Where Silence Reigns

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton is on a mission to protect one square inch of Earth from the noise of mankind.

Light / Dark

A steamy cafe perched hawk-like over the Puget Sound. Amid the clatter of dishes, the sizzle of frying eggs, and the nattering voices, a booming foghorn parts the mist, momentarily drowning the din. It’s ironic but apropos that amid all this noise, I’m sitting with a man whose mission is to preserve silence. Not a lot of silence, just one square inch. It’s a task, I’ll soon learn, that’s both admirable—and damn near impossible.

Gordon Hempton smiles across from me at the table. His broad face and bald head bristle with sterling-silver stubble. His skin is wind parched and ruddy, evidence of long hours spent working outdoors and bodysurfing cold waves off the desolate Washington Coast. As he begins his biographical narrative, his eyes—the color of the sky on a crystal clear day—sparkle like light on wavelets. He fixes them on me with the intensity of a man on a mission. Or perhaps it’s a madman’s stare. I’m not really sure, but it holds my attention.

“I was a bodysurfer long before I became a nature-sound recorder,” says Hempton, “and I didn’t really put the two together initially. But looking back at my life, I can see how surfing certainly contributed to what I do now. We cannot see the sonic world, but when we watch a swell develop it behaves exactly how sound behaves in our environment. Seeing how waves refract and work with each other helps me do my job. It shows me how if I sit in different positions, maybe just ten feet apart, I can put myself in a place to experience exactly the sound I’m looking for.”

Gordon Hempton’s ocean-loving spirit developed on the Coast Guard bases where his father served. The Hempton clan was always in motion—Gordon lived in six cities before the age of 16. Duty stations included Hawaii, Carmel, Monterrey, Los Angeles, Seattle, and the suburbs of Washington D.C. He learned to swim before he could walk and liked sinking deep into the water, where it was quiet and tranquil. He got his first dinged-up longboard in his mid-teens while visiting his grandparents in Delray Beach, Florida.

“It was about 10 feet long and felt like it weighed 80 pounds,” he says, “the glass was so thick. I struggled to drag it into the water. But once I got moving, I could walk all over the place. It was fun.”

Gordon soon decided, however, that the board didn’t offer enough of the waveriding experience. He wanted to be immersed in the wave’s energy. In a Zen nod to Caddyshack’s Ty Webb, he tells me, “I didn’t want to just ride the board. I wanted to be the board.” So he ditched the log and took up bodysurfing. “I loved it from the beginning,” he recalls. “It was so sensual. If you look at wave graphs, you can see muscularity in the lines. I could feel those lines of energy in my body.”

It was a first inkling that waves—both in the water and the air—would propel his life’s passions. But first, the somewhat aimless youth set out to wander the wilderness, trying for a time to live off the land, an experiment that resulted in two bouts with food poisoning, and a self-preservationist interest in plant biology. After earning a bachelor’s degree in botany at the University of Wisconsin, the only related job Gordon could secure was as a sod farm laborer, earning the agricultural minimum wage—$2.40 an hour. It wasn’t the lifestyle he envisioned while grinding through textbooks on plant pathology.

In the silence of big leaf maples in the Hoh rainforest. “In that grove,” says Hempton, “even though we are outdoors, it is as quiet as most recording studios. The measured decibel is 27, which is the same measurement that I made in Benaroya Hall in Seattle, empty of performers. And that’s a 110 million dollar building built for the Seattle Symphony. This is the least noise polluted location of any place in the Lower 48.” 

To furnish his billfold and pay off some debt, he headed west for what he thought would be a lucrative job as a crewman on an Alaskan longliner. Anyone who’s seen “The Deadliest Catch” knows that work on a deep-sea fishing boat is a brutally hard and perilous existence. “The first three days, I worked without a break and without a meal,” he says. “When I was through, not only was I not rich, I’d mangled my hand in the machinery. My only payoff was that I knew life would never be so painful and miserable again.”

On his way back to Wisconsin and graduate school, he took a soul-searching road trip across the Midwest. When the highway hallucinations began, he pulled off to the side of the road in Iowa. Conditioned to frugality, and unwilling to pay for a motel room, he bedded down in a cornfield. He lay there as the sun set, enjoying the symphony of chirping crickets and croaking frogs. A thundershower was developing and, as the skies darkened and lightening struck, he became transfixed by the booming that echoed across the plains. “I could feel the thunder reverberating off the landscape, revealing the forms of everything around me. And I thought, ‘How can I be 27 years old and I’ve never listened to a thunderstorm before?’”

As he lay there, soaked in rain, he regretted that he didn’t have some way to record the sounds. He also began grappling with an existential realization: he’d been sleep-walking through life, and the thunder had awakened him to a profound, epiphanic experience. “I knew a big change was needed. From that moment, I wanted to become a better listener.”

After completing the semester, he let go of grad school and returned to Seattle, intent on somehow making his way as a listener. The transformation posed challenges. The first was mental. In our modern world where manmade noises predominate, we become skilled at tuning out sounds—not tuning into them. Gordon had to unlearn that. “I realized that a microphone was a valuable way to improve my listening skills. It hears everything. When I would play back a recording, I’d discover how much I had missed in person.

At first he used low-fi equipment to collect the random sounds of the city—grunge music fans outside of a club, or the sounds of a street fair. For fun and adventure, he’d hop trains and record locomotives, or interview hobos. In the hours spent waiting for the next freight car, he’d listen to the birds, the streams, and the rustling of leaves. He began to record those too. 

He supported himself as a bicycle courier, earning $1 for each delivery he made. On his second day, he was hit by a car. But he persevered, sometimes making more than 100 deliveries over a 12-hour workday so that he could earn the money to pay for the high-end recording equipment he coveted. “I figured the cost at about 10,000 deliveries,” he said.

Eventually, though, he took a two-year hiatus from the streets, sold his car and a small piece of land, and invested more than $17,500 in a German binaural microphone system and a state-of-the-art Nagra tape recorder suited to nature recording. He began backpacking into remote areas, intent on finding destinations where no human sound intruded.

In 1986, he founded a publishing company, The Sound Tracker, and sold recordings through a Seattle fine-arts gallery. His unusual calling led to a People magazine profile. Its author caught up with Hempton while he was ankle-deep in a rising tide off the Washington Coast, where Hempton poetically observed, “The wave action is like raking your fingers over piano keys. All those pebbles are the notes.”

By that time, he’d sold only about 200 of his “rare native acoustics” recordings at prices ranging from $25 to $4,500. He was 35 years old and he and his wife, Julie, were still supporting their family by pedaling Seattle’s steep hills. Then, in 1989, he applied for and won a Lindbergh Foundation Grant in the amount of $10,580—the cost of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s transoceanic plane, The Spirit of St. Louis. The money finally got the Hemptons off their bicycles. 

Additional awards from Rolex and The National Endowment for the Arts provided Gordon the means to circumnavigate the planet. Ambitiously, he set out to record the sounds of dawn as the sun tracked across six continents. He took to calling the earth a “great solar-powered jukebox,” and the recordings “an endless tune to nourish life.” His global sound journey became the basis of a PBS documentary, Vanishing Dawn Chorus, narrated by Mike Farrell, best known for his work on the long-running TV show “M*A*S*H.” The film, which featured Gordon capturing sounds from the Australian Outback to the Amazon Delta, earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement. With the award came the Hemptons’ long hoped for financial independence. At last, Gordon didn’t have to explain to potential clients, including recording studios, feature filmmakers, software companies, ad agencies, and others, why his sounds merited their money. “Once you win an Emmy, you get to skip those conversations,” he says.

Searching for a place far from the madding urban noise of Seattle, and closer to ocean waves, he took a drive up the Olympic Peninsula, stopping in the small logging town of Port Angeles, which is nested on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and abuts Olympic National Park. He made an offer on a house that same day. The new home on the peninsula opened up opportunities for him to exercise his bodysurfing passion more regularly and explore the various surf spots along this remote Pacific Ocean outpost.

“My work as a nature-sound recorder and my other life as a bodysurfer provide very much the same feeling. I’m happy to be alive and I feel like I’ve connected with an energy that is much greater than I am. I’m not as important in the greater scheme of the world as I seemed before, and I like that. It’s very calming.”

To Hempton, bodysurfing the shores of the Olympic Peninsula has become more than a pastime and a passion. He says it’s something essential to his ability to listen, to be present, and to do his work. “In the water, I have to let go of everything that’s not relevant to that moment. I have to be open and willing to be changed by what I feel coming through my body, those energy lines of the break. That, to me, is the definition of listening—a clear mind, a willingness to be changed, with no expectations. As an exercise in becoming a better listener, surfing is a quick route.”

He prefers long rides, so he typically slots into the lineups with board riders. That’s not always a proposition that leads to peace and tranquility, but he says the vibe among the surfers in his home waters is respectful. “I know I’m just a head in the water and it’s my responsibility not to get hit. When I am in the lineups here, the surfers know I’m looking out for them. I wait my turn, but it’s still the rules of the road…if I am in the pocket and have priority, I expect them to yield. And they do.”

When his trips take him to the tropics, he delights in the balmy water. But he’s adopted a stoical attitude toward the cold-water conditions along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he mainly surfs. (Water temps year-around hover in the 50s, but can dip into the 40s, even in the summer). Characteristically upbeat, he’s found something to love about chattering teeth. “Sessions here end when you get borderline hypothermic. And I do get there. But it puts me in a euphoria I enjoy,” he says.

After he and Julie divorced in 2000, he lost the home in Port Angeles and moved to Joyce, Washington, where he and his second wife, Cate, now live. (They also have a second home on the Kitsap Peninsula, not far from Seattle). His favorite local break is Neah Bay’s Third Beach, considered one of Washington’s classic and most consistent wave churners. Commonly, the narrowly focused beachbreak generates waves more than 150 days a year. “It typically walls up into a nice A-frame—it’s steep and often barreling. It’s known as a left, but there’s a short right, toward the cliff, and I often take that. The left is long, and I’ll take that too if nobody is in position.” 

His ideal workday consists of a dawn-patrol session followed by a breakfast run to the farmer’s market and a day in his home studio and office. When time and conditions permit, Gordon may fire up his ’64 V.W. camper bus and point it toward Cape Flattery, the northwestern-most point of the continental U.S. Long ago, he pulled the radio out so he could listen, undisturbed, to the ticking valves of its ancient air-cooled engine—the tinny heartbeat of this slow-moving but dependable companion.

The bus played a starring role in the 2010 documentary, Soundtracker. Rounding the bend, Gordon will head south toward La Push or another seldom visited break, catching some early morning glass before heading into the Hoh River Valley, a sacred place in his opinion. Back in the early 1980s, Gordon began documenting places where silence reigned. The project accelerated when he acquired the Lindberg Foundation Grant and began traveling the globe. By his estimate, he’s circled the planet three times on his quest for quiet. “My job is to find the choice opportunities to hear the world’s music, then share it with my audience,” he says. “My criteria for a quiet place is somewhere that I can record for 15 consecutive minutes without capturing a single human-derived sound.”

“My mobile recording studio,” says Hempton of his 1964 Volkswagen van. “The weather can be pretty bad up here, at least for electronics. And generally, if you miss your opportunity with the voice talent, the birds and the insects, it’s going to be a 24-hour wait. So there’s a lot of patience involved. I’ll drive under a branch and sleep on the platform on the roof and, in the morning, open my eyes and the wildlife doesn’t even know I’m there. It’s also great for hauling wetsuits.”

In his role as The Sound Tracker® (Hempton owns the trademark on the name), he’s recorded in places such as the Kalahari desert, the Amazon rainforest, on remote Indonesian islands, and within Alaska’s Denali National Park. People suggest new places all the time, and Gordon often makes the treks to listen for himself. But he almost invariably finds some form of noise pollution—a distant train, machinery, off-road vehicles, and, most commonly, jet airplane sounds overhead. With the exception of caves, there are but a dozen truly quiet places left in the U.S. and none in Europe where one can enjoy just 15 minutes of nature’s sounds uninterrupted by human noise, he says. One of them is the Hoh River Valley, a temperate rainforest located in Olympic National Park. Hempton refers to the park as “the listener’s Yosemite.”

The Hoh is a last refuge of old-growth forests that at one time stretched from Alaska to Northern California. Annual rainfall tops 12 feet, nourishing Sitka spruce and western hemlocks—ancient trees that can grow 20 stories in height and be so large at the base that a class of grade school field trippers can barely surround one while holding hands. Hiking the Hoh rainforest is a walk through a living cathedral. Sun light filters through the leaves and moss-covered boughs, creating kaleidoscopic patterns on the forest floor like God’s own stained glass. Vegetation springs forth from every surface, absorbing and softening sound. It’s a place that invites contemplation and reverence, where hikers tend to communicate in hushed voices amid long silences.

In July of 2005, Gordon hiked up the Hoh River Valley trail for about two hours until he reached a place where he could no longer hear logging trucks and R.V.s. He spied an elk trail leading into the woods and followed it until he came to a grove carpeted in moss and framed by fallen old-growth cedars. A ray of sunshine illuminated a stump upon which a Pacific wren stood center stage, singing its exuberant song. “It was one of those moments you see in a Disney film,” he said.

Gordon reached into his pocket and extracted a red stone, which he placed on a log by the stump. That stone, a gift from a Quileute tribal elder, marked the one square inch of silence he had been searching for. Since that day, it’s a place—or rather, a sonic absence of human sound—that he’s been trying his damnedest to protect.

His thinking is this: just before sunrise, when the atmosphere is at its maximum stillness, it’s possible for the human ear to discern sounds up to 20 miles away—a circular area of more than 1,200 square miles. If we can protect just one square inch of this natural place in a human-noise-free condition, it would affect hundreds of square miles of land in every direction. “Natural quiet is an antidote to the toxic noise that’s all around us,” he says. “There is not one place on planet Earth that’s set aside for protection from noise pollution.”

For a decade, Hempton has returned to the Hoh to monitor noise levels at the one square inch of silence. Since his efforts began receiving attention, others have gone there too. Some of them told him the site had been vandalized, so he went back and found that the stone had been stolen, along with a jar in which people placed their “quiet thoughts.” The desecration enraged him. “But as quick as I felt that, I felt embarrassed. I’d never had a bad experience in nature, in quiet. So, I asked myself, ‘What should I do?’ And an echo came back saying, ‘What’s the problem? Isn’t it just a stone? There’s more stones all around you!’”

He picked up a new stone and placed it on the log. Others now go to the spot and replace a stone with one of their own. Each stone that’s taken, Hempton says, becomes a “seed of silence” to be placed in a new home. Those seeds can be found across the globe, reminding people of a need for quiet places.

“The feeling of being in nature, without any audible noise pollution, is for me, clearly and always, a feeling of sacredness. Everything I’m hearing, all those sounds, coevolved with each other—they’re all in tune and in frequency so that multiple species can send multiple messages without interfering with each other. Your listening horizon can be up to 20 miles in a quite place, with an auditory panorama that’s greater than 1,200 square miles. So ask yourself what listening to 1,200 square miles, all at once, sounds like. It’s the acoustic equivalent of seeing the Milky Way. Unless you’ve heard it, there’s no way to describe it.”

In 2016, the National Park Service will be 100 years old. Hempton has discussed legislation with Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, which would designate an area 20 miles in radius from the summit of Mt. Dana in Olympic National Park as a no-flight zone. It’s his bid to preserve one square inch of silence. “If that happens—when it happens—we will have the world’s first preserved quiet place,” says Hempton. It’s his hope that, eventually, other places of silence will be preserved too.

A precedent for this already exists. Eight national parks and one national monument in the U.S. have been designated as “dark sky preserves,” with areas that are protected from unnatural light. Three—Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in Utah, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado—received that status only last year. Other dark sky preserves exist around the world, and Canada has standards for its own preserves that affect sky glow from urban areas in their vicinity.

“We have a right to see the Milky Way,” says Hempton. “We also deserve oceans where we can swim and surf without getting sick from pollution and quiet places away from toxic noise.” Outside of the cafe, we shake hands and say our goodbyes. He’s headed up the coast to Joyce, to check out the surf and hopefully ride a few waves. I feel a kinship with this bodysurfer, and admire his quixotic mission to make the world a quieter, more reflective place.

We walk over to the ferry dock. Car engines are starting as drivers queue up to disembark the huge vessel, its massive diesels clattering away below deck. Truck traffic passes by on the highway and the captain squawks instructions over a loudspeaker to the passengers. Gordon has awakened me to our noisy, modern existence, and I find solace knowing he’s trying to get us to turn down the volume. I know he’d appreciate the words of the founder of Taoism, the philosopher Lao Tzu. “Silence is a source of great strength.”

[Feature Image: Hempton, making use of the acoustic characteristics of  a fallen Sitka spruce while sound hunting in Olympic National Park. “Spruce has a property called anisotropy,” he says, “which allows its fibers to move ten times more in one direction than another. And that makes it an excellent amplifier of sound. That’s why it’s used in some of our finest acoustic instruments. So I’m essentially listening to the rhythms of the coast vibrating through the world’s largest violin.”]

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