Book Review: One Square Inch of Silence

Having always had a keen interest in sound level measurements, I eagerly opened One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World. The book is a much more curious creature than a table of environments and corresponding measurements.

The author, Gordon Hempton, is a sound recording specialist who lives near Olympic National Park. Prior to writing this book, he experiences a terrifying encounter with tinnitus and hearing loss, but recovers:

I had recently turned 50, and to celebrate this I began taking supplements that were recommended to me by my brother, who is a physician and had been on a rigorous vitamin and hormone regimen himself: high-potency B-complex, potassium, calcium, alpha lipoic acid, to name a few.

Then, about two months after discontinuing the supplements, as if God himself had spoken to me, I experienced a sudden onset of completely normal hearing.

After recovering his hearing, Hempton embarks on a quest:

I placed a small red stone, a gift from an elder of the Quileute tribe, on a log in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park, approximately three miles from the visitors center. With this marker in place, I hoped to protect and manage the natural soundscape in Olympic Park’s backcountry wilderness. My logic is simple and not simply symbolic: If a loud noise, such as the passing of an aircraft, can affect many square miles , then a natural place, if maintained in a 100 percent noise-free condition, will likewise affect many square miles around it. Protect that single square inch of land from noise pollution, and quiet will prevail over a much larger area of the park. …

By my reckoning, the rate of quiet places extinction vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction. Today there are fewer than a dozen quiet places left in the United States. I repeat: fewer than a dozen quiet places and by that I mean places where natural silence reigns over many square miles.

He selects this place because he believes that it is the quietest place in the United States, specifically including Alaska but without talking about ever having visited Alaska. Based on my experience, a randomly selected point in Alaska would be far less likely to be intruded upon by human or machine sounds (and if you were at that randomly selected point and did hear a helicopter you would be very grateful indeed!). In fact, very likely the average public airport in Alaska would be quieter (remember that a “public airport” in Alaska may be simply a gravel or grass runway with a handful of takeoffs and landings per week; see this list).

The author’s main fight is against aircraft noise, including the noise made by airliners up in the flight levels (i.e., above 29,000′). The sound reaches the ground at about 36-45 dBA, not loud enough to be heard in the city but audible within the Hoh Rain Forest (the author’s readings range from as low as 22 dBA up to a more typical 36-46 dBA, depending on how close he is to flowing water). For reference, the sound level inside a conference room would be 40-50 dBA, inside a Honda Accord on the highway between 65 and 70 dBA, inside an airliner 80-85 dBA, and, sadly, inside a crummy four-seat airplane, 85-95 dBA.

It turns out that this fight is not a great way to bond with a teenager. Hempton’s teenage daughter just wants to listen to her iPod with the sound cranked up to the max, which she is forced to do because her father drives a VW Bus, one of the noisiest personal vehicles on the American Highway (the author measures interior noise as 82 dBA at 53 mph on the highway):

Abby doesn’t get it. Or hasn’t listened. And now she sits sullenly across the table from me, iPod on, earbuds in, head turned away. When I catch her eye and frown, she yanks out the earbuds. “The whole One Square Inch thing— I think it’s bullshit. I’ve always felt that way. It’s stupid.” I guess I’ve got only myself to blame for this. Victim of that old expression “Be careful what you wish for,” I had wanted Abby along for a stretch of the trip to stand in for today’s youth, as she moved from the noise of an urban environment to the deep listening insights of a naturally quiet place . I hoped to gather her observations and insights, too. Well, she’s not very shy with her opinions. So let’s have them. “Why is it stupid?” I ask, dutifully allowing Abby to give her voice to the project “I think it’s a waste of time.” “Do you understand that if you preserve quiet at One Square Inch that it affects noise pollution for 1,000 square miles? That’s not bullshit!” “I don’t want to argue about it,” she says. “I don’t care.” After 16 years, she knows how to push my buttons. “You know, your not caring is really coming through. What do you care about?” “Maybe what a regular teenager cares about. I care about friends. I care about having fun. I don’t feel the need to go deeply into things I don’t care about. I’m willing to take a train home or a bus. Right now.”

“My intent was never to torture you, you understand that, right? This is not a plot against you. Just give me this opportunity to explain your role in my journey, all right? Then you can decide.” “All right,” Abby says quietly. “If you come along you’ll have the opportunity to listen to nature, something that you have not listened to in a long time, and I think that you’ll be surprised.” “That’s what I like,” seconds Yvette. “You’ll like it when you’re eighty-eight.” “Yeah, when I’m older, maybe.” “The idea here,” I continue, “is that when you’re listening with an iPod you’re listening only a quarter-inch away. If you come to Pipestone, you’ll have the opportunity to listen to very faint sounds— sounds that have come from miles away . Wouldn’t that interest you? Take a moment . I don’t think you can even answer that question because you haven’t heard what I am describing. This will be an entirely new place and experience. And I want to get your response to Pipestone. How does it sound to you?” “Well, it doesn’t interest me. I don’t care. I’m not interested in stuff like that.”

The author has some trouble communicating with pilots as well.

When I was studying John Muir’s sound descriptions in his journals and recording in Yosemite, I decided to fly to San Diego to visit my brother. Because I’d had to pretty much limit my recordings to nighttime to avoid the noise intrusion of high-flying commercial jets, I asked the fight attendant to ask the pilot if he would fly around Yosemite . So I was surprised to soon find myself looking down at Half Dome and El Capitan. After we landed, the pilot was standing by the cockpit, so as I was getting off I said, “Well, thanks for at least trying not to fly over Yosemite.” He said, “Not fly over Yosemite? I thought you wanted to fly over Yosemite.”

The author begins his quest, a VW Bus drive from Washington State to Washington, D.C., during the reign of the hated King Bush II and attributes the indifference of federal officials, both within the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, to Bush’s appointment of people whose main interest in the Earth is how quickly it can be raped and pillaged for resources. The Feds seem to have ample resources overall, e.g., the the author goes camping with a friend in Canyonlands and the Park Service sends federal employees out to investigate:

Then two female park rangers burst into camp— no greeting, barking questions, pointing fingers, and expecting answers. “Why did you put a question mark on the registration form for your vehicle license? Did you gather these?” One points to a collection of deer antlers that had been in the bushes for a long time. Both of the women have darting eyes, as if they suspect us of a crime. The bulldog of the two barks out the big question: “Why have you come here ten years in a row and stayed without moving on?”

But few government workers concentrate specifically on noise. The EPA had an Office of Noise Abatement and Control back in the 1970s, with “ten regional centers of excellence on noise established at universities.” Ronald Reagan’s administrator killed the program, but somehow a handful of staffers managed to continue drawing salaries for the next three decades. The author goes to visit one. He, like everyone else on the federal payroll, seems to have plenty of time for meetings and discussion, but nothing ever gets accomplished, e.g.,

The sun set on Earth Day 2008 and the latest unmet deadline for the National Park Service and the FAA to agree on means for a substantial restoration of natural quiet in the Grand Canyon. That deadline had been set eight years earlier.

It’s now 21 years and counting since the 1987 passage of the first congressional legislation to control air traffic over Grand Canyon National Park. It’s clear the two agencies are communicating, because a couple of weeks prior to Earth Day, on April 9, 2008, the National Park Service gave “clarifying” notice in the Federal Register to remove all aircraft flying above 17,999 feet MSL (above mean sea level) from their near-term, long-overdue rule making for restoring natural quiet at Grand Canyon National Park. Despite a 2002 Federal Court of Appeals Decision (yes, there have been lawsuits slowing things down), which ruled in part that the Grand Canyon Overflight Act did apply to high-flying jets, the Park Service appears to be letting go of the rope on high-altitude commercial and private jets in its tug of war with the FAA, at least at this one battleground national park.

His teenager eventually comes around to having more respect for the project, using it as the subject for her high school senior project: “This project has inspired me to believe that one person can make a difference and I will make a difference.” Yet, thus far, despite five years of Hope and Change from President Obama (elected just as Hempton’s book was wrapping up), the author’s blog shows that no additional action has been taken by government officials. In fact, the author’s last concrete achievement was back in 2001, when American Airlines agreed to avoid flying over Olympic National Park.

Ultimately, as well as providing some hard data on noise levels in different environments, the book is interesting as an example of the challenge in working on a local issue (noise near this guy’s house) that is regulated by a 2-million-employee bureaucracy 3000 miles away (Congress, the EPA, the National Park Service, the FAA, etc.).

More: Read One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: One Square Inch of Silence

  1. As best I can tell the average American is deeply uncomfortable with quietude. They truly do want a TV blaring or muzak piped in. Every newer apartment building I looked at around here had TVs and music blaring in the lobbies.

    Going out on a kayak in a lot of places can be accessible quiet and solitude, but clearly almost nobody is interested in that. They want to tear around on jet skis and yachts, and ruin the quiet for kayakers.

  2. In the early ’90s, I recall twice when I was outdoors and experienced absolute dead silence. Once in Death Valley, CA, another time in Ghost Ranch in NM.

    In both cases it took a conscious effort to observe the phenomena, but it’s very memorable.

  3. Well, it is not silence, but I can testify that in the fall in an oak forest in Illinois on a windy day, there is no sound at all that isn’t nature.

  4. I just gave up on the book today, because while I appreciate his argument, I knew that his call for action, especially among government agencies, would fall on deaf ears, especially considering that the one director mentioned in the book might have actual hearing loss. I skimmed ahead to cut to the chase. I also found his driving around in a noisy VW bus counter to his own beliefs and ironic that to get silence, we have to raise our voices. It wasn’t that I didn’t think what he said was of value. It was just maybe because of living amidst the noise, I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to really hear what he was saying. Half 😉 but still true.

Comments are closed.