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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 1, 2013 at 10:51 AM

Trading eyes for ears to hear the sounds of nature

Readers of The Seattle Times will remember Gordon Hempton, profiled in our pages for his work to define and defend one square inch of silence in the Olympic National Park.

Hempton in 2005 launched what then was his one-man quest to eliminate air traffic across Olympic to maintain the natural quiet around that one square inch — and thereby, the park itself, for miles. His campaign garnered lots of attention, and Hempton went on to write a book about it. His quest to end air traffic over the park and advocate for a quieter world continues.

Sound recordist Gordon Hempton has devoted his career to recording the sounds of queit that he now can't hear In this photo by Seattle Times photographer Ken Lambert, Hempton, a sound recordist, takes a noise level reading, on Thursday, June 9, 2005, in Olympic National Park, after a three mile hike to his one square inch of quiet space. Hempton wants to declare one square inch of the Hoh valley a sanctuary of natural quiet as a way to defend the "soundscape" of Olympic National Park.

Sound recordist Gordon Hempton uses a meter to check the sound level in Olympic National Park.  Photo by Seattle Times photographer Ken Lambert, in June, 2005.  Hempton wants to declare one square inch of the Hoh valley a sanctuary of natural quiet as a way to defend the “soundscape” of Olympic National Park.

All along, Hempton continued his day job: recording the sounds of nature all over the world, for sale to all sorts of users and customers. They are transformational recordings. Try one: here’s Breathing Space, on the One Square Inch website. Bring his recording of the sounds of rain in the forest at Olympic National Park into your world for just a moment, and feel the result.

A few years ago, he decided to put his recordings — some 7,000 of them — into shape for sale through a new online company, Quiet Planet.

But as he worked with the recordings, he began to notice something: a man who depends on hearing the sounds of nature, a man whose livelihood depends on listening to the sound of quiet. Hempton was losing his hearing.

It wasn’t until he woke up on a recent spring morning, window open, and asked his partner next to him a question that he knew he had a problem. “I asked Cate, ‘Are the birds singing?’ And she said ‘yes.’ That’s when I knew the world was going to get a lot lonelier.”

Thus began his journey into discovering what his catastrophic health insurance policy doesn’t cover — including a CAT scan, to discover what is amiss. And because he can still hear human voices fine, what ails him couldn’t be called a disability.

Gordon Hempton places a stone on a mossy rock to mark his one square inch of silence.  Photo by Ken Lambert, Seattle Times staff photographer, in June, 2005

Gordon Hempton places a stone on a mossy rock in Olympic National Park to mark his one square inch of silence.
Photo by Ken Lambert, Seattle Times staff photographer, in June, 2005

But for someone whose functionality and even identity resides in the highest and lowest registers of sounds slipping away — the sounds of music, birdsong, nature, of quiet itself — the loss is indeed catastrophic, and accelerating.

To cope, Hempton has brought volunteers into his studio, to help him hear what is on his recordings.  But he’s learned that also has meant teaching his helpers to not only hear, but listen.  Take the sound of wind. “Is there a hiss? Yes,” Hempton said. “But does it vary? Well that is grass wind. The sound of cellulose rubbing, which is a sound bats can hear.” But today, Hempton cannot.

Hempton said he has decided to take the advice of his friend, Olympic landscape photographer who recently wrote Hempton that what happens to you isn’t as important as what you do with what happens to you.

“Adversity is opportunity disguised as trouble,” Hempton says, repeating  his friend’s mantra. He ought to know: a landscape photographer, he is becoming visually impaired.

The two of them intend to hook up, the photographer losing his sight, with the sound recordist losing his hearing, for an exploration together sometime soon in Olympic National Park. Hempton will be his friend’s eyes, his friend will be Hempton’s ears. Together, they will see what art they can make in the forest.

This is not a commercial venture. Mostly, the idea, Hempton said, is to go back to doing something they both enjoy. To focus on the positive,  rather than on loss.

“This is an experiment,” Hempton said.

It’s about love,” Hempton said. “We are just going to bring love back into our lives.”

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