One Square Inch of Silence refers to a spot in Olympic National Park located in the upper northwest corner of the continental United States. Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, designated this spot as the last quiet place in America and vowed in 2005 to protect it from manmade noise intrusions. The book chronicles his journey, two years later, across the United States on his way to Washington DC to request federal recognition of the spot and to discuss the value of quiet in the lives of Americans.
I first heard about One Square Inch of Silence when it was cited in passing at a Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) conference presentation last June. Before I picked it up for myself this winter, I had only a vague notion that it was about how the world had become a noisier place and this was not such a good thing. The book does talk about that but it is so much more. I quickly realized I would need to devote some time to a careful reading of it.
In the beginning, I found myself slowing down to read the book's beautiful descriptive passages and recreate their scenery in my mind. I was enchanted by his descriptions of nature sounds unknown to me and enjoyed "hearing" them through Hempton's ears. I thought that might be all I would gain from the book.
But quite early on in the story, Hempton reveals he had a frightening experience with a sudden onset of a hearing loss. Because his work as a nature sounds recorder depended on his ability to hear, the loss was devastating. Like many of us, he found himself withdrawing from others when communication became difficult. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a middle ear problem. His doctor suggested a hearing aid, but he refused. Fortunately for him his hearing loss proved to be only short term, rather than permanent. Over a period of months, after Hempton made a few changes in his habits, his hearing was fully restored. This part of the book stopped me in my tracks as I pondered what it would be like for me to have normal hearing again.
Much later in the book, Hempton has his hearing tested at a special facility in Indianapolis. He includes his audiogram and his results are excellent. He has fantastic hearing. I felt wistful when I saw that. What must having above normal hearing be like?
Throughout the story, I found myself struck by the insights of various people Hempton interacts with along his cross-country trek. Several people had found healing through spending time alone in the wilderness. I wondered if it would be possible to restore a person's hearing, lost through noise impacts, by spending time in silence. The book doesn't say. I wonder if anyone has ever tried it.
I have to admit that reading this book as someone with a hearing loss was tough for me at times. The story of America’s hearing loss reminded me of my own. Near the very end of the book, Ken Feith of the EPA, says "People simply do not understand the significant adverse health effects of noise. They just don't." Unless they're coping with a hearing loss on a daily basis, I wanted to retort.
Whether or not people in the hearing loss community will want to get behind Hempton's push to save nature sounds that we ourselves may or may not be able to hear, I do not know. But there are several parts of the book I'd like to highlight for you.
First, the spiritual influence of nature is expressed several times in the book with insights like "In silence I feel God's presence and ultimate control." and "God whispers. Man shouts." These comments resonated with me strongly. Personally I find spending time in nature to be as spiritually renewing as time spent in church. Nature refreshes my spirit and makes me feel alive to my existence as a creature on this planet connected with every other living thing, whether plant or animal. Obviously, sounds are not as much a part of this experience for me as I don't hear crickets and other high pitched calls. Instead, it is the fresh air flooding my lungs and the visual delights of trees, water, and sky and their colors, shapes, patterns, and textures.
Secondly, Hempton discusses how the animals' sense of security is compromised when manmade noise intrudes into their habitat. Background noise interferes with the animals' ability to communicate with each other and attract a mate. For the animals, it's vital to survival to be able to hear a predator's stealthy approach. As someone who is frequently startled by people approaching me unawares in my daily surroundings, I can appreciate the vulnerability of the wild creatures drowned in a sea of noise produced by power tools, trucks, helicopters, etc. over which they have no control. I know that whenever I have visited a large city, I have found myself on hyper alert to the unfamiliar surroundings and proximity of strangers. Hempton explains that our ears evolved to serve us in this capacity. We have no earlids because our ears never sleep. So often, humans are utterly oblivious to the impact their activities have on animal life. This is something Hempton hopes to change through his writing.
Lastly, whether you agree with Hempton's priorities or not, he is a man to be admired. I recently wrote about being the change you want to see in the world and Gordon Hempton is a perfect example of that philosophy in action. Throughout his book a recurring theme is whether one person can make a difference in the world. I believe that one can. In his quest to protect the last quiet place in America, Hempton has gotten two airlines to agree to fly around Olympic National Park and one airline to make a concession towards that goal. He has also persuaded his local senator to sponsor legislation to protect the park's soundscape. He has made a difference.
The book concludes with several helpful guides to quiet in the wild, in the office, and in your home and neighborhood. I would also be remiss as a librarian if I didn't at least mention that the book's narrative includes an interesting description of the Seattle Public Library's acoustics.
You can find out more about One Square Inch of Silence at the organization's website. I'm interested in knowing your thoughts on the subject whether you've read the book or not. Tomorrow I will publish Gordon Hempton's response to my question: How would you motivate those of us who can't hear these nature sounds to play a part in protecting them for those who can? His answer may surprise you.