It turns out that quiet rarely means silent; Hempton considers it to be an absence of human-generated noise. In this case that meant a rainfall symphony—a tapping on fallen leaves, a tinkling in a shallow stream, like tiny glass chimes. High above I could hear grace notes of a few songbirds and the chattering of squirrels. And this was after I'd walked only a few minutes from the trailhead. I suddenly understood what Hempton meant by "pure acoustic environment."

When we reached One Square Inch of Silence late in the afternoon (it's a gentle, 3.2-mile hike), I sat leaning against the cedar log beneath Hempton's marker stone and felt as if I had a new set of ears—hypersensitive, acute, able to parse wondrous textures of sound. I could distinguish a dozen versions of falling water, half a dozen different rustles of leaves. Soon I stopped identifying sounds and simply let them wash over me. Only darkness falling got me to move.

Back to Nature

Biologists recognize that for animals, quiet is critical—prey need to hear the approach of predators, predators need to be able to hear the movement of their prey, and songbirds need to be heard to attract mates and ensure their survival as species.

People may be better equipped than animals to survive the noise we generate, but the loss of natural quiet would be a catastrophe for the human soul. Although One Square Inch may be the quietest place in the country, most of our national parks offer opportunities to tune out noise. And even if you can't get too far from the din of roads and major flight paths, you can still enjoy the primordial sounds of nature. As Kurt Fristrup told me, "If you want to go to a place that sounds like it did a thousand years ago, stand near a waterfall or some rapids on a river."

Such places are worth seeking out. And worth protecting. If enough souls become soothed by the beauty of natural sounds, maybe we'll collectively turn down the volume.

Next: Make space for silence in your life