenges facing the National Park Service and the politics of noise. This is an important book for all nature lovers." — Tom Kiernan, NPCA President

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