As the Seattle skyline grows closer through the plane’s oval window, I wonder if Gordon Hempton is listening. If he is, I’m sure he’s annoyed. Hempton, part natural sounds recording artist and part silence activist, regards it as his personal mission to protect our parks from noise. Airplanes, like the 737 I’m on, are the biggest offenders. It’s an ironic start to my quest. For the next three days, I will join Hempton on a backpacking trip into Mt. Rainier National Park in search of quiet fewer than 200 miles away from a major city. Looking down on the expanse of concrete and asphalt stretching in every direction, I feel skeptical. But Hempton has a plan.
He has chosen our destination of Palisades Lakes strategically. By targeting the park’s northeastern corner, the Rainier massif should block noise from Seattle and Tacoma. On a micro level, a series of small ridges running east to west should deflect sound from the nearby town of Enumclaw. Plus, Dicks Lake, where we’ll make camp, is situated in a naturally muffled cirque whose walls will further insulate us from traffic and park sounds.
At the trailhead, as rain drizzles in air cold enough that we can see our breath, Hempton advises me to keep an open mind about what we won’t—and will—be hearing. Most hikers don’t know what kind of “music” is out there until they really start listening, he says.
At Hempton’s request, we walk the first mile without speaking, allowing us to “shed the baggage of daily life.” I’m bursting with questions, but I keep it zipped. It feels strangely liberating.
Hempton has dedicated his life to recording the natural world. He sells his work to galleries, musicians, and corporate clients like Microsoft and the Smithsonian, and you can buy his clips on iTunes. He won an Emmy for a PBS documentary in which he literally chased dawn, capturing its sounds on six continents. A stickler for quality and authenticity, Hempton does not alter his recordings—if a plane buzzes by, the integrity of the audio is ruined. Over the course of the last 15 years, Hempton has found it increasingly difficult to locate places where he can record for more than a few minutes without man-made interruptions, which led to his work as an environmental activist.
On Earth Day, 2005, he launched the One Square Inch of Silence campaign. OSI is a one-inch by one-inch speck in Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest that Hempton has spent the last six years lobbying to keep devoid of unnatural sounds. If he can protect one tiny area from human noise, his theory goes, an exponentially larger area will benefit. In the case of Olympic, which Hempton calls “the listener’s Yosemite” for its diversity of sound, he estimates a 20-mile radius would be freed from human-made noise if we preserve that single square inch.