Earth Music – Soundscapes of America’s Quiet Places

 

by Susie Ruth

“Silence is like scouring sand,” says Gordon Hempton, an award-winning acoustic ecologist. “When you are quiet, the silence blows against your mind and etches away everything soft and unimportant. What is left is what is real: pure awareness and the very hardest questions.”

It’s not easy to find silence, which is facing extinction in the modern world. If a quiet place is one where you can listen for 15 minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River and perhaps 12 in the American West, including one square inch in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park, now officially recognized as the quietest place in the United States (OneSquareInch.org). In defending this exemplary spot of silence, Hempton is effectively protecting the soundscape of about 1,000 square miles of surrounding land.

Hempton defines silence not as noiselessness, but “the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”

Silence, he would concur, is not the absence of sound, but a way of living—an intention to make of one’s own ears, one’s own body, a sounding board that resonates with the vibrations of the world. Silence creates an opening, an absence of self, which allows the larger world to enter into our awareness. It brings us into contact with what is beyond us, its beauty and mystery.

Hempton encourages us all to join in the self-discovery of nature. He’s found, “All we have to do is listen.” Sounds, more than sight, connect us, he observes. In learning to listen to nature’s nuances, we also learn how to listen to one another. His favorite time of day for listening to nature is 30 minutes before sunrise. When the atmosphere is still, “It is not unusual to hear many square miles at once.”

Astonishment and gratitude illuminate our being when light breezes play across leaves and set them in motion, chirruping night insects wind down and the birds’ dawn chorus begins. When our moving a stone in a creek bed alters the water music, it is we who are moved. No one knows why natural sounds speak so directly to the human spirit, but we all acknowledge, in silent thanksgiving, that they do.

Gordon Hempton, of Port Angeles, WA, is an acoustic ecologist whose award-winning recordings of America’s vanishing natural soundscapes support his campaign to protect the silence of our national parks (SoundTracker.com). Over the past 25 years, he has circled the globe three times in pursuit of environmental sound portraits. Read One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World and voice support at OneSquareInch.org/links.

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