Tag Archives: Gordon Hempton

A Square Inch of Quiet

New kinds of listening

I am learning lately to listen more carefully and preserve  peace and quiet when I can.  I recommend Listening Below the Noise by Anne LeClaire and One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman because those authors have helped me listen deeper, more frequently, and with fresh ears.

For Gordon Hempton, listening is his practice and silence his therapy.  Unlike a monk in silent retreat, Hempton goes forth to take full measure of his adversary—noise pollution.  And he does it while crossing the country, from Washington state to Washington, D.C.,  in a 1964 Volkswagen van he calls “Vee Dub,” a car that is a character in its own right.

Hempton’s other constant companion is his sound-level meter with which he takes a noise profile of the United States from one end to the other, with many side trips to places recommended to him as quiet.  The results are not good.  Rarely can Hempton find the peace of nature (with its diversity of sounds) for more than a few minutes without the intrusion of man-made noise.  Those pervasive noises from airplanes, cars, and oil rigs can grate on us in ways we don’t even realize, adding an undertone of stress to an already stressed-out country.  As Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, noticed, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”  The racket those tools are making is drowning out our opportunities to pause, appreciate, regroup, and reflect.

Gordon Hempton is an Emmy award-winning acoustic ecologist who records sounds for everything from movies to video games.  His book is called One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (2009).  He even includes a CD of nature sounds with his book, which, sadly, was missing in my library copy.  His listeners have let him know that they find joy, solace, and healing in the music of birds, water, and trees that he records—soundscapes where humans felt at home for thousands of years.  Soundscapes now almost impossible to find.

Part memoir and part manifesto, the writing in this book can be a bit rambling at times, just like his trip.  Yet there is something compelling about the story and his efforts to inform—and ultimately confront—federal officials who, on paper anyway, are mandated to protect citizens from unmitigated noise.  His main pleas are to the park service and the Federal Aviation Authority.  If we could restrict airplane travel over the national parks, that would help preserve the very peace and quiet that visitors seek there.  Hempton is not hopeful about winning that battle because it is too late.  Both commercial flights and sightseeing flights go over the Grand Canyon, for instance.

But Hempton has staked a small claim to silence and that is the one square inch of the book title, a red stone he placed on a log in the Olympic National Park in Washington state.  That area of the northwestern United States has very few planes flying over it and he would like to keep it that way.  He invites anyone at the Park to hike to the stone and leave him a message in a jar he put there.  He likes to know that he has allies in his often lonely fight to be conscious about protecting natural silence, the silence that we don’t  even know we’re missing till we get under the rumbling threshold of noise that has become the norm.

The book by Anne LeClaire is Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence (2009).  For almost two decades now, LeClaire has taken two days of silence a month.  Doing so, she has found a source of renewal and peace that helps her remain true to herself in the midst of a busy life.  I was fortunate to spend a weekend with her and take time to listen to myself and nature more attentively than ever before.  Both Hempton and LeClaire remind us to pay attention, both within and without, and treasure the silence.

Anne LeClaire’s website is http://www.anneleclaire.com.  Look for her Sacred Silence workshops.  Also see http://www.onesquareinch.org and, if you can, take a walk in the Hoh Rainforest, find Hempton’s stone, and sit a spell.

Turtle Breath

Chelydra Serpentina

How can aquatic turtles stay under water so long?  I’m watching one in Crystal Lake and she (?) is staying on the bottom of the lake for a long time.  I’ve been watching her for a while and I’ve decided to call her Jacqueline.

I was going to go kayaking but then I saw the turtle next to the dock and didn’t want to disturb her.  I sat down on the dock and began watching.  I’m starting to think this is pretty boring.  How can I just sit here staring at a ten-inch circle snuggled into a patch of seaweed?  In truth, the lake environment is neither bored nor boring.  It is my problem that I’m losing interest.  I remember a comment I made at a study group a few days ago: Ask questions of the material and your curiosity will guide you.  The question that comes to my mind now is about turtle respiration.  How do they do it?  The question gives me a time frame: Watch Jacqueline until she comes up for air.

She is a snapping turtle with a blunt, diamond-shaped head and a shell covered with algae. The algae looks like a fur coat and I want to pet it.  (Snappers came by their name for a reason, so this would not be wise.)  A sapphire dragonfly zips by and reminds me to pay attention.  I look up and see a bald eagle flying toward me across the lake, making high piercing calls before landing in a pine tree.

The book I’m reading lately, One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton, comes to mind and prompts me to listen more carefully.  Hempton is trying to help preserve natural quiet in a square inch (and beyond) of the Olympic National Park in Washington state, and elsewhere.  He is a professional listener and recorder of sound who is troubled by the increasing pervasiveness of man-made noises.   I let my ears lead me and notice that I can hear vehicle traffic from time to time.  Someone across the lake is cutting wood and then hammering it.  A flag flaps in the breeze and children splash into the water.  The cars from the county road could be considered noise pollution, but the rest doesn’t bother me.

Still, the turtle hasn’t come to the surface.  I think of my yoga teacher, Laura, saying “If you haven’t breathed lately, now would be a good time to do so.”  Does it make me anxious to see an oxygen-dependent being  under water for more than twenty minutes?  Oddly, it gives me a sense of peace, of being still and grounded.  I take a breath.  After another ten minutes or so, I see the tiny tip of Jacqueline’s nose break the surface and bubble a bit, breathing with the least effort imaginable before she snuggles back into her seaweed bed.  It’s time to go kayaking.

Later, checking the Encyclopedia of Earth online, I find out that snappers and some other types of turtles use the soft tissue in their mouths like gills, extracting oxygen from the water.  That’s how they obtain enough air to stay alive while hibernating for months at the bottom of lakes.  It is not enough air for active daily life, but it is something.  My questioning mind is somewhat satisfied, though I am still amazed at Jacqueline’s ability to stay submerged for so long.  I’m just glad that my turtle neighbor, with her ten round inches, gave me an excuse to be quiet, watch, and listen for the duration of a breath.