A Square Inch of Quiet

New kinds of listening

I am learning lately to listen more carefully and preserve  peace and quiet when I can.  I recommend Listening Below the Noise by Anne LeClaire and One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman because those authors have helped me listen deeper, more frequently, and with fresh ears.


For Gordon Hempton, listening is his practice and silence his therapy.  Unlike a monk in silent retreat, Hempton goes forth to take full measure of his adversary—noise pollution.  And he does it while crossing the country, from Washington state to Washington, D.C.,  in a 1964 Volkswagen van he calls “Vee Dub,” a car that is a character in its own right.

Hempton’s other constant companion is his sound-level meter with which he takes a noise profile of the United States from one end to the other, with many side trips to places recommended to him as quiet.  The results are not good.  Rarely can Hempton find the peace of nature (with its diversity of sounds) for more than a few minutes without the intrusion of man-made noise.  Those pervasive noises from airplanes, cars, and oil rigs can grate on us in ways we don’t even realize, adding an undertone of stress to an already stressed-out country.  As Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, noticed, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”  The racket those tools are making is drowning out our opportunities to pause, appreciate, regroup, and reflect.

Gordon Hempton is an Emmy award-winning acoustic ecologist who records sounds for everything from movies to video games.  His book is called One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (2009).  He even includes a CD of nature sounds with his book, which, sadly, was missing in my library copy.  His listeners have let him know that they find joy, solace, and healing in the music of birds, water, and trees that he records—soundscapes where humans felt at home for thousands of years.  Soundscapes now almost impossible to find.

Part memoir and part manifesto, the writing in this book can be a bit rambling at times, just like his trip.  Yet there is something compelling about the story and his efforts to inform—and ultimately confront—federal officials who, on paper anyway, are mandated to protect citizens from unmitigated noise.  His main pleas are to the park service and the Federal Aviation Authority.  If we could restrict airplane travel over the national parks, that would help preserve the very peace and quiet that visitors seek there.  Hempton is not hopeful about winning that battle because it is too late.  Both commercial flights and sightseeing flights go over the Grand Canyon, for instance.

But Hempton has staked a small claim to silence and that is the one square inch of the book title, a red stone he placed on a log in the Olympic National Park in Washington state.  That area of the northwestern United States has very few planes flying over it and he would like to keep it that way.  He invites anyone at the Park to hike to the stone and leave him a message in a jar he put there.  He likes to know that he has allies in his often lonely fight to be conscious about protecting natural silence, the silence that we don’t  even know we’re missing till we get under the rumbling threshold of noise that has become the norm.

The book by Anne LeClaire is Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence (2009).  For almost two decades now, LeClaire has taken two days of silence a month.  Doing so, she has found a source of renewal and peace that helps her remain true to herself in the midst of a busy life.  I was fortunate to spend a weekend with her and take time to listen to myself and nature more attentively than ever before.  Both Hempton and LeClaire remind us to pay attention, both within and without, and treasure the silence.

Anne LeClaire’s website is http://www.anneleclaire.com.  Look for her Sacred Silence workshops.  Also see http://www.onesquareinch.org and, if you can, take a walk in the Hoh Rainforest, find Hempton’s stone, and sit a spell.

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2 thoughts on “A Square Inch of Quiet

  1. Hi Barbara!

    This is a great review of both books. I didn’t know about Gordon’s book at all!
    With my own journey, I think I’m going to find that book. I’m curious to see if it matches up with my travelogue at all.

    If I get the CD, I’ll make sure I burn you a copy :).

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