Gordon Hempton’s Incredible Campaign for Quiet
Gordon Hempton thinks about the Earth as a “solar-powered jukebox.” The acoustic ecologist, author, and Emmy award–winning sound recordist has spent more than four decades recording nature’s audible physical qualities—many so fundamental, such as a sunrise or rain falling in a forest, that we often fail to notice them. Hempton’s sonic portraits, made in remote regions around the world, capture sounds as varied as the locations themselves: He has recorded inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, amid thunder in Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, and at dawn breaking across six continents. Hempton sees his work, as he puts it, as “an invitation to feel,” where soundscapes can give rise to illumination, awe, and personal growth.
A recurring subject in his output is that of quiet, which he interprets as presence—not as a lack of sound, but a lack of noise. Hempton is the co-founder of Quiet Parks International, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that seeks to preserve quiet for the benefit of all species. It develops programming and standards for quiet, and conducts research on how quiet and noise pollution impact the earth. For Hempton, who often refers to silence as an endangered species, these efforts are crucial: While loud man-made noises (such as those produced by lawn mowers, sirens, trains, highways, and planes) can affect human health in the forms of hypertension, stress, and heart disease, they also affect the natural world, in which sound is used as a signal and compass, helping animals find mates and food, and to evade predators. Noise pollution muddies that messaging, and threatens the livelihoods of auditory animals that depend on echolocation, such as whales and dolphins. In Hempton’s view, to preserve quiet is to preserve species, the environment, and the planet.
Here, Hempton tells us about what we can learn from silence, why he feels hopeful about the Earth’s future, and how a thunderstorm changed his understanding of sound.
“In a sentence, the work I do is a crime of passion, something that I just have to do. Sometimes I hated myself for doing it, because it was so hard and dangerous, and at many times, unfair to my family. But as you live life, and make the wrong choices, it all comes right back around again, to where you have to be yourself.
At age 27, I decided to put my botany degree to practice and go to graduate school for plant pathology, or for treating plant diseases. I had great momentum and plans. Then, on a long drive I took from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin—being the cheapskate that all graduate students are—and after driving almost constantly, I pulled over and lay down, too tired to think, and let a thunderstorm roll over me. I totally surrendered to that moment of being an exhausted human being with an idea only of who I wanted to be, or should be. When I listened to the thunder, it told me so much about the space around me. I felt a deep connection with the world.
These days, I think of myself as a messenger. I try not to paraphrase what it is that I hear and learn, but to tell it directly as it happened to me. The special places that I seek out on the planet are among the least polluted by noise—places where I can experience nature in her most natural state. I’ve been down through the Amazon ten, twelve times by now. I’m constantly floored how each time is so dramatically different. The after-zone, and coming home, has become easier for me. At first I felt very lonely, because I couldn’t hear life around me telling me the time of day or night. My life was not constantly interrupted by a new object of living beauty. It’s really hard to find a place in nature that’s annoying.
My goal in sharing my sound portraits is twofold. One is to convince people that nature is amazing. It’s not the technology that’s beautiful or that makes nature beautiful; nature is beautiful all in itself. The second part is that it sounds beautiful only because this is our home. When we recognize that Earth is our home—our only home—the environmental crisis will be over. Everything else will fall into place.
There is a listening exercise that I like to do frequently, anywhere. I ask myself, What is the farthest sound that I can hear? The longer I take, the farther sounds appear and define my auditory horizon. Then, what is the faintest sound that I can hear? Listen to the place as one voice; take it all in. After doing that, ask yourself how you feel. As you practice this listening exercise in different places around the world—this solar-powered jukebox—you become more sensitive to, and discerning about, what your body, mind, and spirit are telling you. You form a very strong sense of belonging, like home, to certain places. Not surprisingly, those will likely be places where you would be able to survive. Silence has a voice.
If you want to become a better listener, simply let the sound in. Don’t filter out what’s important, what’s not important. Each place has a voice. Listen to your feelings. Don’t try to describe or analyze them. Just notice what it is that you feel.
Quiet has been on a road to extinction without us even hearing it. We don’t need the information. We need the belief. That’s one more reason to go to a wilderness area and listen—truly listen—particularly two hours before sunrise to one hour after sunrise, because sound propagates so extremely well then. It results in an international phenomenon called the ‘dawn chorus’: The birds awaken and begin to sing. It’s absolutely beautiful. Dawn is a global tune that has continued to evolve, and its composition with the evolution of life itself. You can listen to it at any latitude. In that, you hear so much expression of how much sunlight occurs, whether the forest itself is highly evolved. You get to hear when it’s a windblown soundscape, such as the prairie and open areas in the desert. Recording the global dawn chorus—and global sunrise, as I call it—has been my greatest life’s work.
When I go to a quiet place in nature, I bring the most difficult questions that I have in life. I write them down. When you’re quiet, open up that piece of paper and read the question. The quiet will answer it. It won’t answer in words and answers, but in a feeling. That very first impression is the truth—your truth.”