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kottke.org posts about Gordon Hempton

Silence Is the Presence of Everything

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

This morning, instead of crawling straight from bed to desk and diving into the internet cesspool, I went for a walk. I went because I needed the exercise, because it was a nice sunny day out, because the changing leaves are super lovely right now. (Check out my Instagram story for some of what I saw along the way.) But I also wanted to listen to this episode of On Being with Gordon Hempton called Silence and the Presence of Everything. Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who has a lot of interesting things to say about silence and natural sounds.

Oh, grass wind. Oh, that is absolutely gorgeous, grass wind and pine wind. We can go back to the writings of John Muir, which — he turned me on to the fact that the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of the needle or the blade of grass. So the shorter the needle on the pine, the higher the pitch; the longer, the lower the pitch. There are all kinds of things like that, but the two folders where I collected, I have, oh, over 100 different recordings which are actually silent from places, and you cannot discern a sense of space, but you can discern a sense of tonal quality, that there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat.

It sounds paradoxical, but I wanted to listen to this podcast in a setting with natural sounds, rather than in my car or on a plane. I had my AirPods in because they don’t block all outside sound, so I could hear the crunch of the road beneath my shoes as I walked and listened. The nature and animal sounds in the episode sounded like they were actually coming from all around me. I paused the episode for a minute or two to listen to a burbling brook I passed along the way. The whole experience was super relaxing and informative.1

You can read more about Hempton and his efforts in preserving the world’s silence places on his website The Sound Tracker or in his book, One Square Inch of Silence. Outside magazine recently profiled Hempton, who, in cruel twist of fate, has suffered dramatic hearing loss in recent years.

The problem Hempton hopes to take on is gargantuan. To understand it, try a little experiment: when you reach the period at the end of this sentence, stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, and listen.

What did you hear? The churn of the refrigerator? The racing hiss of passing traffic? Even if you’re sitting outside, chances are you heard the low hum of a plane passing overhead or an 18-wheeler’s air horn shrieking down a not-so-distant highway.

If you heard only the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees, you’re one of a lucky few. But it’s likely that quiet won’t last.

This short documentary, Sanctuaries of Silence, follows Hempton to some of the quietest places on Earth, including the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park.

I think what I like most about listening is that I disappear.

If you’d like to disappear for awhile but don’t have access to a quiet place, you should check out some of Hempton’s recordings on Spotify — I’m listening to Forest Rain right now.

Or try out the Sound Escapes podcast to check out some of his best natural soundscapes. (thx Meg, who sent along a link to the On Being episode after reading yesterday’s post on noise pollution)

  1. And it was another good example of the AirPods as an AR device.