Silence project is one man’s start at preserving quiet in national parks
Reclining against the trunk of a western hemlock tree, arms behind his head, Gordon Hempton listens closely to the quiet symphony of nature.
The rumble of the Hoh River in the distance. A winter wren’s trill. The chattering of a Douglas squirrel.
Perhaps more striking is what’s missing. There is no sound of airplane traffic, campground generators or overchatty hikers – all sounds that Hempton says are disturbing the peace at national parks across the country.
The abundance of quiet in this small spot led Hempton to place a small reddish-brown rock on a moss-covered log here last year, designating the remote spot in western Washington’s Hoh Rain Forest “One Square Inch of Silence.”
The acoustic ecologist’s hope is that by protecting this tiny spot from man-made sound, a much larger part of the park will reap benefits.
“Quiet is going extinct,” Hempton said. “I wanted to find a quiet place and hang on to it and protect it.”
National park officials like the concept.
“We’re certainly aware of the need to take whatever measures we can to maintain the natural quiet,” said park Superintendent Bill Laitner, who hiked to the spot with Hempton earlier this year. “We are so strapped for resources that there’s just no way we can . . . do this kind of research on our own.”
National park officials recently released a draft general management plan – including goals and strategies for protecting natural quiet and soundscapes – that will be finalized in the coming year. But Hempton says the draft, as written, doesn’t go far enough.
He wants Olympic National Park added to the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of no-flight zones for all aircraft. He also wants the park to hire a full-time acoustic ecologist and to complete a comprehensive sound survey within the next five years.
But Laitner said that while national parks across the country want to preserve natural quiet, they’ll never be able to afford to implement all the changes Hempton wants. With 30 former full-time positions currently unfilled, he says an acoustic engineer for Olympic National Park “will never make its way high on the priority list.”
In response, Hempton has set up an account to organize a not-for-profit organization to help pay for the monitoring of the site.
His “One Square Inch” album – an hour-long recording of soundscapes from the park – is available on iTunes and the One Square Inch website, with proceeds going toward his project, including paying for his travel expenses to the site, and letters and audio CDs he sends to those he considers noise violators.
Hempton makes his living recording and selling nature soundscapes and by providing audio consultation to companies, including Microsoft. He won an Emmy for the 1992 PBS documentary “Vanishing Dawn Chorus” and has recorded sounds of nature on six continents.
“I’ve circled the globe three times in pursuing silent places,” he said. “Olympic National Park is the most sonically diverse, and is the national park that has the longest periods of natural quiet that I have observed.”
Hempton, who lives about two hours north in Joyce, visits the site about once a week in the spring, two to three times a month during the summer and about once a month in the winter. He uses a sound level meter to check the decibels, does some recording, and keeps a log of any “noise intrusions.”
On a recent hike, Hempton stopped along the trail at various times, holding up his sound level meter.
At one spot, the noise level was so low – just 26 decibels – that he observed, “Probably the loudest sound was a few drops of the alder leaves back there.”
The biggest noise violators, he said, are airplanes. Hempton says airplane noise at the park can range from 35 to 65 decibels – the highest levels comparable to a vacuum cleaner in the next room or a laundry dryer 2.5 metres away.
“Noise impact continues long after the sound itself is heard,” he said. “We aren’t really talking about noise levels that will impair our hearing, but we are talking about noise levels that will impair our listening.”
If he hears a jet engine overhead, he notes the time and later checks flight paths over the park, and sends a note to the airline along with an audio recording of the sound and asks them to no longer fly over the park.
Hempton has secured such an agreement from American Airlines, though an airline spokesman said there were never any plans to fly over the park anyway.
The three noisiest parks in the country are the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Hawaii volcanoes, mostly due to aerial tourism, Hempton said.
He first started seeking out natural quiet in the early 1980s, recording nature around the world. He was given a grant from the Lindbergh Foundation in 1989 to study soundscapes in Washington state. His final report outlined his one square inch idea.
Hempton said he found his square inch on Earth Day 2005, when he just kept walking until he got away from outside noise.
“I felt I was being ushered to a place,” he said. “I didn’t put a trail in to one square inch. I just followed an elk trail. It’s just such an out of the way, insignificant, pleasant, quiet place to be, I thought I’d place the stone there, and I did.”
His independent research project has drawn pilgrims who hike the more than five kilometres – detailed directions are on his website – to the place where they sit and just listen, and leave notes of praise in a “Jar of Quiet Thoughts” for this small piece of paradise.
Hempton won’t let the content of the notes be published out of respect for those for visit the site.
“It keeps those thoughts quiet,” he said.
Hempton hasn’t tried to replicate the one square inch project anywhere else, but encourages others to take up his cause in a national park near them.
“That’s part of the statement I’m making,” he said. Autor: Rachel La Corte