I’m sitting with my back against a rotting, red log, my chin resting on my knees as I hug them in toward my chest.
I close my eyes, and listen. There’s the drip, drip, drip of rain hitting the hood of my jacket. There’s the sound of leaves rustling as I fidget, trying to find a more comfortable position without sitting on the wet moss and soaking my pants. There’s my own breath, which suddenly seems like an absurdly loud nuisance I can’t escape. In fact, I feel like I’m messing up the very thing I came out here to find: silence.
I’m in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, at a spot that has been christened the “quietest square inch in the United States” by Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who spent more than three decades traveling the globe and making sound records of pristine environments. These days, however, he is more concerned with protecting these soundscapes than in documenting them — starting with the very patch of forest where I’m sitting.
I got directions to the site from Hempton himself, after driving out from Seattle with my two friends Amy and Sarah to visit him in his yurt near the town Joyce. Walking into his home, I noticed the tidiness of the place, the decorations against the white canvas (a drum in the style of a native northwest tribe, house plants), the books on the shelves (Mark Twain, Yann Martel, John Muir). But Hempton quickly redirected our attention.
“Let’s take a moment and just listen to my place,” he said. And so we did.
But after noticing some faint pitter-patter against the roof, my own quiet was quickly overtaken by my wandering mind, distracted by what my first interview question should be, where we could camp that night, the need to suppress a giggle. I’m sorry, but I was trying to listen to a yurt! Sometimes life is just delightfully wacky.
When Hempton broke the pause, it was clear he had been much more successful in the exercise. “See, when we listen to rain in a yurt structure, how you can get the information coming in,” he said. “After a few minutes, I really feel the texture of the cloud as well. It’s not just rain starting, but it will begin to pulsate.”
I’d totally missed the clouds. But then, Hempton has more practice at this than I do.
Hempton’s obsession with sound and silence began in the fall of 1980, when he was 27 (coincidentally, the same age I am now). En route from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin, to begin a graduate program in botany, he pulled off I-90 and lay his bedroll in a cornfield for the night. Then, as he describes in the book One Square Inch of Silence, he had what he now calls an epiphany:
Hands behind my head and ready for a deep rest, I lay between two rows of stubby, shorn stalks. I heard a wonderful, layered chorus of chanting crickets and began to smell the dampness of an approaching storm. There, on the prairie, the thunder rolled in from far away, signaling rain long before it arrived. Again and again this thunder boomed and echoed, growing ever-louder — magnificent, deep, primordial, soul-shaking sounds. I’d never heard thunder like this before.
Hours later and thoroughly soaked, I thought, “How could I be 27 years old and never truly have listened before?”
The difference between hearing and listening, and the discovery of how to really, wholly lend one’s ear, are revelations Hempton wishes more people could have. “After three days or so in the Hoh Valley or in Olympic Park, you find that all the chatter of the modern world that snuck aboard your backpack with you … loses relevance,” he told us, with sermon-like delivery. “It’s no longer important. What’s important is the beauty of nature.”
But the quiet spaces — defined not by their lack of sound, which could include birdsong and wind rustling leaves, but their lack of manmade noise —are quickly disappearing. By some estimates, noise pollution affects more than 88 percent of the contiguous U.S.
According to Hempton, the slice of forest I visited has less noise pollution than any other spot in the American wilderness, which is why he chose it as the “One Square Inch of Silence” he wants to sonically protect, with a law that would prohibit air traffic overhead.
The notion of protecting silence (which we typically think of as the absence of a thing, rather than a thing itself, like darkness) is still relatively obscure. So part of his plan is to get people to see — er, hear — what it’s all about for themselves. Which is why Hempton makes the “One Square Inch” coordinates publically available on his website, and actively encourages people to visit.
“We don’t have an environmental crisis at all,” he said. “What we have is a spiritual crisis. And our environment is tanking because of the way we’re living and our relationship to the world that supports us. It’s really about falling back in love with the earth.”
Regardless of the respect I feel for spirituality in the lives of others, my non-religious proclivities mean I tend to get squeamish when I sense a preach heading my way.
And Hempton’s rhetoric can certainly veer in that direction: He talks about his “epiphany” in the cornfield, and refers to visits to the Quietest Inch as “pilgrimages” to a “shrine.”
But he’s aware of how this can come across to others. When I tried to reframe silence as an indicator of the health of an ecosystem, he first responded, “Some people have trouble talking about the spiritual importance, or the importance for creativity in how it feeds into business and the economy.”
Still, there is no shortage of studies that link noisy environments to stress, cardiovascular health, and even premature death. And Gordon also heeds the importance of quiet beyond our own species. In fact, it seems his philosophy hinges on bringing humans back into the perspective that we’re not the only ones to inhabit this place.
He starts with the northern spotted owl. Without a background of relative quiet, these birds, many of which make the Hoh Rainforest their home, would not be able to eat. That’s because they use their freakishly good hearing to “see” their prey.
Hunting at night, owls can pinpoint exactly where their target is, even from 50 feet away. But what happens when you add a layer of distant highway noise to that background? “We remove night time feeding, until just a few hours of the morning when traffic gets sparse enough,” Hempton says.
There has been a whole host of studies documenting the effects of noise pollution on birds. Early studies, usually conducted in labs, investigated physiological impacts such as damage to the birds’ ears and their stress response. Later studies looked at changes in bird behavior in noisy environments, but it was still difficult to tell whether population decline near a highway was due to noise from the cars — or the animals getting turned into road kill.
In November 2013, a study out of Boise State University made an unquestionable connection between noise pollution and reduced bird populations for the first time. The researchers hung 15 speakers in Douglas fir trees on a roadless mountain ridge in southeast Idaho, and played real traffic noises they had recorded within Glacier National Park.
By the end of the study, overall bird abundance was cut by a quarter, and some particular species pretty much stopped showing up at all. (Imagine if they had taken their recording from Pike Place Market!)
As for northern spotted owls, we know that while they once lived all over the Pacific Northwest, their numbers have been reduced by more than 60 percent over the last 190 years, and the population of spotted owls worldwide continues to shrink by an average of 2.9 percent each year. The Olympic Peninsula contains what is perhaps the last stable population. Are they there for the quiet? What would happen to the bird if, like so much of the world, that soundscape also became polluted?
This isn’t a hypothetical question. According to Hempton, the interval between manmade noises from air traffic in Olympic National Park has shrunk from one hour to only twenty minutes over the last ten years. And given the rate at which air traffic is growing — not to mention the U.S. Navy’s ongoing proposal to expand its operations on the Olympic Peninsula — Hempton believes that, without intervention, we have every reason to believe that noise interval will continue to shrink.
Before we left his home, Hempton handed me a printout of detailed directions to the Quietest Inch, and a small, naturally red stone. “Anybody that reaches one square inch of silence can bring a small red stone … take the stone that’s there now and put that one down,” he explained. “There’s nothing magic about the stone, but symbols do count … the fact that it’s not just a stone, but a stone that has been at the quietest, least noise-polluted destination of any national park in the lower 48 — it gives a certain specialness, and that quiet is quieting.”
About three miles down the Hoh River Trail the next day, we’re on the lookout for a sitka spruce.
Afraid I’m going to miss it, I walk very slowly, pausing at nearly every tree to inspect it as the possible landmark. But when we finally reach it, it’s so obvious it’s the one: a big, stilted trunk with a portal-like opening through which you can walk. On the other side, we navigate around a couple of felled trees to a faint elk trail. After following it for a few hundred yards, we reach a mossy log – with a red stone, about the size of a golf ball, laid on its end.
My friends and I disperse, each claiming a slice of forest to hunker down. Assuming position, my internal questioning immediately take control. Why here and not, say, two miles further? How much of this is a gimmick? Does that matter? How long should we stay here? Are Sarah and Amy getting bored? What the heck am I going to write for this story?
I try to listen harder. My breath gets weird and shallow as I try to control it. There’s the river. An occasional bird call. Water drops sifting through leaves. I try to imagine what’s going on beneath the moss and the dirt, the whole ecosystem of fungus, worms, even microbes right beneath where I sit. What does that sound like?
I feel a sense of frustration, like I’m so close to being able to open myself up to what it mean to really listen, but I just can’t quite get there.
I think about a hike I took on a solo trip to southern Utah the month before. The first person to make the trek at least since the last storm the week before, I had broken trail through snow for four and a half miles to a pinnacle overlooking the barren desert, its intricate nooks and crannies, valleys and mesas stretching as far as I could see.
Well beyond the reach of any other human’s ear, I let out a howl. Looking back on it now, I guess I ruined a perfectly good piece of silence. But when I did, I was overcome with a sense of euphoria, a sense of wanting to to do better for the world, because I was so lucky to be in it.
What was that feeling?
My thumb strokes the red rock in my hand. Like the sounds surrounding me that I can’t hear but know are there, it might be beyond my left-brained analysis. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an experience worth safeguarding — and not just for the owls. For ourselves, too.
Samantha Larson is a Seattle-based freelance journalist and the science correspondent for Crosscut. She is also a contributor to RootsRated and has written for various other publications including Smithsonian.com, NationalGeographic.com, Grist.org, attn.com, mentalfloss.com, Jungles in Paris, Seattle Weekly, SAGE Magazine, and more. Tweet her @samantson or email her at email@example.com.
Photos by Amy Salowitz