While the pandemic has seen many of us locked down, the natural world has been finding ways to recuperate—and sound tracker and acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, can hear it happening. He talks to Kristin Kent about his quest to find and preserve the world’s quiet places.
Soundscapes by Gordon Hempton, the sound tracker
Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton is full of one-liners. That headline that caught your attention? That’s his. “Earth is a solar-powered jukebox.” Also his.
For over 30 years, Hempton has traveled the world in search of quiet. He’s recorded inside Sitka spruce logs, or ‘nature’s violin’, as he calls them. He’s recorded storms rushing the Kalahari Desert, and the moon setting across six continents. Hempton defines quiet as presence—not a lack of sound, but a lack of man-made noise. He believes silence is a part of our human nature; “a birthright”, he says.
From 2005 to 2018, Hempton campaigned to designate the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park in the United States an official quiet park, founding One Square Inch of Silence. His efforts garnered more than 300 million media impressions, but fell on deaf political ears. He has since shifted his focus with Quiet Parks International and has established the world’s first wilderness quiet park, in Zabalo, Ecuador. There are at least 262 more sites worldwide that Hempton would like to see certified and preserved.
When I first spoke with Hempton in February 2020—pre-pandemic—he was fresh from recording the vastness of the Haleakala crater in Hawaii, still buzzing from birdsong. I was eager to ask about the quietest places on earth—places I could go to escape the bustle. I did not expect air travel to come to a complete halt shortly after we spoke.
Before the world locked down, Hempton told me that if nothing was done to preserve and protect quiet places from noise—aircraft, expressways, naval transport, industry, and more—natural quiet may be non-existent; extinct.
Oh, how things have changed. What’s more, we’ve seen that change is possible.
In the early stages of the 2020 pandemic, CO2 emissions from transport alone decreased 40 per cent, which got me thinking: What’s happening to quiet now? “The earth is healing,” Gordon tells me over the phone from his home in Seattle.
Do yourself a favor: Grab a pair of headphones so you can hear the sounds of silence from the locations we discuss. They’re not what you expect.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Kristin Kent: How have you been during the pandemic?
Gordon: While I miss going to church—nature—I know wildlife is thriving in this quiet. They’re able to hear themselves and others. There’s this robin that sings outside in the morning; he usually sounds like he’s testing out his vocal cords, like a march.
Well, imagine doing that every morning with the background sounds of traffic? Your voice gets muffled. Now that it’s a ghost town, it’s like he’s discovered his voice. He’s singing to his full capabilities.
I hadn’t thought of bird song that way before.
Sound is information and we are still disconnected from that. Sound also indicates our level of security—an approaching storm, an approaching predator. And as soon as we add noise to a natural environment, everything else gets totally messed up.
Let’s dispel the myth that we’re visually dominant, that our eyes are more important than our ears. If our eyes are so important, why are they in front of our head? And if visual information is so important, why do we have eyelids that let us shut off from the environment? Even while we’re sleeping, our ears are hearing and the brain is listening.
What happened? Why don’t we use our ears more?
During the industrial revolution, ‘seeing’ became economically valuable. Our culture has evolved to the point where not only is noise pollution an epidemic and in all four corners of the globe, we no longer listen first, then see. We experience the world upside down.
“Get yourself a microphone. Get in to a natural environment and notice how you feel. This is what I call ‘adventure listening’, because you don’t know what you’re going to hear when you get there.”
Do we just not listen well anymore?
Our ears are designed like musical instruments—not to sound a certain way but to listen a certain way. If you’re up at Yosemite in the middle of the night, you likely won’t hear anything. But if you put your ear to the ground, there’s music—and I’m not speaking poetically here.
Listen to the recording of the Soda Springs and you’ll say: “Oh my god, how is this possible?” There’s no human behind it, but you’ll hear the trumpet section, the brass section, the percussions. You’ll walk away from that experience with your body still moving.
How do you decide if a place is quiet or not?
If you can have a 15-minute, noise-free interval at dawn, you’re on the list of the world’s last great quiet places. Now wait, you might say, “That can’t be true. I was just at the Everglades and I didn’t hear a thing all day long.”
In a way, you didn’t listen fully all day long. When we listen fully, the noise-free interval is really quite short. And that’s largely due to aircraft transportation noise, the number one form of noise pollution in the world.
A 15-minute break between noise at dawn. What else?
It also helps if there is a unique acoustic feature. At Olympic National Park, there is something that I called nature’s largest violin, which is a Sitka tree.
The last thing that ticks off the checkboxes is cultural significance. Think of Haleakala, which, to my experience and by reputation, is the quietest place on earth. The ancient Hawaiians did not have a written language. They were very good listeners and recognized the value of silence. They have more than 100 words to describe the different sounds of wind. How many words do we have?
Where else have you experienced awe from quiet?
Sinharaja Forest in Sri Lanka has beautiful acoustics in the forest. When the stars begin to pop out at night, the insects and frogs begin to set up their concert.
I remember laying there and looking up at the Milky Way in the sky. The countless voices in the forest perfectly matched the Milky Way. When you get caught up in something like that, you just feel the weight of everything lift off of you. And it’s as if you disappear.
I don’t think I’ve ever listened like you have in my life—and I go into the forest to seek quiet on purpose. What can I do to become a better listener?
Get yourself a microphone. Get in to a natural environment and notice how you feel. This is what I call ‘adventure listening’, because you don’t know what you’re going to hear when you get there. You might think you know, but a microphone will teach you differently.
You want me to go out into the quiet… with a microphone?
The microphone doesn’t have a brain. It doesn’t have bad habits, but your brain does. Pick up a microphone and your brain will say, “Wow, this thing is important. I wonder what it hears.”
And when you listen through a microphone, you actually hear the world as it really is. We’re all born listeners. A young child still listens as we were designed to be. They’re just taking everything in. You can do that too.
“I believe in humanity—and I’m tired of hearing about the environmental crisis. It’s a spiritual crisis. Covid has created temporary quiet, but there’s a difference between temporary and designated quiet.”
How does quiet impact our lives for the better?
When you come back from a trip to a quiet place, you’ll test better, you’ll perform better at work, you’ll just be okay. You won’t be carrying an attitude of a noise-polluted world, but you’ll actually be who you were born to be—the healthy version of you. It’s in those quiet environments that we can listen to what nature is telling us. The land is speaking to us, of course not in English or an Indigenous language, but it’s speaking to our senses.
Last year, you created Quiet Parks International, which opened the world’s first quiet wilderness park in Zabalo, Ecuador. How did you choose that location?
I had a conversation with the chief. I knew they were trying to raise money to defend their lands from foreign exploitation. Corporations are trying to extract their oil, timber, gold. The people there do not want to sell—even for billions of dollars. It’s their heritage, but the world is coming for them anyway.
They need money to defend themselves in courts. I don’t want us, Quiet Parks International, to go to the land owners or land managers and say, “This is what you have, and it’s something that’s really valuable. We know what’s good for you.” That’s coming from the outside.
We want to find locations where people, cultures, managers are already struggling to preserve the quiet. They already recognize that, and we’re going to help them.
Are you hopeful, Gordon?
I believe in humanity—and I’m tired of hearing about the environmental crisis. It’s a spiritual crisis. Covid has created temporary quiet, but there’s a difference between temporary and designated quiet.
And we can’t leave it to government. Olympic National Park—the site of One Square Inch of Silence, a biosphere and UNESCO World Heritage site—is recognized as a natural resource to be managed and preserved. Today, the US Navy is flying growler jets over the park for its electronic warfare exercises. A growler flying over you is loud enough that you should be wearing hearing protection.
So what needs to happen?
We simply need to fall back in love with earth. The scientific data are not going to make a difference. We make our choices based on our experiences, not our information. What’s absolutely essential is to save these quiet places so that people can go to the quiet and get turned back on.