The God of Silence Speaks Up
Gordon Hempton has spent the past 30 years warning people about the consequences of the disappearance of natural quiet on Earth, which he calls a “solar-powered jukebox.” And now that the world is a little less noisy, he’s asking us, once again, to listen.
By the time you finish reading the end of this sentence, you will most likely have been interrupted by a sound—some scrape, some snarl, a click, clock, clack. A plane may buzz overhead. A microwave may beep, or your phone may ring. That damn doorbell. That damn dishwasher. How do I know this? Because Gordon Hempton says so. How does Gordon Hempton know this? Because for the past 37 years, the acoustic ecologist has been thinking about noise and listening and doing what some may think unthinkable, unimportant in a world with climate change and animal extinction and a planet that keeps getting hotter: trying to save quiet. By now, you may be wondering why you should care. Hempton, for his part, is so glad you asked.
“My father used to say, ‘Quiet? That’s so highbrow. Quiet is so trivial. Someday we can just fix the noise pollution and it will be quiet. Quiet doesn’t rank with endangered species, breeding programs, habitat preservation, global warming, nuclear waste, and toxic cleanups. And you want me to pay attention to the need to preserve quiet?’ Yes,” Hempton says, quietly. “Because when we save quiet, we save everything else.”
An Invisible Enemy
“Noise” is pathologic in origin, with roots in the word nausea, or Latin for “seasickness” for the perils it can inflict on the mind and body. Noise as trauma is not a new phenomenon: The detrimental effects of it have been considered since the time of the Ancient Greeks, when the city of Sybaris passed what is thought to be the first noise ordinance, expelling roosters, blacksmiths, carpenters, and “noisy arts” from city limits in the 8th century. By 1905, the din was alarming—so much so that Nobel Prize–winning bacteriologist Robert Koch wrote, “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.” That day has long been here.
State and local governments have been responsible for noise policing in the United States since 1972, when the Reagan administration withdrew funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control. In 1981, the government tried meekly to raise a red flag, noting in a report: “Noise is a ubiquitous by-product of our modern mechanized society. Since it is difficult to find a device that does not produce noise, the number of noise producers in this country is gigantic.” Transportation accounts for some of the largest percentages of man-made noise production, and in the four decades since the report was released, air travel has tripled. The number of cars worldwide will soon surpass 2 billion. Do we even know what silence sounds like?
In a word, no. According to the U.S. National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, which has sent researchers to measure the acoustics of more than 600 outdoor American sites for the past 15 years, noise pollution is growing faster than the U.S. population and is more than doubling every 30 years. One writer’s calculations even show that more than 145 million Americans—roughly 44 percent of the population—are exposed to noise exceeding the recommended limits. Anything over 85 decibels can harm a person’s ears, like lawn mowers (90 decibels), trains (90 to 115 decibels), the wail of a siren (120 to 140 decibels), and loud concerts, at around 110 to 120 decibels. All told, more than 97 percent of the U.S. population is constantly exposed to noise from planes and highways at around 50 decibels—comparable to the buzz of a humming refrigerator—but the loudest sounds appear most frequently in low-income neighborhoods.
Though noise really is all around us, from rustling leaves (20 to 30 decibels) to a thunderclap (120 decibels), it is this man-made noise that affects human health, leading to hypertension, stress, and heart disease. Alarmingly, according to Hempton, there are now fewer than 10 places in the U.S. where you can avoid noise pollution for longer than 15 minutes. (The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota is one, but he is wary of publicizing many more.) And our noise doesn’t just wreak havoc on homo sapiens: In the natural world, sound is used as a clue and a compass—to help animals find mates and food and to avoid predators. Noise pollution scrambles the messaging and endangers the survival of auditory-dependent species like whales and dolphins, which use echolocation to communicate.
There are few creatures not disturbed by our noise pollution: Research shows that it causes mass strandings of whales, caterpillars’ hearts to beat faster, bluebirds to have fewer chicks, and damselfish on the Great Barrier Reef to be slower in response to predators. Even plants are affected. In the U.S. alone, nearly two-thirds of protected areas across the country have seen their background sound levels double because of man-made sounds, according to a 2017 report. The lead author of the study called the results “fairly shockingly high.”
It is this notion that Hempton speaks to when he says that saving quiet will save everything else: the idea that by protecting it, we help the preservation of species and the environment and care for the planet. Even an increase of man-made sound of three decibels, after all, will cut down what we can hear from 100 feet away to 50 feet away. Managing that difference is not that far out of our control: In 2011, researchers at Muir Woods National Monument found that by asking visitors to turn off cell phones and be quiet resulted in a three-decibel drop in sound, akin to a reduction of 1,200 people in the area. Noise may be invisible and leave no trace when it’s gone, but it is a threat all the same.
And though the world is louder than ever, we’re experiencing something of a respite from some noise due to the COVID pandemic, which has led to lockdowns and reductions of travel and daily transit. Silver lining, you could say. Thus, there’s no time like the present, Hempton thinks, to imagine what a world with more quiet could sound like. It’s already here.
Gordon Hempton grew up in a military family, bouncing between California, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and Washington all before finishing high school. Having spent the majority of his life on the coasts of the country, he decided to head somewhere closer to the center for college, choosing to study botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Little did he know this decision would change the arc of his life, like an unexpected wind gust filling your sails and nudging you in a different direction.
You see: Without Hempton’s undergraduate years in Madison, he wouldn’t have decided to return for graduate school for a degree in plant pathology. Wouldn’t have had a reason, probably, to be driving one summer from Seattle to Madison, where he pulled off the road in Iowa to stretch his back and sleep. But sleep didn’t come easily. Crickets chirped in the stubby cornstalks nearby, and as Hempton wriggled for comfort, he heard the rattle and shake of thunder in the distance. Stretched out in the driver’s seat, he laid there and listened, letting the rain roll over him like God’s greatest car wash.
Once the storm had passed, Hempton was more awake than he’d ever been, and left with a question that, as he chewed on it, only became more frustrating: How could he be 27 years old and not have ever listened—really, truly, fully listened—to a thunderstorm before? After all, Hempton realized, listening wasn’t focusing your attention on something and filtering out the noise, which he likens to a version of controlled impairment. No, real listening was turning off your brain and opening your ears to the world, giving everything a chance to be a soloist rather than determining the soloist from the start. But the world was no constant Iowa cornfield. How to really listen when everything else was so noisy?
It was this question that led Hempton to drop out of graduate school despite a 4.0 GPA and to start recording everything he could: hopping on freight trains to interview migrant workers, sitting in silence and identifying trilling birdsong. After nine years of paying his bills as a bike messenger in Seattle—nine years of being guffawed at by bank officers, who’d push back with flat palms his paperwork for a loan to document the world’s disappearing quiet places—Hempton’s message was heard. In 1989, he was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Lindbergh Foundation, then another from the National Endowment for the Arts. By 1992, he’d won an Emmy for his documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus, which featured the sounds of the sunrise on six continents.
In the decades since that original grant, Hempton, now in his late 60s, has circled the world three times collecting what he calls “experiences of silences,” which he keeps in folders in his Washington State office with labels like “bugs,” “deserts,” “birds,” “frogs,” and “forests.” There are sounds of grass winds, winds rustling through the trees, humpback whales off the Kona coast of Hawaii, and thunder in the Kalahari Desert. Hempton has even recorded from inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest. In total, he has produced more than 60 albums of vanishing natural soundscapes; his Spotify channel has 9,800 monthly listeners.
Typically, Hempton records with his “business partner,” a binaural microphone system named Fritz that resembles a human head on a stick. (Hempton says the dummy head microphone is the closest thing he’s found to replicating human hearing.) And though he prepares intensely—by poring over maps and monitoring the weather and sunrise predictions—his final ritual before heading out to record is to steady himself in the idea that all he has to do is show up and be open to whatever pops up on his microphone: “Many times, you go to a place with a certain expectation. And then when you get there, you’re going to be disappointed. Good. Be disappointed,” he says. “Disappointment is just an epiphany in disguise.”
Hempton is perhaps best known for his One Square Inch of Silence project, which was designated on Earth Day in 2005 when he placed a small stone on a log in the middle of Hoh Rain Forest of Washington’s Olympic National Park, which Hempton has deemed one of the quietest places in the world and calls “the listener’s Yosemite.” His thinking: By protecting this one small area from noise pollution, the effects would be felt in the surrounding square miles. It worked—for awhile.
Fifteen years ago, Hempton could sit in the park for an hour without hearing any man-made sounds; he also received agreements from American Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines that they would avoid flying over the park during test and maintenance flights. But by 2012, the U.S. Navy had begun increasing its flight tests from nearby Whidbey Island, zooming over the western area of the park as often as six times a day, producing roaring noises at around 70 decibels. The noise-free interval dropped to 10 minutes. The park was getting louder.
Asking the world to care about one small place, Hempton realized, wasn’t enough. He needed to talk about all places. And so in 2018, Hempton switched his focus to Quiet Parks International (QPI), a Los Angeles–based nonprofit he cofounded that is “committed to the preservation of quiet for the benefit of all life.” Comprising a team of nearly 30, QPI also has an experienced advisory board and regional representatives from the fields of sound research, sustainability, and environmentalism in Africa, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, India, South America, and the United Kingdom.
One of the members of the QPI team is Matt Mikkelsen, who has widely been referred to as Hempton’s protégé. An affable man with an easy laugh, Mikkelsen first connected with Hempton years ago when he was 18, studying audio engineering at Ithaca College. He’d heard Hempton speak with Krista Tippett for NPR’s On Being podcast, and inspired by the concept of natural sound as a resource, decided to reach out. Hempton, to his surprise, wrote back.
Eight years after that initial correspondence, Mikkelsen is now the executive director of QPI’s Wilderness Quiet Parks. He still has a copy of that first email he sent all those years ago, asking for an audience. When I ask him to briefly describe how Hempton has affected his work, Mikkelsen responds in mock horror to the idea that Hempton’s influence can be contained by seconds, minutes, moments. He pauses for a beat, and then speaks.
“Gordon is very kind and a very warm person who not only is one of the best in the world at what he does, but he’s a great listener in every sense of the word,” says Mikkelsen.“He really, truly listens to people when they talk, and to nature when it speaks.”
As fate would have it, it was also around 2018 that Hempton started to lose his hearing again, after experiencing substantial hearing loss in 2003 and miraculously, suddenly, regaining it when sitting next to a crackling wood stove 18 months after his hearing had all but disappeared. That hasn’t happened this time around, at least not yet. But hearing, as Hempton will tell you, isn’t the only thing there is to listening. Calm and serene/the sound of a cicada/penetrates the rock, he says, reciting a haiku from Matsuo Bashō.
Learning From an Evil Twin
Physicians and scientists have long extolled the virtues of quiet’s myriad health benefits: Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates lauded tranquil “airs, waters, and places,” and noiseless gardens were recommended for monasteries in the 1200s “not only for food, but also for recreation in the open air to aid the recovery of the sick and to preserve health and improve those fatigued by their spiritual studies,” according to historians. Studies today validate those early claims, showing that silence can help lower blood pressure, facilitate the development of new brain cells, decrease stress levels, and prevent plaque formation in arteries.
In the past two years, the Quiet Parks International team has identified 262 exceptionally quiet “Potential Quiet Parks” around the world, from the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve in the Seychelles to the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. To actually certify the parks, the organization sends teams to each destination for a minimum of three days at a time, listening for anything that might immediately disqualify it from being certified as quiet—a siren, a shot, an aircraft flying overhead or audible in the distance.
On April 14, 2019, the nonprofit announced its first certified quiet park: a 200,000-acre spread of land in Ecuador owned by the indigenous Cofán tribe, population roughly 1,200. The area includes the Zabalo River, which slices some 30 miles across the northeastern part of the country; in a statement, Quiet Parks International said that the park met its “gold standard” of quiet “by demonstrating a healthy balance of bioacoustic activity” with average noise-free intervals lasting several hours. Audible on its microphones was cackling birdsong, the bubble of the river, the Gregorian-like groans of howler monkeys.
On June 5, 2020, QPI announced another designation: Yangmingshan National Park, some 25 minutes from downtown Taipei by car, was the world’s first Urban Quiet Park. Known for its hot springs, cherry blossoms, Qingtiangang grasslands, and hiking trails to Taiwan’s tallest dormant volcano, the 43-square-mile park is one of nine national parks in Taiwan. (Laila Chin-Hui Fan, a Taiwanese journalist who has been recording Taiwan’s natural soundscapes since 1997 and sits on QPI’s board of directors, spearheaded the selection.) Given that parks near cities are typically louder than those that are more remote, QPI says it is looking for sounds at Urban Quiet Parks to register around 45 decibels—akin to the murmur you may hear in a library. Some mornings at Yangmingshan fall below 30 decibels.
According to Hempton, as many as 50 more Urban Quiet Parks may receive designation in the next decade, in places like London, Stockholm, Portland, Copenhagen, and New York. Green Mountain Farm in North Carolina has been certified a “Quiet Community,” and there is also a plan for classifying Quiet Marine Sanctuaries and even Quiet Hotels. In fall 2020, QPI intends to identify a Quiet Trail in Arizona, and there is quiet work being done in collaboration with U.S. national parks. That’s not all: Since April 2019, Quiet Parks International has also been building a free database of the world’s research literature on the effects of quiet and noise pollution—a one-stop resource for journalists, academics, and interested readers.
It is Hempton’s hope that Quiet Parks International follows a similar trajectory to that of the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit founded in Tucson, Arizona, in 1988 by a professional astronomer and an amateur one that now has 24 chapters outside the United States. It has since become an authority on light pollution, designating 130 destinations as International Dark Sky Places, which are proven tourist draws around the world. If light pollution is the “evil twin” of noise pollution, Hempton reasons, there’s a chance people will someday care about experiencing true quiet in the same way they care about looking up and seeing a light-free sky. He just has to get them to, and the idea that they won’t—well, that’s unfathomable to him.
“Those [QPI designations] are all achievements that I had been told more than a decade ago were impossible,” says Hempton. “Impossible. Forget it. You can never stop noise. But to me it never made sense, because as I look around in my office right now, everything has been shaped and manufactured because humans wanted it. It was all possible. And everything’s possible.”
Hempton speaks in a low, measured tone and is fond of truisms that wouldn’t seem out of place on T-shirts found in the Esalen Bookstore: Sound is what we hear. Noise is unwanted sound. Science is the poetics of space. Silence is not absence of something, but presence of everything. He exudes calm and peace and quiet in waves so strongly that his joy in his many favorite delights—a fat T-bone steak, a double shot of Chivas on the rocks, a pinch of Copenhagen packed under his lip—often catch some by surprise.
“I get reactions from people, who say, ‘I thought you’d be a vegetarian at least, if not a vegan.’ Or: ‘You wouldn’t indulge a filthy, disgusting habit like chewing tobacco,’” Hempton says. “And I go, ‘Yeah. But quiet is for everybody. It’s not for a certain type of person.’”
One of Hempton’s biggest challenges remains convincing people of the importance of something many have never actually experienced. How to promote true quiet if most people can’t remember a time when they didn’t hear the refrigerator, or were taught to listen to one thing rather than everything? How to actually relay what it’s like to hear the drip of water in the forest, or the thump of your own heart, so eerily loud in the absence of man-made noise?
Hempton is hopeful. We are all born listeners, he says, but we must unlearn what we have learned—to filter things out rather than getting rid of our filter in the first place. To experiment, he likes to suggest taking a small child on your shoulders, and setting off into the night; in no time at all, they’ll ask what this sound is or that one. Everything you need to know about becoming a better listener is there. Instead of listening for something, he says, don’t. Just be open.
The more we listen in and to nature, the more we learn, Hempton thinks. After all, with nature, there’s no expected outcome or emotional baggage, and so by starting neutrally in a place that owes us nothing, we will be better prepared to listen neutrally in life—a practice we can then apply to conversations with our mothers and brothers and partners. Ergo: By listening in quiet places, we can become better listeners, all around.
At the end of the day, Hempton takes heart in the battles fought before. The idea that we didn’t use to care as much about clean water or stars, but now we do. More people will listen to QPI’s message, he’s sure of it, and then they’ll travel for the absence of sound, even if that travel is creating sound elsewhere—a small price to pay, he thinks, if we are protecting and preserving quiet places.
“Just traveling to see the world is not enough,” says Hempton. “But to travel to become changed by the world? That’s everything we need.”