peace, quiet
Photo: Mauricio Alejo

The Sound of Silence

Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who specializes in recordings of nature, has focused his career on saving quiet. Several years ago, Hempton took his decibel meter on a cross-country quest to discover places of exceptional peace. He found none as tranquil as the Hoh Rain Forest, near his home in Washington. Hempton cowrote a book about his journey, called One Square Inch of Silence, after a spot in the middle of the Hoh that he marked with a stone on top of a log. Ever since, he has been lobbying the federal government and the National Park Service to make it, and the surrounding wilderness, a sanctuary of silence. "Protect that single square inch of land from noise pollution," he writes in the book, "and quiet will prevail over a much larger area of the park."

I reached Hempton by phone to get an update on his campaign. No progress, he said. "There's not a single place on Earth designated off-limits to noise pollution. Can you believe that?"; However, even though the Hoh wasn't an official sanctuary, he still considered it the quietest place in the lower 48. "I've been around the world three times," he said. "The Hoh Valley is the least intruded upon by noise. It's the purest acoustic environment." I asked Hempton what that meant. "Come find out for yourself,"he said.

So on a rainy day late last fall, Hempton and I—outfitted for an overnight stay—started walking east on the Hoh River Trail. Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red cedar trees as tall as city buildings dominated the canopy. The sky was a heavy gray gauze; this part of the Olympic Peninsula gets at least 140 inches of rain a year. Maple leaves the size of dinner plates littered the forest floor. The ground was a tangle of ferns and horizontal logs, the larger ones sprouting saplings from their mossy trunks. Birth, death, decay, renewal—everything was happening all at once. In its grandeur, the place felt holy, worthy of awe. And it sounded quiet. Sort of.

Next: The difference between real quiet and fake quiet


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