One Square Inch of Silence
Extended silence at pulpit.
An ancient proverb: Silence is also speech.
Or It is better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to speak and
remove all doubt.
From the writings of Gordon Hempton, a sound ecologist:
Good things come from a quiet place: study, prayer, music,
transformation, worship, communion. The words peace and quiet are all
but synonymous and are often spoken in the same breath. A quiet place,
he tells us, is the think tank of the soul, the spawning ground of
truth and beauty.
A quiet place outdoors, he has found, has no physical borders or
limits to the perception. One can commonly hear for miles and listen
even farther. It affords a sanctuary for the soul, where the
difference between right and wrong become more readily apparent. It is
a place, he has found, to feel the love that connects all things,
large and small, human and not.
Sadly though, he reports, as big as it is, our planet offers fewer and
fewer quiet havens.
No place on earth untouched by modern noise. No place at all.
Even far from the paved roads in the Amazon rain forest, he writes,
you can still hear the drone of distant outboard motors on dugout
canoes and from the wrist of the native guide the hourly beep of a
The question, he says, is no longer whether noise will be present but
how often it will intrude and for how long. The interval between noise
encroachments (measured in minutes) is the measure of quiet he uses to
define quiet and its opposite, and in his experience a silence longer
than 15 minutes is now extremely rare in this country and long gone in
Take for example Walden Pond, home to Thoreau’s experiments with
solitude and serenity. A blogger who lives nearby warns us not to
visit there in the summer because it will be least inspiring: People
from all over, he reports, flock there to swim. You will have full
parking lots , he warns, and tons of noise. Even in the quieter time
of winter, there is always the persistent and invasive sound of
tractor trucks and snow ploughs on nearby highways, the drone of jets,
the brutal buzzing of chain saws.
Walden is no exception to the situation even in our wilderness areas
and our national parks where the average noise free interval has
shrunk to less than five minutes during daylight hours.
By Gordon Hempton’s calculations, the rate of quiet places extinction
vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction.
Today there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the United
States and by that he means places where natural silence reigns over
many square miles.
Fewer than a dozen.
In 1984, early in his career recording natural sounds, he identified
21 places in his native sonically fascinating Washington State that
met his definition of quiet places, with noise free intervals of 15
minutes or longer. Twenty years or so later only three remained on
his list, his favorite a place deep within Olympic National Park, the
Hoh Rain Forest, which he believes is quieter than any other national
park or wilderness area for one reason only: overcast skies, 200
completely cloudy days a year, many of these cloudy days also rainy.
Rain and lots of it, he believes, is a big deterrent to selling
tickets for scenic tours, for drawing in humans, for attracting what
are now known as flight-seers and the prop plane noises that accompany
As tour operators promote these air tours over this and other national
parks, boasting that this particular spot is “the Grand Tamale, the
only non tropical rainforest in the world,” Gordon Hempton counters by
claiming the Hoh Rain Forest as his Grand Tamale too- America’s
quietest spot, his little One Square Inch of silence, which he chooses
to defend from all human-caused noise intrusions, which means keeping
out all air traffic, commercial flights as well as air tours, as best
he can, so that the sounds of river singing, the dawn chorus of bird
song, and then simple and exquisite air stillness are protected. Or
what he calls a whole valley experience of sound, the result of place
not an individual performer, when he can feel the importance of the
living community, how one thing is not more important than the other.
It’s everything that matters, a collective place that makes music.
This ecologist, whose life’s work , sound level meter and recorder in
hand, has been dedicated to searching out, preserving and seeking to
save silence, has come to think of silence in two ways.
Inner silence, he believes, is that feeling of reverence for life. It
is a feeling we can carry with us no matter where we go, even on a
noisy city street. It resides on a soul level.
Outer silence, he maintains, is different. It is what we experience in
naturally quiet place, without the modern noise instrusions that can
remind us of modern issues beyond our control, such as economic
aggression and the violation of human rights. Outer silence invites us
to be reconnected to what binds us together. It can recharge our inner
silence. It can fill us with gratitude and patience.
This notion of inner silence ( refreshed by outer silence) a silent
mind freed, as one writer puts it, from the onslaught of thoughts and
thought patterns, is an important step in spiritual development across
world faith traditions, where the importance of being quiet and still
in mind and spirit is essential for transformative spiritual growth to
In Christianity, there is the silence of contemplation, including
Centering Prayer; In Judaism, prayers of silent presence are
considered to be at the heart of a growing relationship with God; In
Islam, there is the wisdom writings of the Sufis who insist on the
need to find silence within; In Buddhism, the descriptions of silence
and allowing the mind become silent are a key feature of spiritual
enlightenment, in Hinduism and the many paths of Yoga, and in some
traditions of Quakerism, silence is an actual part of worship services
and the time to allow the divine to speak to the heart and mind.
Known for its focus on silences, in Quaker spirituality, silence is
the point in the hour glass of our busy and hectic lives through which
the sands of prayer must pass. As the sands trickle from top to
bottom, one Quaker teacher tells us, filtered by silence, a deepening,
indwelling, and empowering process slowly gives birth to social
In his own quest for inner and outer quiet, when Gordon Hempton is
not staking out square inches of silence in wilderness settings, he
makes his home in Joyce, Washington, if not the quietest town in
America, he claims, then one of them. His closest and loudest neighbor
is a cow, often buried in fog about 500 yards down a country road that
most weeks sees three cars other than his.
The loudest sound inside his home is a landline phone, set to only
ring once before going to voice mail; the second loudest is an
antiquated refrigerator that hums, gurgles and slurps to do its
job-keeping his beer cold and Yoplait yogurt fresh. The third loudest
sound is the steady low hum of his computer work station, which
empowers the business side of his field work.
Other than that just the occasional sounds on schooldays of the
windblown laughter from the playground of an elementary school about a
mile away, and in the spring courting frogs, with what he describes as
their all night hootenanny.
On the other hand, the houses I have lived in, from childhood, have
been surround sound: in the suburbs of Washington D.C. we lived within
close earshot of a busy throughway which eventually became the
Beltway; when we moved to a college town in California, we first lived
in a house on one of the car-clogged wide main roads to the Bayshore
freeway and just down the street from an elementary school, where the
bells went off hourly, even in the summertime. If it wasn’t the auto
cacophony and then in later years proximity to train and rapid transit
tracks that filled the airways, it was dueling rock albums, laughter
soundtracks from televisions that were on from dawn to midnight, or
in the brief time my mother and I shared a rental house, her
insistence on turning on ( if not actually listening to) the radio
every waking hour and into the night, as comfort she would tell me.
In one of my journal entries from that time, I recorded my frustration
that “even now, at just before six o’clock in the morning, mother’s
news talk is on. Her constant need for human voices is incredible to
me for whom the balance of some silence is essential( and never
complete, what with the central heater hissing, the birds chirping in
intervals between downpours, and the cat’s tussling).Without human
interference, I wrote, there’s always enough sound for me.”
And now we live in a small house on a small side street in a small
town nearby, empty nesters in the quietest house I have ever lived in,
and still when I wake to meditate or write at 4 or 5 am, having been
awakened by the dogs’ persistent scratching on the stairway door, even
when muffled by thick towels. I feed the dogs and am immediately
subjected to the dry food crunching, water lapping, then the loud
licking of hot spots, the scratching of ubiquitous fleas.
Then the sound of the coffee pot brewing, which dings when it is done
and then again when it is about to turn off, the refrigerator motor,
which can go on and on, and this even before, within an hour of
waking, the high pitched droning of crickets or whatever these insects
are in this environment, squirrel squawking, squealing car brakes,
gunning engines, train whistles a half mile away, and the beginning of
the day’s jet path over our neighborhood.
Taken all together, this combination of minor and more major sounds,
besides being spiritually depleting, can become the stuff of what we
call noise pollution or toxic tones, sound that is undesirable for
human hearing: street noise, traffic noise, noise in public transport
places, noise in playgrounds and parks, noise in shopping malls, in
workplaces, around airports, and now even in National wilderness
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, noise is any sound that “
lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably unpleasant,” or “ is
undesired or interferes with one’s hearing of something.”
As the Right to Quiet Society asserts, the definition of noise itself
is highly subjective. To some people the roar of an engine is
satisfying or thrilling, to others it is an annoyance. Loud music may
be enjoyable or a torment, depending on the listener or the
Most people might not be bothered by the sound of a 21 gun salute on a
special occasion. On the other hand, the thump-thump of a neighbor’s
music at 2 a.m., even if barely audible, could be a major source of
Sound is measured in a unit known as decibels. Though there is no
fixed particular decibel limit determining when sound becomes noise,
it is commonly understood that a continuously high decibel limit
constitutes noise pollution. Various jurisdictions set limits, from
none to a common sound limit of 65db in the daytime and 55 db in the
nighttime. A quiet home would register around 20db, with 70db as a
safe average for a 24 hour day.
Using these limits, appliances in our homes alone such as appliances
(garbage disposals, blenders, vacuum cleaners) can cause a cumulative
sound of about 87 dBs or way over the limit of noise pollution.
Other pollutants are tools and devices for home use ( lawnmowers, snow
blowers, chainsaws and power tools), construction, recreational
vehicles, music ( personal stereos, rock concerts, nightclubs),
sirens, and even humans yelling or cheering crowds. The sound of a
subway train, honking horns, jack hammers—fixed features of urban
life—register at 120 dBs.
Another acoustic ecologist and sound recorder, Bernie Krause, notes
that in November 2000, an award was given for the loudest sound system
ever produced for the interior of an automobile, with a sound pressure
level of 174dBs, a factor or two louder than a .357 magnum pistol
being shot off in your ear and a factor of seven louder than standing
on a runway 10 yards from a Boeing 747 at full take off power.
When noise becomes dangerous is when we are exposed to too much noise
over a period of time, which groups like Noise Free America tell us
cause hearing impairment, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular
disturbances, disturbances in mental health, impaired task performance
and negative social behavior.
The National Institutes of Health says that some 65 million Americans
are regularly exposed to noise levels that can get in the way of work
and sleep, and 25 million are at risk of noise-related health
This noise pollution that is physically and spiritually unhealthy for
humans is of course also threatening and unhealthy for other living
things. While studies have shown that some birds thrive in noisy
neighborhoods, even nesting near compressor sites that sound like jet
( black –chinned hummingbirds and house finches) new research
findings indicate that other species are being found more and more
clustered only in quiet areas, choosing to nest in these places and
with much less frequency. Biologists in Montana have published a
paper linking enzyme stress levels in elk and wolves in Yellowstone to
the proximity and noise of snow mobiles.
With several Endangered Species laws, the US government has outlawed
human harassment of marine species, whether by noise or another
irritant, but nearly all research on toxic tones, the dumping of a
large volume of loud noise into the ocean every day, has been on sea
mammals— overlooking its effects on the fish and plankton
For everyday human relief from noise pollution, toxic tones, we can
wear earplugs in noisy places, turn down the volume on radios,
personal headsets, and TVs, sound-treat our homes with heavy curtains
and rugs, add acoustical tile to our ceilings and walls, look for
quieter appliances, grow trees as buffers.
But what, again, of the destruction of silence in our world as an
environmental catastrophe? The soundscape, our acoustic environment,
has been described as a commons- something that belongs to all of us.
There are sound habitats, we are told, no one will ever be able to
hear again. They are forever silenced, fully extinct or hopelessly
Gordon Hempton and other acoustic environmentalists, seekers of
natural sounds, are working to be keepers of our few remaining silent
places . To preserve aural solitude.
To create quiet sanctuaries in hopes of by preserving one square inch
of quiet at Olympic National Park, for example, they might change
noise pollution worldwide.
Again, as individual guests in wild habitats, if you travel alone, of
course, this eliminates the need for talking, if you travel with
others on trails, use hand signals, once you enter the woods, speak
in whispers, travel with respect for others need for quiet, leaving
your technology at home: no cell phones ,no talking GPS devices, no
Collectively, think always of noise, as one science writer put it, as
audible trash by muffling motorcycles, quieting our campgrounds,
limiting thrill craft like snow mobiles and lowering watercraft
noise levels. And build bigger better buffers against jet plane
noise pollution by reclaiming airspace over our parks.
There has been progress lately in our efforts to join with sound
ecologists in battling sound pollution in the wilderness .
A federal judge in Denver just last month handed a partial victory to
environmentalists by issuing an injunction against oil drilling in
Great Sand Dunes National Park, based in part, on sound monitoring
data that the judge felt presented adequate evidence that the drilling
of these wells is likely to cause irreparable injury to the refuge’s
sense of place and quiet.
We are reminded that as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our
national parks, we do so not for what our parks have become in this
fly-over world of ours, but for who we have become to them: defenders
of the wilderness, its majesty and its silences.
From a Quaker poet:
I need not shout my faith. Thrice eloquent
are quiet trees and the green listening sod;
Hushed are the stars, whose power is never spent;
the hills are mute, yet how they speak of God.