The hunt to find just one square inch of silence
Gordon Hempton’s office is at the top of a creaky set of stairs of an old building in Port Townsend, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.
The title on his door reads “The Sound Tracker.”
He’s a larger than life man who likes a little peace and quiet. More accurately, he’s obsessed with it. Over four decades, he’s dedicated his life in search of natural silence – places devoid of human cacophony.
It’s a tough business: We people are a noisy lot, especially when we’re using the air or roads to get around.
Gordon says right now it would take four or five weeks to find a new quiet place and three or four days to record it. “If I came out with 15 minutes of pure nature that would be a goldmine,” he tells me.
The practical side of his life’s work is selling his recordings to film and video game companies –office space isn’t free, after all.
Now in his 60s, the man obsessed with listening, who has been an advocate for quiet places has a problem: He’s losing his hearing.
“It is hard to breath, because there is so much history, not only in just the shock of losing my hearing, but all the changes of life,” he says. “But also there is immense love and gratitude because I would probably still be working alone today if I didn’t lose my hearing.”
Gordon has taken on a protégé: Matt Mikkelson, a tall, energetic man in his 20s who Gordon calls his hearing aid.
“You said that you’re hearing impaired and I am listening impaired and so together we make a really great team,” Matt says.
“No, together we make a whole person, Matt,” Gordon replies.
Matt takes us out into the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park to find an elusive spot Gordon has named the “One Square Inch of Silence.”
Gordon and Matt have rules for what qualifies a quiet place: free of noise pollution for 15 minutes in the time period between an hour before sunrise and two hours after sunset. Gordon says only about a dozen places in the lower 48 meet that standard.
“Silence definitely is the think tank of the soul,” he says. “It takes us to a very deep place in our lives. But we don’t need to answer silence. We can just be with silence. Spend some time with silence and you can carry on a conversation with it.”
Listen as THE WILD goes deep into a magical spot in the forest. To find your own special quiet spot, you can start by checking out Gordon and Matt's organization Quiet Parks International.
THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan Wildlife and The UPROAR Fund. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker. Produced for the web by Kara McDermott.
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