It was 3 a.m. and Gordon Hempton was recording voiceovers inside his yurt on the waterfront town of Port Townsend, Washington, when he paused. In the distance, he heard a logging truck rumbling down the road. “This guy sounds like a new driver based on the speed he’s going,” he said into the microphone. The growl of the throttle’s pitch was unfamiliar and he took a few moments to catalogue it in the audio library of his mind.
Hempton is a man who really knows how to listen. An acoustic ecologist by profession, he’s spent the last 35 years hunting for Earth’s rarest nature sounds, largely in Washington’s Hoh Rainforest. But his most difficult quarry of all has been silence.
Although Earth is full of uninhabited wilderness, truly audible silence is on the verge of total extinction. There are almost no places in the world where a visitor can expect to go 24 hours without hearing manmade noise. Even in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, an airplane could fly right over your head.
Hempton’s unusual solution: Preserve the silence of the wilderness in virtual reality. Working with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Adam Loften from educational multimedia nonprofit Global Oneness Project, Hempton helped create Sanctuaries of Silence, a 7-minute, 360-degree VR film with 3D audio that takes viewers into the depths of the Hoh, one of the last bastions of silence in America.
At the annual Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, attendees (including this reporter) donned VR goggles and headphones and sat in swivel chairs as they looked up, down, and all around them at misty, lush rainforest of Olympic National Park. After some initial nausea, it felt right to simply sit still and take in the virtual ambience, listening to chirping birds and creaking trees as Hempton mused in voiceover on how holding a microphone made him a better listener.
“In traditional documentaries, sound often becomes secondary to the visual detail,” says Loften. “But here we really wanted it to be primary. The simple visuals allow you to focus even more on the sound.”
It’s calming, sure. But reconnecting with the pure sounds of the wilderness help clue us in to our surroundings in a very tangible way. Think of the information contained in bird song: Depending on the species they hear, trained observers can tell what country—or state, or even park—they’re in. They can figure out whether it’s morning or evening, what time of year it is, and more. Sound can define its space, if we’re only willing to listen. When it’s drowned out, we lose a key layer of communication.
Everyone involved in making Sanctuaries of Silence agrees that experiencing a low-noise wilderness in real life is better than seeing and hearing it in VR. But for those who are stuck inside, Loften says, the chance to take a break and hang out in a peaceful rainforest for a few minutes is the next best thing.
“The memories that get connected through this experience can actually be very restorative,” says Loften. “We are so good at adapting to our environments that we don’t even notice how noisy it’s become until we actually step into that space. The emotional impact is strong and can actually be quite scary for some people because all of a sudden your internal monologue gets even louder.”
That’s not to say that Hempton, Vaughan-Lee, and Loften are against human-made noise. While filming a segment in front of the Amazon building in Seattle, the crew was recording near a pneumatic jackhammer as it pounded away at the pavement. “The sound of the compressor was almost like a song,” Hempton noted, far more fascinated than annoyed by its existence. His message is not that we should rid the world of all noise pollution, but something a little more basic than that: Listen to the space that you’re in, whether noisy or quiet. Listen to what’s there, and what’s not.