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A voice for silence

One man, writes John Balzar, thinks quiet may be Earth's most endangered natural resource.

November 15, 2005|John Balzar

Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park — THERE are only seven or eight quiet places remaining in the United States.

Fewer than 10. In the entire nation.

Barely more than half a dozen in all the parks, wilderness, refuges and "wild" spaces that we treasure.

Fewer all the time.

Quiet is going extinct.

These thoughts turn over in the mind as you explore one of these few quiet places left in North America, perhaps the quietest of them all. Your guide is a man who has given his career to listening and recording the pure sounds of nature -- and searching for meaning in what they convey.

He has become one of the few Americans to raise his voice on behalf of the vanishing quiet.

Naturally, your purpose here is to inquire about the value of this timeless thing that is slipping away without ... well, without alarm, without a sense of loss, without broad public discussion. But something else occurs along the way. When you enter the realm of quiet to ponder it, the quiet awakens in you a missing bond with the natural world. The quieter the surroundings, the more -- and the better -- you hear. The world around you expands into a three-dimensional place.

Listen.

No need to strain. Just listen.

That is the autumn sound of yellowed maple leaves falling from the tree and settling on the forest floor 50 feet away. It is a sound you've never consciously heard. More to the point, it is a sound you didn't know you could hear.

It sounds faintly like nature giving itself a gentle round of applause.

Spiritual balm

"QUIET is the think tank of the soul."

His name is Gordon Hempton. He lives alone at the end of a road on the edge of Olympic National Park in far western Washington state.

He travels with a hand-held sound meter, a tape recorder and a rubber mannequin head named Fritz, who has a microphone embedded in each ear to pick up sounds binaurally exactly as a human does. He also carries a brace of cameras, because he loves to record how nature looks as well as what it says.

"Discovering nature is self-discovery."

He is 52 now, educated as a botanist, and he's been making his livelihood as an acoustic ecologist, recording the sounds of the wild, for 16 years.

These are not heavily edited recordings for the impatient listener who wants highlights of wolf howls or loon cries. These are audio portraits of nature as it really sounds, at nature's own tempo.

Hempton traveled around the world to record the subtle sounds of daybreak. He followed the Merced River to record the quiet of nature as John Muir might have heard it. He recorded a collected symphonic soundscape of the state of Washington.

"Quiet is the presence of time undisturbed."

He has produced 60 compact discs, most of them still in distribution, and won an Emmy for the sound recording of a PBS documentary about his work, "Vanishing Dawn Chorus."

The highest compliment a listener can pay him is to don earphones, tune into his nature recordings and drift asleep.

"Hearing is our surveillance system. Hearing doesn't have a blind side. We don't need any instruction; our hearing tells us when we are in a secure, peaceful place. So when someone listens to my work and nods off, I say, 'Yes, I know what you mean. I've been there.' "

At a whisper

GORDON Hempton is as rare as the thing he cherishes. For starters, his commercial recordings serve only as an invitation and would never fulfill an MBA's idea of the products of a worthy business plan. "If people like what they hear, they can come out here and get more for free," Hempton says.

On the trail he seldom talks, never willingly and always at a whisper. In his company, heightened awareness fills the void of conversation. That is the gift he gives, and it requires no explanation.

Drip. Chirp. Flutter. Crackle. Rap-rap-rap. Applause. Put variable and generous pauses between those sounds. And sprinkle in other knocks and rustles and whooshes that aren't quite distinct enough to evoke clear description.

It is strangely simple: Hearing the living forest requires nothing more than the sensibility to listen, and the quiet background to make it possible. Oh, and one thing more: a listener must be of the type to like his, or her, own company.

Last night Hempton set the stage: "Quiet allows the time for us to be undistracted. Ultimately and always, we find ourselves. And we're better for it."

He arrives in his van at the Hoh River trail head in the morning, as he does a couple of times each month. He wears a cherished purl-knit wool sweater, carries a shoulder bag and forgoes rain gear for a cheap umbrella. His face is barely lined by age, his features hawk-like.

There is a sharp clicking sound: The hooves of elk traversing the blacktop parking lot into a downfall meadow beyond. A herd of 20 materializes out of the mist and trees, followed by another clicking herd of equal size, including a bull and a few spikehorns. The elk rip and chew into the forest, their teeth grinding and crunching on wads of wet greens, their mouths slurping.

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