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Silence Like Scouring Sand

One of America's quietest places, and the valiant effort to keep it that way

by Kathleen Dean Moore

Published in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Chris Jordan

RAIN POUNDS against the open tailgate of my car, where I’ve taken shelter from the worst of the storm. Water pours from the hemlocks onto the devil’s club. From maple bole to bole, raindrops bounce, splattering salmonberry and sorrel. I shrug into my rain gear, shoulder my pack, and splash across the parking lot. Rain bells off cars, smacks against my hood, beats on my shoulders, and drums on the garbage bag covering my pack. Against all instinct, I’m going to backpack into the clattering teeth of this North Pacific gale, in search of silence.

It’s not easy to find silence in the modern world. If a quiet place is one where you can listen for fifteen minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River. And in the American West? Maybe twelve. One of these is in the temperate rainforest along the Hoh River in Olympic National Park.

At the Hoh River trailhead, where a path disappears into the gloom under giant, lichen-draped Douglas fir and western red cedar, I meet up with Gordon Hempton. He stands calm and dry under an umbrella, comfortable in the wool and cotton clothes he has chosen for their silence. Middle-aged, limber, and weather-tanned, Gordon is a man on a mission to record the natural sounds of the world before they are drowned out by human noise. For years, he has searched for the quiet places where falling water and wren song can still be clearly heard. This weekend, he is taking me to one of the few remaining quiet spots in the United States.

Gordon leads me into the dense forest where rain and wind are muffled by moss. Even so, on the path to this silent place, the natural sounds are deafening. “In a forest like this,” he says, leaning close to my ear, “a drop of rain may hit twenty times before it reaches the ground, and each impact—against a cedar bough, a vine-maple leaf, a snag—makes its own sound.” He crouches beside a fern-banked stream. “You can hear the treble tones,” he says, “but do you hear the bass undertones as well?” I kneel on the moss beside him, soaking through the knees of my rainpants.

I’ve never listened to water quite this way before, with such close attention to its music. “You can change the pitch of a stream by removing a stone.” I lift a cobble out of the water. The chord loses some of its brightness, picks up a drone I didn’t hear before. “A stream tunes itself over time,” Gordon says, “tumbling the rocks into place.” A channel gouging through the mud that remains after a hillside has been logged is “only noise. But an old mossy stream? That’s a fugue.” Once, he tells me, he heard wind move up the Hoh valley, knocking dry leaves off the bigleaf maple trees. “It sounded,” he says, “like a wave of applause.”

For love of sounds like these, Gordon has begun a campaign to protect the silence of the national parks. Even though silence and the natural soundscape are listed as natural resources in National Park Service documents, and even though park officials are charged with managing the land so as to protect its natural resources, no park has a plan to protect its stillness. So Gordon took the responsibility on himself.

He calls his project “One Square Inch of Silence.” Following leads, crisscrossing the country, he searched for one square inch where he could listen for fifteen minutes and not hear a human sound but the whisper of his pencil on wet paper. In Olympic National Park, where 95 percent of the land is protected as wilderness, he found the “widest diversity of soundscapes and the longest periods of natural quiet of any unit within the national park system.”

On Earth Day, 2005, Gordon marked the site with a small red stone, and this tiny space of silence he vowed to defend. He has asked Congress to designate a square inch of silence in ten other national parks as well. “Think about finding one place in a park that you can visit, where there will be no trucks heard, no planes flying over, no man-made machinery, no human noise,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?”

It’s a powerful idea. As Gordon knows, sound travels. If he can protect the silence of even an inch, he calculates that, in effect, he will be protecting the natural soundscape of approximately one thousand square miles of surrounding land. It’s a first step toward his goal of preventing the extinction of silence.

PAST THE FIRST MILEPOST toward One Square Inch, we cross a glade that borders the Hoh River. After so many days of rain, the Hoh is in full flood. Gray water roars over torn-out root wads, ramming logs against the shore, undercutting the banks, and rolling rocks downstream. Gordon pulls out his sound-level meter, a machine that looks like a hand-held radio but measures sound in decibels.

“Sixty-three decibels.” The river has the same sound level as ocean surf in a storm. This, Gordon says, is one-tenth the volume of the traffic noise outside the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Seattle Public Library.

Cities drown us in sound. Buses grinding gears and motorcycles grumbling, woofers thudding, endless engines combusting, trucks beeping, and street-corner preachers calling down damnation on it all—what does it do to the human being, whose ears evolved as a warning system? In daylight, our eyes can warn us of danger in front of us. But our ears alert us to opportunity and danger twenty-four hours a day, from every direction, even through dense vegetation and total darkness. Some linguists believe that the oldest word is hist—listen!

When predators are on the prowl, birds and frogs, even insects, fall silent. No wonder humans are drawn to places where the birds feel safe enough to sing. No wonder we smile to hear a frog chorus in the dark. But in the cacophonous city, Gordon believes, we are always on edge, always flinching, the way a deer trembles when it drinks from a noisy river. People continuously assaulted by high levels of traffic noise have suppressed immune systems and significantly increased risk of high blood pressure and heart attacks. A city will be comfortable for a human, Gordon says, only when it’s quiet enough to hear shoe leather touch cement, only when lovers can talk without shouting at each other.

I know what he means. I’m still on edge from the noise of the drive up I-5 through Portland. When trucks roared past me, they threw rain with such a thud against the windshield that it drowned out even my shirring tires, the smacking wipers, and on my CD player, Pink Floyd’s bass guitar.

However, it’s not noise in the cities that most concerns Gordon, but the extinction of silence in wild places. It’s the way that human sounds drown out the music of the natural world that breaks his heart—and gets his back up. Even national parks are not always able to protect the music of a morning wind in pines, the echo of a woodpecker tapping a hollow trunk, the thrum of distant surf. Dawn in a national park often begins with the brown noise of automobile traffic and swells with the awakening sounds of RV generators, jet overflights, sightseeing helicopters, and “It’s a Small World After All” playing in the next camp over.

Human noise also damages animals, whose behaviors are exquisitely tuned to songs and other auditory signals they use to hunt and to escape, to establish territories and find mates. Scientists have documented the harmful effects of mining blasts on elk, passenger jets on bald eagles, the Navy’s submarine-hunting sonar on dolphins and whales and roaring dune buggies on kangaroo rats trying to avoid sidewinder snakes. Just as animals have ecological niches, they have aural niches, defined by the soundscapes they live in. The onslaught of noise destroys that aural habitat. Birdsongs, especially the low-pitched sounds, are lost along highways, which are, in effect, wide swaths of loud, low-pitched noise reaching deep into the forests and meadows, reducing bird habitat—and sometimes eliminating it entirely.

It’s a loss to humans too. Just as artificial lights drown out the stars, our engines drown out the birdsongs, and our experience of the world’s beauty is that much more impoverished.

AT 1.4 MILES, we turn off the trail to check a possible campsite, but the hollow where we would pitch tents is a muddy puddle. We hike on, splashing along the trail, past dark skunk-cabbage sloughs, over trickling rivulets, under the boughs of cedar so tall their crowns are lost in fog. I’m glad for my rubber boots, because the trail has become a stream, and the rocky steps are small waterfalls. We stop often to listen, putting our ears close to the dark decaying hollow of a stump, or a green carpet of bunchberry, or a fallen log whose crosscut section shows more than three hundred growth rings. Gordon stops next to an enormous tree and listens intently.

“Do you hear the thrum of the river resonating in the trunks of the Sitka spruce?” he asks. “This is a tree whose wood is chosen for the finest violins.”

I try, but all I hear is the noise of my own mind—what I should have done, what I shouldn’t have said, and will I ever be warm or dry again? And this gray noise, the static that comes from my own ears. Gordon is sympathetic. He knows from experience that when people are long enough away from the “chemical whining” of caffeine, aspirin, and alcohol, and from the damage done to their hearing by the noise of the car that brings them here, their ears will silence themselves—and so will my mind.

“Silence is like scouring sand,” he says. “When you are quiet, the silence blows against your mind and etches away everything that is soft and unimportant.” What is left is what is real—pure awareness, and the very hardest questions.

Many years ago, Gordon was a botany student in Wisconsin. As he was driving back to school from the West Coast, night came on, and he stopped to sleep in an Iowa cornfield. Lying on the ground, he listened to crickets scratch their crisp fiddles and corn stalks rasp against their leaves. He heard thunder rumble. The crickets and the corn went silent, and the storm rolled over him. He heard raindrops smack into soil, and hail rattle the stalks. Then the thunder was growling far away and crickets were singing again.

How could it be that he had never before heard, really heard, the sounds of the Earth? From that time forward, how could he do anything but listen? How should he live his life? “Whatever came next,” he told me, “had to measure up to the honesty of that night.”

Gordon dropped out of school and took a job as a bike messenger in Seattle. Everything he earned went into the microphones and tape machines that would train his ear. Now he travels the world, recording sounds with a microphone that has the shape and acoustic characteristics of a human head. He produces CDs from these recordings—the pure sounds of the natural world, unadorned by human music, uninterrupted by the human voice. He has become the SoundTracker, whose recordings caught the attention of composer John Cage, earned him an Emmy Award, and landed him contracts to record the soundtracks for PBS specials, movies, and even Microsoft computer games.

His most famous recording project is Dawn Chorus. As dawn moves across the curve of the slowly turning planet and erases the darkness with light, birds cry out, tentatively at first, insects chime, melting snow strikes stone, a light wind rises, and the whole Earth begins to sing. To his ears, it is a song of astonishment and gratitude.

Astonishment and gratitude are an important part of what the future stands to lose under the shouting engines of human ambition. When humans silence nature, drowning out the small voices, we subordinate it to our own presumed power. Anyone who has felt the oppression in a classroom or boardroom or marriage when only some are free to speak will understand what it means to be silenced—to have no voice, to be seen and not heard, to be told to “pay attention,” which means do not pay attention to any voice but one. Human noise is yet one more oil-fired expression of modernity’s claim of sovereignty and control over the natural world.

It speaks also of separation. The seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes drew a sharp distinction between humans and the rest of creation. Humans, the thinking beings, have the power of intelligent speech, he wrote. But all other beings—birds, frogs, even dogs—are material substance only, machines that may tick like clocks or squeal like dry bearings, but can never think or feel. Is it any wonder that Western civilization babbles and roars humanity’s isolation from the other creatures of the Earth? Is it any wonder we are reckless with the world?

But silence? Silence creates an opening, an absence of self, which allows the larger world to enter into our awareness. It brings us into contact with what is beyond us, its beauty and mystery. Silence is not the absence of sounds, but a way of living in the world—an intentional awareness, an expression of gratitude, to make of one’s own ears, one’s own body, a sounding board that resonates in its hollow places with the vibrations of the world.

When wind plays across the maple leaves and sets them in motion, it’s we who are most deeply moved. No one knows why natural sounds speak so directly to the human spirit, but it’s possible to imagine what they say—that we are not separate from the world, not dominant or different. Like stone, like water, like wrens, we carry the shape of the world in our rustling. We are all music, we are all matter in motion, all of us, together sending our harmonies into a black and trembling sky.

AT MILEPOST 2.3, we sling off our packs and pitch tents. The rain seems to have let up, here under the shelter of a Douglas fir whose trunk is nine feet across. We’re not far now from One Square Inch. As I tighten the ropes on my tarp, Gordon tells me about his efforts to defend the silence of that place.

Every month, Gordon sits by the stone to listen. If he hears a human-created sound, he documents its volume, locates the source, and makes an official complaint: On April 16, 2006, an aircraft later identified as a Boeing B767 with tail number N582HA flying at an altitude of 36,972´ and registered to Hawaiian Airlines produced an audible noise impact of 44 dB(A) at One Square Inch. Hawaiian Airlines wrote back, explaining that the offending flight was only a test flight and promising to avoid the area in the future.

Alaska Airlines has not been quite as forthcoming. Thirty-seven Alaska flights fly over the Olympic National Park every day, dragging cones of noise through the forest. “It’s physically impossible for a jet to fly high enough that its engines can’t be heard on Earth,” Gordon says, but that’s not the point. The point is that these flights are still gaining altitude, so their thrusters are roaring as the jets power over the seven-thousand-foot peaks of the Brothers Wilderness in the heart of the park.

Alaska has agreed to “enact a policy” that encourages flight crews to avoid the park on nonroutine flight operations such as maintenance and test flights. But they will not reroute passenger jets. “Deviations from [the FAA preferred routing] would increase delays,” they wrote to Gordon, “causing higher fuel burn and increased emissions.” They don’t explain why this has to be so. Alaska passenger jets still pour noise onto the glacier-etched peaks and deep forests of the Olympic peninsula.

Even so, Gordon sees progress in soundscape management. The Federal Aviation Administration has rerouted planes from runway 25 at Denver International Airport to avoid disturbing bald eagles. In response to a suit by the National Resources Defense Council, a federal court has prohibited the Navy from conducting sonar exercises off California in complete disregard for the whales and the laws that would protect them.

And Olympic National Park? Public information officer Barbara Maynes believes the park’s management has for many years been aligned with Gordon’s goals, although they are not working together. “Protection of natural soundscapes is part of everything we do,” Maynes says. She points out that while Gordon is protecting one square inch of silence, the park is charged with protecting five trillion square inches and a host of sometimes conflicting values. The park welcomes the visitors who come to experience One Square Inch, even as Maynes expresses “concern for possible resource damage” caused by that concentration of attention. But Maynes affirms the park’s commitment to strive in everything they do for the “least impact” on natural sounds.

It seems that Gordon has tapped into a wellspring of human yearning for stillness and concern for the commonweal of natural sounds. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse cites several hundred organizations working to prevent the harm that noise causes, from the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition to the World Health Organization. They argue that the air is a commons, a public good, shared and cared for by all. Like secondhand smoke or elevated mercury levels, dumping noise into the air damages the well-being and health of the many, in order to benefit the few—a violation of the ethic of the commons.

AT 3.2 MILES, Gordon steps onto a path that leads to the left through an arch formed by the straddling legs of a great cedar. From here, we follow an elk trail into the woods. We’re approaching the One Square Inch of silence now, and Gordon asks only one thing of me. Silence. We walk in—not far, maybe seventy-five yards—through a shallow swale, over shaggy hummocks, to a shoulder-high log fallen so long ago that its bark is coated with moss and hemlock seedlings root in the duff on its back. Here, at 47° 51.959´ N, 123° 52.221´ W, is a square red stone that marks the inch of silence.

How shall I describe the beauty of this place? It’s an open glade, like the nave of a cathedral, carpeted in deep green moss and deer ferns. There are huckleberry bushes, their bare green branches standing in the rosy litter of their own fallen leaves. The bunchberry leaves have turned red, but the wood sorrel is intensely green. From the forest floor, the columns of the trees rise impossibly high, closing at last in a vaulted green ceiling. Everything glitters with scattering rain. Even the air twinkles, as if it were champagne.

And what do I hear? A tiny lisp—a bushtit maybe. Tick, tap, pock of waterdrops, different sounds for every surface they strike. I hear a drop of water pop when it hits a maple leaf forty feet way. There is the faraway rustle of the river. Time passes, unmeasured. Then the quiet is filled with the clatter of a bald eagle, a sound like stones shaken in a tin pot. Sitting on his heels in the damp moss, Gordon grins, but doesn’t speak.

Next to him, almost hidden under the log, is a small metal canister. This is the Jar of Quiet Thoughts. Gordon put it here, an invitation to people who visit One Square Inch to record their responses to the silence. I open the jar and pull out crumpled scraps of paper. Many wrote of love. One couple came here to be married, a person came to pray, another found deep connection here, in the call of a thrush. Others wrote of wonder, to hear the voices of the deep quiet. I realize that One Square Inch has become a sacred place—silence has made it so. Quiet is a kind of reverence.

A small wind shakes a huckleberry bush. A crow calls from the crown of an alder. A hemlock needle falls on my shoulder, and I turn, astonished to have heard it land.

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Kathleen Dean Moore is distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University and the founding director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. She is the author of The Pine Island Paradox, and serves on The Orion Society board of directors.

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