Where Can Silence Be Heard?

Audio ecologist Gordon Hempton defines silence as “the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.” This natural silence, though, is becoming increasingly rare—even in the most remote locations:

[Hempton] says there are fewer than a dozen places of silence—areas “where natural silence reigns over many square miles”—remaining in America, and none in Europe. In his book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, written with John Grossman, Hempton argues that silence—a precious, underrated commodity—is facing extinction. Over the past three decades Hempton has circled the earth three times, recording sound on every continent except Antarctica: butterfly wings fluttering, coyotes singing, snow melting, waterfalls crashing, traffic clanging, birds singing. His work has been used in film soundtracks, videogames, and museums.

He has also trekked through both remote and urban landscapes, measuring decibels and rude interruptions to the noises of nature. In 1983 he found 21 places in Washington state with noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or more. By 2007 there were three. (One of them is Olympic National Park, which he is trying to save, and he will not reveal the names of the others, arguing that they are protected by their anonymity.) Whom can we blame? People, and planes. Hempton claims that, during daytime, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas has shrunk to less than five minutes.


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