Photo by Sam Abell/National Geographic Society Image Collection
Listening for Quiet
Discover a silent sanctuary in Washington State’s Olympic National Park—a place so serene you can hear your heart beat
Sounds of Silence
Sound tracker Gordon Hempton talked with AARP Radio about his work and shared some of his beautiful nature recordings. Listen to an excerpt here, which includes the song of a Willie Wagtail, then visit www.primetimeradio.org to hear more.
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Credits: Rex Rystedt (top);
In what might be the quietest place in the continental United States, I hear Gore-Tex, the telling crackle of waterproofing. Squeak of boots. Water slapping against my hat, but I can’t tell if it’s fresh rain or drips from the canopy overhead, where old-growth branches lace together and turn the sky spruce-needle green.
Last winter’s storms knocked down trees 100 feet long, 8 feet tall at the broken-off bases, but already lichen, shelf fungus, flowers the size of pinheads, punctuate fallen logs. A dozen kinds of ferns twirl around scatters of bark, and soon entire glades will spring up, with leaves stretching far to find open sunshine.
I’ve come to Hoh Rain Forest to learn to listen again. In Olympic National Park—if Washington State is shaped like a mitten, the park is at the thumb’s tip—I’m hoping that by paying close attention in two sonically different environments, deep forest and ocean, I’ll learn what the world sounds like when it’s talking only to itself.
I need that, because modern life bludgeons us with sound. Cheap car stereos have more amplification than the Beatles used at Shea Stadium. Thanks to the endless hiss of traffic, 6:00 A.M. lawn mowers, the clang of construction, that annoying cell phone jangle, we live inside noise. Even when we think we’re in a silent place, we’re not. Tests show that if you ask relaxed Americans to hum, the note they’ll most likely produce is a B-natural—the same as the electricity roaring through the wires everywhere surrounding us.
And in what is arguably the quietest place in the continental United States—in one of the country’s most spectacular remaining roadless wilderness areas, far from the raucous works of man—I can’t manage to be silent. I inadvertently bump my walking stick; it falls, clatters against a tree trunk like a wind-up drumming monkey, before it comes to rest in a patch of moss that’s a green I’ve seen before only when twilight hits closing water lilies.
In 2005 Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-winning natural-sounds recording artist who was recovering from a bout of temporary deafness and horrified by the noise around him, chose this tiny spot of land in the Hoh Rain Forest—latitude 47º 51' 959" N, longitude 123º 52' 221" W, to be exact—and declared it a sanctuary of quiet. The One Square Inch project was born.
Gordon’s idea was simple: noise radiates, so silence should, too. “One Square Inch is just that, an inch I’m defending from noise,” he tells the three of us—two young women and me, a motley trio of sound pilgrims. It makes sense: a passing plane can shatter the quiet of a thousand acres; a car alarm can be heard for a mile. Protect just one inch from sound, and the quiet should radiate even more powerfully than noise does. “Can one square inch of quiet manage a thousand square miles around it? So far, every indication is that it can,” says Gordon.
Along the three-mile hike in, we stop for slugs, for snails the color of beach sand, for snakes—sure they’re doing an eerie impression of tree roots. The Hoh River, cloudy with glacial silt, parallels us, turning gravity into music, the ever-downhill rush to the ocean.
“I wanted the Inch to be a place where nobody could argue that it should be quiet,” Gordon explains. About 15 minutes back, the soundscape changed as we crossed a low ridge: the river dropped away, and this tiny valley, Mount Tom Creek Meadow, seemed to hold quiet like a secret.
Gordon checks noise levels with a sound meter. The forest—wind, trees, river, two or three unseen birds calling from the underbrush—comes in at 27 decibels, which is much, much quieter than normal conversation level. Or, to put it more simply, the ringing in my ears is the loudest thing I hear.
We cross under a tree shaped like an upside-down wishbone, tramp through mud that grabs at my boots, and head into the deeper forest along an old elk trail. And there, without any fanfare but a tiny marker, is the Inch.
We scatter, each staking out a bit of territory. At first I hear only the sounds of the other people, also all boots and Gore-Tex, all trying really hard not to move, not to breathe loudly, but then the longer I sit, the more I hear. The bass line of the distant river. Birds provide the treble. A woodpecker offers percussion while I watch a translucent spider, no bigger than a match head, work a triangular fern leaf, and mosquitoes, one of nature’s only drone sounds, zero in on our exposed skin.
Then the noise comes.
The small plane flying north more than doubles the ambient sound of the Inch, and we react to the intruder as a threat: drawing in, tracking the source, hunching for cover until the last traces of engine noise finally die away. “I’m driving eight hours for silence, and people still interrupt that,” a member of our trio, Robin Brooks, says later.
I wonder what we lose when we lose the last bit of country where our sounds don’t reach and we have no respite at all. Surely that would be a failure of imagination, a blight on that great American dream of room for everything—everything, it seems, but the perfect quiet of nature.
When I leave the Inch, I’m not quite sure what I’ve heard. The river muffled by rain and distance. Wind striking notes on trees with leaves, trees with needles, the dead-end sound when it crashes against giant Sitka spruce trunks. Although the line of sight in the forest is almost nothing—every view is blocked by old growth—I hear at distances I’m simply not accustomed to, hearing too many things I can’t identify. I’m sure that was an owl a mile or so off, but I can’t begin to name the other half-dozen species of birds that chirped and hooted and harrumphed. We have somehow turned into strictly visual creatures, forgetting that animals define their home by knowing its every sound.
But maybe even worse than the airplane is the fact that the entire time I was at the Inch, trying to listen to the world, what I heard were the noises inside my own head. “When you’re in a really quiet place,” Gordon said, “it forces you to see who you are.” Apparently I am someone whose mind resembles nothing so much as a bunch of clowns in a pie fight. One thought appears, another jumps in, and soon a thousand more are in the fray, sacrificing quiet like an innocent wiping whipped cream off her glasses.
Maybe my next stop, Rialto Beach, will help. Olympic National Park not only includes the mountainous interior but sprawls along a large chunk of Washington’s Pacific coastline. Rialto Beach is, according to Gordon, “the most musical beach in the world,” and the ocean always soothes. “Meditation and water are wedded forever,” wrote Melville in Moby Dick. The Koran even says that God created us out of water.
From the Hoh to Rialto shouldn’t take more than a couple hours, but I make four or five wrong turns and get lost. That’s okay, though. I keep finding things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise: shivering body surfers, families picnicking, a view of James Island—a tower of rock that looks like a leftover castle from an old fantasy movie—shading fishing boats whose cleats and lines squeak like cricket wings.
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At last, on the western edge of the continent, a line of driftwood shields waves from the inland world. I pick a trail through logs weathered to skin smoothness, and quite suddenly, a fraction of a second before Rialto’s ocean horizon comes into sight, its sound appears. The dominant note is a low-pitched hum, like a far-off factory running impossibly large machines. Wave patterns overlay that: three small waves followed by a larger wave that comes nearly to where my feet are dug into the sand. Finally, a sound almost too fragile for me to pick up until I’ve sat and listened for over an hour: the purr of water pulling back over rocks, like particularly delicate wind chimes.
Once I’m sure I’ve heard all the notes, I do what I always do in a place like this. I search for just the right pebble as a gift for the person dearest to me, a little piece of the world, so she knows, when I was in a beautiful place, I was thinking about her.
But isn’t that a disruption as real as a plane overhead? Once again, I’m importing the noise of my own thoughts into this quiet place, and just as had happened at the Inch, I go long stretches when I have no idea at all what sounds I’m hearing.
“There’s nothing to learn about listening,” Gordon said. “We’re all animals; we all know how. We’re all good listeners when we’re at our most natural.” I think about times when I have been utterly entranced by sound: listening to a Bach suite, cello echoing; the roo-roo bark my dog makes when she’s indignant. And my favorite sound of all, the nearly complete silence of the woman I love, sleeping.
“To listen for something is one of the worst things a person can do,” Gordon went on. “Just open up.” And it’s true: all those moments, every highlight of sound I can recall from my past, I wasn’t listening. I was simply there. And here, the crash of the ocean tells me that’s enough.
Edward Readicker-Henderson is writing a book on the world’s quietest spots.