One Square Inch of Silence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In One Square Inch of Silence, Gordon Hempton argues that silence, which might be defined as natural quiet, is a natural state that all species including humans seek. Silence is essential for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, yet it is perhaps the most endangered natural resource of all. The intrusive noise made by human technology now infringes on every part of the earth. Hempton, who has recorded nature sounds across the world, finds that pure natural silence has almost disappeared globally. In the United States as of 2007, Hempton finds only three places with “noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer.”

In an effort both to preserve and to raise awareness about this vanishing natural state, Hempton established a place named One Square Inch of Silence and marked by a small red stone in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park on Earth Day, 2005. His goal was to maintain this natural soundscape so that natural silence would spread to the surrounding area and “quiet will prevail over a much larger area of the park.” Although the location has attracted many visitors who share and support his vision for preservation of natural silence, in 2007 Hempton realized that he needed to do more.

This book is the record of a cross-country trip that Hempton took. During his journey, he sought out naturally quiet locations and made recordings. He gathered information from public officials in agencies such as the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration and from scientists, engineers, and medical professionals who specialize in acoustics. He advocated and raised awareness about natural silence among the public through conversations. One Square Inch of Silencecoauthored with freelance writer John Grossmann, who participated in interviews in Indianapolis and Washington, an extension of Hempton’s efforts to champion and preserve areas of natural silence in the United States.

The organization of the book chronicles the route of Hempton’s journey. He begins appropriately at One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park. There, he retrieves the red stone and takes it with him as a symbol of his quest for the preservation of silence. Throughout his trip, he photographs the stone at different places, concluding with the Washington Monument. From a literary standpoint, the initial chapter gives readers an excellent acoustic sense of what it feels like to experience natural quiet in close to its pure state.

As Hempton travels from west to east across North America, he alternates between wilderness experiences and urban noise. For instance, after leaving the silence of One Square Inch, he goes to Seattle. His purpose is to gather information about sound and acoustics from city streets and buildings. He attends a professional basketball game and learns about the professional manipulation of sound that is typical of most sports arenas, both indoor and outdoor. On the quieter side, he also meets with acoustical engineers who have worked on interior soundscapes for the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library and for Benaroya Hall, the performing venue of the Seattle Symphony. Throughout this urban acoustic tour, readers gain information about the variety of sound experiences and acoustical possibilities, both indoor and outdoor, that exist within a large urban environment.

Similar contrasts of sound continue through Hempton’s journey. He has another intensive wilderness experience camping in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah, with his friend and nature sound recording colleague, Jay Salter. The two men emerge from this profound immersion in natural quiet to dine at a busy restaurant, where they measure the sound level at almost 75 A-weighted decibels, very high compared to levels between 20 and 40 A-weighted decibels in the Canyonlands backcountry. Salter comments: “It’s hard to believe, Gordon, we’re coming from twenty decibels to this! A jet intrusion would be quieting.” Further along the way in Indianapolis, after consulting with acoustic scientist Elliot Berger, Hempton leaves the bustle of that city and the earsplitting sound level of the Indianapolis speedway, where personal noise protection for the ears is advisable. He seeks the mountain stream in Tennessee where John Muir, the nature writer and founder of the Sierra Club, described the “music” of a mountain stream in 1867 as...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 14 (March 15, 2009): 33.

Christianity Today 53, no. 3 (March, 2009): 62.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 3 (February 1, 2009): 51.

Library Journal 134, no. 4 (March 1, 2009): 95-96.

Natural History 118, no. 4 (May, 2009): 55.

The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2009, p. W7.