In this two-part blog series, Wendy Worrall Redal explores our vanishing quiet places and what that loss could mean for us.
This past summer, my family and I backpacked among the granite spires and flower-filled meadows of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. It was remote country: nearly 400 miles from any major city, 100 miles to the nearest Walmart, and the last 57 of the trip was on poorly marked gravel roads to reach the trailhead. From there, it was 10 miles in on foot to the Cirque of the Towers, a ring of serrated peaks encircling a subalpine lake like rampart walls.
We saw few people and heard even fewer sounds. There was the wind in the spruce trees, the gurgle of a meltwater creek, the hoot of an owl after dark. I felt profoundly isolated — until a jet overhead broke the natural silence. We then noticed them regularly and figured we were in the flight path from Denver to Seattle, perhaps, or Chicago to San Francisco. While I would have paid the planes no mind at home, their presence seemed intrusive and out of place in this tucked-away haven of wilderness.
Silence: An Endangered Species
On a planet that sustains more than 7 billion people, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are ever-fewer truly quiet places. I began to wonder: Is there anywhere left that one can go where it’s possible to escape mechanized sound entirely? That may be a worthy quest for eco-travelers who yearn for an unadulterated experience of the natural world.
Finding such a place has been the goal of Gordon Hempton, author of the 2009 book One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, written with John Grossman.
“Today, silence has become an endangered species,” writes Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and Grammy-winning natural sounds recording artist. “Quiet used to be as common as clean air and pure water. It was part of the everyday environment of our ancestors, and today it’s extremely scarce.”
Silence, Hempton notes, does not mean the complete lack of sound. “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything” — everything but sounds that are mechanically generated. And silence is on its way to extinction.
Hempton believes there may be fewer than a dozen places left in the United States — and none in Europe — where you can sit for 20 minutes during the day without hearing a plane fly over or some other noise from human activity. The average noise-free interval in our wilderness areas and national parks has shrunk to less than five minutes, he says.
His life’s work has been to find those increasingly elusive places and record their vanishing natural sounds. He has spent the past 25 years traveling the globe while recording songbird trills, bugling elk and butterfly wings, waves crashing on beaches and water falling from cliffs, the drip of melting glacial ice and droplets of rain hitting the forest floor.
Nature’s Sounds: A Resource to Protect
Indigenous sounds are an essential aspect of place, Hempton believes. The extent to which the natural sound space is marred by the din of generators, cell phone ring tones and tinny noise leaking out of loose iPod earphones reflects the extent to which its intrinsic character is compromised.
Hempton notes that natural sounds are actually more soothing than those that are artificially generated. In a recent interview with The Sun magazine, Hempton explained that “natural sounds generate a sinusoidal wave, with rounded peaks, which is easy on the ears. Many mechanized sounds are square or sawtooth-shaped or have jagged edges. If you see them on an oscilloscope, you’ll know why they’re unpleasant to listen to.”
The National Park Service agrees. It has identified sound as a natural resource to preserve, and has created the Natural Sounds Program to “protect, maintain, or restore acoustical environments throughout the National Park System.”
The “Natural Sounds” page on the NPS website makes this case:
“Our ability to see is a powerful tool for experiencing our world, but sound adds a richness that sight alone cannot provide. In many cases, hearing is the only option for experiencing certain aspects of our environment. The symphony of natural sounds within our national parks is an important natural resource and a critical component of the ecological communities that parks seek to preserve.”
The NPS holds that only the absence of man-made sounds can allow the full enjoyment of naturally occurring sounds that are native to an area. Natural quiet, which sometimes comes as profound silence, is fundamental to the experience of a place such as the Grand Canyon, for instance. Elsewhere, as in a vast marsh such as the Everglades, the air may be a cacophony of sounds — such as bird calls — that are integral to its identity.
In the second part of this blog series, Wendy will share her list of some of America’s last remaining quiet places.
Feature photo: Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming’s Wind River Range by Wendy Worrall Redal