“When We Save Quiet We Save Everything Else”
The Sound Tracker Gordon Hempton on the importance of silence as the world starts churning again
AFTER THE GREAT QUIET descended during the COVID19 lockdown, we saw what the power of silence could do—to our overstimulated brains and to the natural world. It was so quiet from March to May 2020, that scientists determined this “seismic silence” to be the longest period of quiet in recorded history.
While we might have become more creative, whales migrated closer to shore due to the lack of ship noise interfering with their sound location, wildlife were free to roam—a puma sauntered through Chile’s deserted capital city, coyotes were spotted near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge— and in New York City, residents heard more birds than traffic.
But as the world reopens and airplane engine roars increase can we keep the last quiet places... well, quiet?
On a Quiet Quest
Gordon Hempton, the Sound Tracker, hopes so. An acoustic ecologist who’s spent the last four decades seeking out natural vanishing soundscapes around the world, he’s on a mission to save the world’s last quiet places. Hempton spoke to Newsweek about his life’s work to save the silence.
As co-founder of Quiet Parks International (QPI), a nonprofit that seeks daily access to quiet worldwide, he helped establish the first “Quiet Park” in the world in 2019 in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest (#6, previous spread) and seeks to establish 265 more around the globe, including some in urban, densely populated places like the first Urban Quiet Park in Taiwan (#10, previous spread).
Hempton’s sound tracking started with his One Square Inch of Silence project in Olympic National Park (#2, previous spread), which highlighted what he considered in 2005 the quietest place in the U.S. He calls this sonically pristine stretch of wilderness his recording story and his home.
Hempton didn’t set out to study soundscapes, but two sounds changed his life. The first was a thunderstorm in Madison, Wisconsin; hearing the rolling thunder was so transformative that he switched from studying plant pathology to acoustic ecology.
“By holding a microphone in my hand, I heard the world as it really was and that was magic,” Hempton says,“It was like swimming in a lake or the ocean and suddenly you put on a face mask, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God. It’s really an amazing, incredible world.’”
Then, a second sound changed his life. While he was waiting for a freight train to roll in, he heard the song of a Western meadowlark outside the railroad yard in Wenatchee, Washington.
“That’s when I began recording deeper and deeper into nature and wildernesses, and the further I got away from noise pollution, the more clearly I heard. I started to understand that nature is [as] busy communicating as we are.”
What Do Birds Chirping Tell Us?
“Birds and bird song is the primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans,’’ says Hempton. “If the birds are singing, there’s food, water and a fairly favorable season to raise the young in the nest and all of that magic.”
But we don’t have to be a scientist to understand our relationship to the land, he adds. “When we find
places on planet Earth that are relatively free of noise pollution, we also find the healthiest places. The ecosystems are intact, the biodiversity is there. Carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere by the plants. Oxygen is being produced for the animals and us.”
The value of quiet on human health and happiness? Science shows it improves cognitive skills and creativity, reduces stress levels and increases your chance of living longer. Quiet makes us instantly happy in an increasingly noisy world.
QPI’S “Quiet Park” designation also helps to protect places that already offer pure natural sounds from additional land uses and development, even forcing planes to reroute around protected wilderness areas.
The Value of Quiet
“If silence is golden, then quiet is gold,” Hempton says of the economic value of quiet, “As the rest of the world gets noisier, silent seekers entering the ecotourism market to experience the antidote to toxic noise are going to be worth millions of dollars.”
And this valuable resource—quiet— can help distribute wealth to environmentally vulnerable areas so they can preserve all their natural resources.
“I’m hit with the question of ‘Really, you want me to care about quiet when we have global warming, toxic waste, habitat loss and species going extinct?’” says Hempton.
“Yes, exactly, because quiet not only allows us to be better ourselves— clearer thinkers, more intelligent, more creative, more socially willing to help each other.”
“When we save quiet, we save everything else,” says Hempton.
A Sustainable Natural Resource
The world’s first certified “Quiet Park” in the world, is home to the Cofan, an Indigenous people in Ecuador, numbering about 1200 people today, down from estimates of 30,000. As they fight to preserve their land, they are now able to export quiet—a sustainable natural resource.
“The Cofan want to develop their ecotourism, so they can generate the money to defend their land from illegal gold mining,” explains Hempton, adding, “They feel the pressure of the modern world for their resources, they don’t want to give up their traditional way of life. So every dollar counts for their legal defense and ecotourism.”
“Quiet, is a resource, and it is a resource that the noisiest western industrialized countries around the world need, because it’s healthy, it’s transformative.”
If you want to experience the world’s first quiet park, Hempton along with Cofan guides lead smallgroup Explorer X trips along the Zabalo River in the Amazon Basin.
“The only way to save the environment is for people to care about the environment and truly make it a part of their lives, and the only way they’re going to care about it is to be in that environment to experience it.”
“When we find places on planet Earth that are relatively free of noise pollution, we also find the healthiest places.”