The Listeners’ Paradise
Hoh Valley, Olympic National Park, @yuxxiang
Why Olympic National Park is the place to tune into nature: “the Yosemite of sound.”
Gordon Hempton knows how to listen. And he knows how to talk about listening. As a leading figure in the field of acoustic ecology, he’s documented natural soundscapes around the world, won an Emmy, and authored One Square Inch of Silence, a book on the importance of quietude. He’s the cofounder of Quiet Parks International, a nonprofit aiming to do for listeners what the Dark Sky concept does for stargazers.
Based in Seattle, Hempton has done notable work in Olympic National Park, Washington State’s lush and sprawling wilderness jewel. [Olympic contains the Hoh Valley–famously, arguably the quietest place in America–and an array of other sonic environments.] In conversation with Wildsam, Hempton delves into this singular landscape and the overarching importance of what our ears detect.
Scroll down to hear Hempton’s recordings from Olympic’s many realms of natural sound–forest, mountains and coast.
WILDSAM: Let’s start with the basic cocktail-party question: just what is “acoustic ecology”?
GORDON HEMPTON: Acoustic ecology is the sum total of sound and its behavior at a given location. Every place on Planet Earth sounds different. Sound is produced by events. Sound carries information. So acoustic ecology answers the questions: Who is listening? Why are they listening? What do they do with that information? The sounds in a given environment really do determine which species get to live there, and how they live their lives.
What does the work of an acoustic ecologist entail?
In the most general terms, I’m a professional listener–recently retired, after 40 years of listening to places all around the planet. Mostly I listen to unintentional sounds. The background sounds. You can listen to any place, whether it’s a city or a wilderness–any place in the world–and learn lots of things. I’ve consulted with major clients like Microsoft, the Smithsonian, Apple, Discovery Channel, Nat Geo–you name it–on various projects. Videos, video games, film, radio productions, and most recently podcasts and the health and wellness industry.
My work is not only to listen, but to communicate the value of taking a listening perspective when we try to solve complex problems. That’s my job.
Technical aspects of the work aside, let’s talk about that last part: Why is it important that people know about acoustic ecology, in any one place or in general?
Our environment is communicating. Information about a lot of global problems is obvious to the attentive listener. Why are songbird species declining? Our visually dominated culture looks at the habitat: There seems to be plenty of food here, so what’s the problem? The problem is that we aren’t listening to the crescendo of noise pollution that tracks with the decline of songbird species. Why do birds sing? To attract mates. And if their mates can’t hear them, they won’t reproduce. On the other side of the coin, if they can’t hear the swoop of a hawk–that very faint sound of feathers flying through the air at breakneck speed–they lose their lives.
How has that insight into problem-solving affected how you present your work? You’ve made many recordings, but you’ve also written an acclaimed book and launched an advocacy group.
People were saying, “Oh man, I’m so happy that you’re saving silence and you’re saving these vanishing, natural soundscapes through your recordings.” And I’m saying, “No, no, I’m not saving it. I can’t save it. But we can save it.” If I stay out on my own, the only thing I’m going to save is documentation of what we’ve lost, which will be a very sad piece of evidence.
A lot of your work revolves around Olympic National Park in Washington State. Why there?
I’ve referred to Olympic National Park as “the listeners’ Yosemite.” It’s sonically the most diverse American national park with wilderness areas, and it’s basically three parks in one.
There’s the alpine region, with the creaking and cracking of glaciers. There we have the endemic marmot, which makes a sound that is one of the most information-dense communications in the world.
There are little sanctuaries of calm in an otherwise windy, exposed environment as weather systems pass over Hurricane Ridge. A lot going on there related to sound.
Then we have the most extensive coniferous forest in all of the United States: virgin forest, uncut by a road. That terrain also contains the tallest forests in the world. The tallest trees, to be clear, are the giant Sequoia in California–as individuals. But the tallest forests are in Olympic National Park. It has the highest productivity of any forest system.
There are Roosevelt elk, the original reason the Olympic Reserve was established, before it became a park. I could go on and on about when to hear the elk bugle. A lovely experience–very different if you’re close to the elk. I don’t recommend that. If you’re close to an elk when it bugles, your body will tell you exactly whether or not it’s a good idea. When you hear it at a distance, your body tells you it is a good idea–it’s beautiful.
Finally, the third component is the Olympic wilderness seashore, the longest stretch of wilderness seashore on the West Coast of the U.S., in the Lower 48. Sound tells us a wave crashed on the beach. Sound tells us whether the beach was sand, pebble or rock. Is it a high-energy beach, exposed to the large Pacific swells? Or a low-energy beach? Are the waves muted at a distance? Are they only low-frequency content, not mid-frequency, which indicates that the event is closer? Is it just a roar? That indicates a gentle, sloped beach. It’s not a steep-faced beach at high tide, where individual crashes occur, the beating of that drum.
Rialto Beach, @nate_dumlao
Beyond sheer beauty, how would you describe the value of that “listeners’ Yosemite”?
Olympic National Park is a wonderful opportunity to rediscover who we really are, not who we think we are. We can study our own hearing. And without knowing much more about our prehistoric ancestors, we can get some really strong information about who they were. We have their ears! We are essentially living in these ancient bodies.
So let me meet myself as an ancient body. What are my instincts telling me about Olympic National Park? How do I answer questions like, Is it safe? Is it prosperous? Based on the sounds, if I were suddenly stranded here, could I live here for months? Is this good human habitat?
We not only discover who we are in this very ancient and evolving way, but if we listen to Olympic National Park, we discover that not only does it take the entire Pacific Northwest to produce a place like this, it takes the whole planet.
To wind up on a question that might be very basic, here goes: how can someone become a better listener?
Oh, there are lots of things you can do. One thing I like to say is, bring a young child with you. We’re all born listeners. People might think, well, my kid will never hold still. They won’t hold still at home because homes are noisy places. But get them into nature, and they’ll surprise you. Go for a night walk. Hoist the young child onto your shoulders. They’ll tell you everything you need to know about becoming a better listener. They’re just all ears. That’s basically what brought us here as a species today.
Shop for clothes that would simulate what grandma might have in her closet. Wool, cotton, natural, organic stuff is naturally quiet. Isn’t that cool?
Walk slowly, walk comfortably. Your steps are information you’re sending out into the acoustic environment. It reveals a lot about who you are. Are you in a hurry? Are you tense? Are you being sneaky? No fast walking, no jerky movements. When you’re quiet, you are effectively invisible to so much wildlife. And you find the whole world starts coming alive around you.
Instead of pictures, take sound recordings and listen to them. If you use your smartphone and earbuds, put it in recording mode and amp it up. Or if you want to do better than a smartphone, I recommend the Sony PCM-A10, a really small, very accurate recording device. The brain goes, whoa, a lot going on. When you turn off your device and take your earbuds out, it’s still going on.
Now the brain knows that those faint sounds are important. And your mind will start to amplify those faint sounds.
Learn more about Gordon and his work here.