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Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Interview with Gordon Hempton

Since November, I've been in contact with Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence. Over the course of several emails, we discussed various topics related to hearing, listening skills, and hearing loss. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what he had to tell me.

Hi Gordon,
I wanted to write and tell you I am enjoying reading your book One Square Inch of Silence. I plan to write about your book on my blog once I've finished reading it. I think my readers would really enjoy your beautiful descriptions of nature sounds. Would you be willing to answer a few questions by email that I could include as part of my article?

Yes, I would be glad to answer any questions that you might have for your blog.

In the book you discuss your own experience of a hearing loss, which fortunately proved to be temporary rather than permanent. Why did you have a negative reaction when a doctor suggested a hearing aid for your hearing loss?

As you already know hearing aids are designed for human speech with some of the more sophisticated ones including settings for music and other purposes. But I do not know of a single hearing aid or cochlear implant processor that does a decent job of nature interpretation—although they could if the manufacturers felt there was an interest.

Do you teach people how to listen to nature?

I used to teach wilderness listening skills in classes up to 21. Now I only offer one-on-one tutorials, everything from just listening with the naked ear to using my professional sound recording equipment to produce a unique CD.

Please tell me more about your listening tutorials.

My listening tutorials are simple—basically I have made a career out of listening and so I work one-on-one with individuals to achieve what goals they might have in mind—or to put it more accurately, address those goals and then move on to goals that were previously unrecognized. Nearly everyone that I have worked with wants to become a better nature listener and while there are definitely some techniques for enhancing skill level, what most people don’t take into consideration is that WE ALL HEAR DIFFERENTLY with or without a hearing loss. The key to becoming a better listener is not to hear what someone else hears but instead to recognize that you hear differently and learn to use this difference to explore the world.

I take people of all ages and hearing abilities into nature to use my recording equipment. The equipment helps focus the auditory attention and also remove many of our bad listening habits—for some odd reason when someone listens through a microphone they listen to everything. We explore ocean beach, listen to beach logs, walk through ancient forests… as we do a deeper inner nature emerges—and this begins deep listening—a soul changing experience.

In brief my tutorials do little more than encourage you to trust your instincts and gain confidence in using your hearing to its fullest. One woman commented after one of my workshops that she had taken the workshop in order to hear many of the sounds that she had missed since her hearing loss, but she confessed that even with her hearing loss she is hearing more than when she had normal hearing.

How can the deaf and hard of hearing community play a role in your cause? I ask because I found reading your book - the recounting of America's hearing loss- to remind myself of my own hearing loss. How can you motivate those of us who perhaps cannot hear these nature sounds to play a part in protecting them for those who can?

I would like to answer all of those related questions by describing my experiences with my fiancĂ©e, Rebecca, who was born completely deaf in her right ear and impaired in her left ear. Today she has a cochlear implant in her right and a hearing aid in her left (but even with it she tests with profound hearing loss and is eligible to go bilateral with implants). I know we are an odd couple—I make my livelihood by listening and recording nature’s most eloquent and subtle voices and she has no idea what the hell I am talking about. She has never heard a bird that sounds anything other than a chirp—all birds are the same annoyance. All water sounds are the same, too. In strong contrast I have shaped my life to hear nature’s music more clearly, providing a series of epiphanies for me.

Yet, the poetry of nature sound is written in visual patterns. And while Rebecca did not know anything about nature listening she knew a lot about people listening—she taught me that you do not need to hear to be a good listener. This is obvious to me now but totally new to me before I met her. So we are trading knowledge and now embarking on a project called, Lip Reading Nature. Simply put: the same technique used to understand the spoken word (and the CONTEXT that allows a true understanding), can be applied to the wonderful expressions of nature—thereby allowing one sense (vision) to compensate for the lack of information provided by another sense (hearing). It is entirely possible for example to look at a photograph and know what it would sound like if you were there in person with normal hearing.

Enough said, the point of all this is that our national parks may look visually pristine but in fact are full of auditory trash due to overhead air traffic. As a result of noise pollution in our parks and also in and around our homes and work places, even the hearing world is profoundly listening impaired. It is especially important that both worlds, the hearing and none-hearing, listen to the Earth, because the Earth is speaking and telling us great things. When you think of people that you love, and discover that they might needs something, you simply do it if you can, you don’t get out the cost/benefit spreadsheet and see if it is worth it. We need to fall back in love with Earth and our courtship grounds are our national parks and wilderness areas.

The other night Rebecca wakes up and says, “What is that?” I say, “Traffic noise.” She says, “But I’m deaf!” The world is getting so out of control with noise pollution that it can wake the deaf, literally.

And for those that have some of their hearing it is particularly important that we keep our natural areas free of noise pollution. A passing overhead jet (of which there are thousands each day over natural areas) makes what little access that hearing impaired persons have to listening to nature impossible.

It is time for all of us, hearing or not, to defend our right to quiet from noise pollution which not only damages our health but separates us from each other and the Earth. I urge everyone to speak out on behalf of nature and get the noise pollution out of our parks. Currently there is not a single place in the world off limits to aircraft for non-military and security reasons. The goal of One Square Inch of Silence Foundation is to establish Olympic National Park as our nation’s first quiet place. You can read more about that at

What's happening now with your project on Lip Reading Nature?

We are fundraising for the documentary to be shot. Have the pilot DVD edited and shot, but no funds yet.

Thank you, Gordon. When I wrote you I had no idea you had a close relationship with someone who is deaf. I'm so pleased now that I took the chance on contacting you about your book and writing about it for my blog. Thanks again for your eloquent response. I am so proud to put this on my blog. All the best to you and Rebecca, Sarah


Liz said...

Wow. This was a very interesting read and surprising as I got into it. I am more interested. I wish what he does, there was something like this over here.

esther said...

I love the idea of a square inch of silence, being a passionate seeker of silence myself.
May I also just say, you are on fire with your blog posts this year! I am struggling to get one out at all....
Thanks for the book review - I will give it a look :o)