June 22, 2009

One Square Inch of Silence

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman
Nonfiction - Environment
2009 Free Press
Quit on 4/30/09
Rating: DNF

See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun—how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.
~ Mother Teresa

Publisher's Blurb:

Having completed a coast-to-coast mission to preserve and protect natural soundscapes, Gordon Hempton proclaims that "the extinction rate for quiet places vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction." Part road trip, part cultural chronicle, One Square Inch of Silence is an eloquent celebration of nature and an ear-opening journey into Earth's vanishing sanctuaries.

Like a sound safari, One Square Inch of Silence recounts Hempton's trek across the country to capture the sounds of American landscapes and the reflections of the American people on the importance of quiet in their lives. Birdsong, melting ice, the bugling elk all achieve immortality as the author addresses questions of surprising importance, including: Why isn't natural quiet part of the ecological agenda? Culminating in the author's arrival in Washington, D.C., where he pleads his case for the preservation of natural quiet, One Square Inch of Silence is one of the most impassioned, original environmental works ever written.

I can't tell you how many times I've toyed with the idea of going back and finishing this book. I have a dozen passages marked with sticky notes and there's just something that appeals to me about Hempton's idea to research (and fight for) silence in this crazy, chaotic world of ours. Not to mention reading about someone else's road trip!

But for now, I'm going to call it quits. However, I will leave you with several of my favorite passages and blurbs. Maybe, in doing so, I might just convince myself to keep the book for a future read.

One Square Inch of Silence is more than a book; it is a place in the Hoh Rain Forest, part of Olympic National Park—arguably the quietest place in the United States. But it, too, is endangered, protected only by a policy that is neither practiced by the National Park Service itself nor supported by adequate laws. My hope is that this book will trigger a quiet awakening in all those willing to become true listeners.


Silence is a sound, many, many sounds. I've heard more than I can count. Silence is the moonlit song of the coyote signing the air, and the answer of its mate. It is the falling whisper of snow that will later melt with an astonishing reggae rhythm so crisp that you will want to dance to it. It is the sound of pollinating winged insects vibrating soft tunes as they defensively dart in and out of the pine boughs to temporarily escape the breeze, a mix of insect hum and pine sigh that will stick with you all day. Silence is the passing flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, chirping and fluttering, reminding you of your own curiosity.

Have you heard the rain lately? America's great northwest rain forest, no surprise, is an excellent place to listen. Here's what I've heard at One Square Inch of Silence. The first of the rainy season is not wet at all. Initially, countless seeds fall from the towering trees. This is soon followed by the soft applause of fluttering maple leaves, which settle oh so quietly as a winter blanket for the seeds. But this quiet concert is merely a prelude. When the first of many great rainstorms arrives, unleashing its mighty anthem, each species of tree makes its own sound in the wind and rain. Even the largest of the raindrops may never strike the ground. Nearly 300 feet overhead, high in the forest canopy, the leaves and bark absorb much of the moisture... until this aerial sponge becomes saturated and drops re-form and descend farther... striking lower branches and cascading onto sound-absorbing moss drapes... tapping on epiphytic ferns... faintly plopping on huckleberry bushes... and whacking the hard, firm salal leaves... before finally, the drops inaudibly bend the delicate clover-like leaves of the wood sorrel and drip to leak into the ground. Heard day or night, this liquid ballet will continue for more than an hour after the actual rain ceases.

Hempton's passion:

I listen to the world—this is my job and my passion as an acoustic ecologist. I've recorded on every continent except Antarctica. My recordings are used in everything from video games and museum exhibits to nature albums, movie soundtracks, and educational products. More than 25 years of recordings in all manner of natural setting have swelled my library to 3,000 gigabytes. I've captured the flutter of butterfly wings, the thunderous booming of waterfalls, the jet-like swoosh of a bullet train, the wisp of a floating leaf, the passionate trill of a birdsong, the soft coo of a coyote pup. I'd rather listen than speak. Listening is a wordless process of receiving honest impressions.

What is One Square Inch?

One Square Inch of Silence was designated on Earth Day 2005 (April 22), when, with an audience of none, 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 1000 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.

On Peace & Quiet:

Good things come from a quiet place: study, prayer, music, transformation, worship, communion. The words peace and quiet are all but synonymous, and are often spoken in the same breath. A quiet place is the think tank of the soul, the spawning ground of truth and beauty.

On the Lack of Sound of Silence:

Sadly, though, as big as it is, our planet offers fewer and fewer quiet havens. This is especially true in developed nations, where the high consumption of fossil fuels translates into noise pollution. It's come to this: there is likely no place on earth untouched by modern noise. Even far from paved roads in the Amazon rain forest you can still hear the drone of distant outboard motors on dugout canoes and from the wrist of a native guide the hourly beep of a digital watch. The question is no longer whether noise will be present, but how often it will intrude and for how long. The interval between noise encroachments (measured in minutes) is the measure of quiet these days. In my experience, a silence longer than 15 minutes is now extremely rare in the United States and long gone in Europe. Most places do not have quiet at all; instead, one or more noise sources prevail around the clock. Even in wilderness areas and our national parks, the average noise-free interval has shrunk to less than five minutes during daylight hours. 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 and by that I mean places where natural silence reigns over many square miles.

Be sure to take a look at the author's website, as well as this video clip about One Square Inch of Silence.

And then maybe consider replacing your leaf blower with a rake or broom.



  1. It sounds interesting. Too bad you didn't enjoy it!

  2. Kailana - Well, ya never know. It's still on my nightstand even though I said I gave up on it back in April. Guess I'm still toying with the idea of reading more from it. We'll see!

  3. When I saw this title, I thought what a wonderful concept. I get annoyed when I go in my backyard to read and enjoy the green & flowers and the neighborhood dogs all get to barking or vehicles with loud mufflers roar a block away. Lawn mowers don't usually bother me, but it's better when it's quiet.

  4. Booklogged - I must not want to give up on this book entirely, as it's still sitting on my nightstand with a bookmark holding my place.

    Lawnmowers don't bother me too much. It's the skateboarding and trampoline jumping two doors up that grates on my nerves.

    Don't even get me started on the volume of noise in restaurants these days!

  5. If you like the ocean and good book discussion Men of Gain by Hunter McClelland is a must read.

  6. Jeff - Thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out!


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