Defender of quiet places
Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says natural sounds are disappearing.
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A discouraged Hempton has almost given up recording outdoors in the Lower 48, preferring remote destinations elsewhere. In the hope of protecting them, he declines to pinpoint locales. In 2005, he declared himself the defender of "one square inch of silence" in nearby Olympic National Park, reasoning that a space of silence could have as large an impact as the noise of a passing plane. (A book by Hempton of the same name is being published in March.)Skip to next paragraph
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"Where are places entirely free of human-created sound?" he asks. "There really aren't any – not for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They're all gone. Even the North Pole is under airplane flight paths." Hempton estimates that only one-tenth of 1 percent of Earth's land surface still offers complete quiet for periods longer than 15 minutes.
"Wherever there are lots of people, there's a lot of noise," he says. "Some cultures are louder than others. For instance, I've visited a few developing nations where the only acceptable volume on a boom box is all the way up."
Our conversation confirms my conclusion that the mechanical clamor of the Industrial Revolution and the electronic beep of the Information Age are conspiring to obliterate a balm of stillness that once soothed humankind. That's a tragic loss, in my estimation, because retreats into nature allowed our ancestors to maintain their equilibrium. I'm convinced that a walk in the woods or through a meadow helped keep them sane. This is where they developed the resilience to handle whatever personal challenge or crisis was at hand. Scientific studies confirm the capacity of "quiet alone time" to reduce stress, expand insight, and promote a sense of well-being.
Restorative time in the open air is when many of us touch the fullness of possibility, waking up to the cause and effect of our lives. Escaping what one poet called "the world of the made" opens doors to the yearning heart, the wisdom of intuition, the miracle of problem solving, and the truth of experience. On hikes near my home I reconnect to some of my strongest passions, fondest wishes, and happiest memories. Such reveries allow us, as Henry David Thoreau reported from Walden Pond, to "be completely true to ourselves."
Yet according to a study published last February, Americans are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. Since the late 1980s, the percentage of our population hiking, camping, or visiting national parks and forests has fallen 1 percent annually. One consequence may be decreased societal interest in conservation.
Experts blame the trend on lives too crammed with activity to get away from it all. But nature's quiet is a healthy antidote. If we embrace the stillness and serenity of our natural world, we may willingly release some of the busy behaviors that imprison us indoors. Gordon Hempton calls such getaways "the think tank of the soul." Here we may find that less really is more, that a simpler life can be a richer one, and that the calming sounds of planet Earth are worth saving.