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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
There are answers in the silence. I feel the presence of everything, nothing shouts importance. Quiet is quieting.
- ~Gordon Hempton, reflecting on the hike to One Square Inch in the Hoh Valley Rain Forest
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On one of the loudest holiday weekends of the year, a show about the importance of silence. Being a boy from the Dakota prairie, this week’s show with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton just tugs at my heart strings.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Sounds of Silence

by Gordon Hempton

Uluru SunsetUluru Sunset (photo by Martin Fisher/Flickr)

The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.” So said the Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch in 1905. A century later, that day has drawn much nearer. Today silence has become an endangered species. Our cities, our suburbs, our farm communities, even our most expansive and remote national parks are not free from human noise intrusions. Nor is there relief even at the North Pole; continent-hopping jets see to that. Moreover, fighting noise is not the same as preserving silence. Our typical anti-noise strategies — earplugs, noise cancellation headphones, even noise abatement laws — offer no real solution because they do nothing to help us reconnect and listen to the land. And the land is speaking.

We’ve reached a time in human history when our global environmental crisis requires that we make permanent life-style changes. More than ever before, we need to fall back in love with the land. Silence is our meeting place.

It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may. Long before the noises of mankind, there were only the sounds of the natural world. Our ears evolved perfectly tuned to hear these sounds-sounds that far exceed the range of human speech or even our most ambitious musical performances: a passing breeze that indicates a weather change, the first birdsongs of spring heralding a regreening of the land and a return to growth and prosperity, an approaching storm promising relief from a drought, and the shifting tide reminding us of the celestial ballet. All of these experiences connect us back to the land and to our evolutionary past.

P1010220One Square Inch of Silence is a place in the Hoh Rain Forest, part of Olympic National Park — arguably the quietest place in the United States. But it, too, is endangered, protected only by a policy that is neither practiced by the National Park Service itself nor supported by adequate laws. My hope is that One Square Inch will trigger a quiet awakening in all those willing to become true listeners.

Preserving natural silence is as necessary and essential as species preservation, habitat restoration, toxic waste cleanup, and carbon dioxide reduction, to name but a few of the immediate challenges that confront us in this still young century. The good news is that rescuing silence can come much more easily than tackling these other problems. A single law would signal a huge and immediate improvement. That law would prohibit all aircraft from flying over our most pristine national parks.

Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It lives here, profoundly, at One Square Inch in the Hoh Rain Forest. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature, and lets us know who we are. Left with a more receptive mind and a more attuned ear, we become better listeners not only to nature but to each other. Silence can be carried like embers from a fire. Silence can be found, and silence can find you. Silence can be lost and also recovered. But silence cannot be imagined, although most people think so. To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it.

Silence is a sound, many, many sounds. I’ve heard more than I can count. Silence is the moonlit song of the coyote signing the air, and the answer of its mate. It is the falling whisper of snow that will later melt with an astonishing reggae rhythm so crisp that you will want to dance to it. It is the sound of pollinating winged insects vibrating soft tunes as they defensively dart in and out of the pine boughs to temporarily escape the breeze, a mix of insect hum and pine sigh that will stick with you all day. Silence is the passing flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, chirping and fluttering, reminding you of your own curiosity.

Have you heard the rain lately? America’s great northwest rain forest, no surprise, is an excellent place to listen. Here’s what I’ve heard at One Square Inch of Silence. The first of the rainy season is not wet at all. Initially, countless seeds fall from the towering trees. This is soon followed by the soft applause of fluttering maple leaves, which settle oh so quietly as a winter blanket for the seeds. But this quiet concert is merely a prelude.

When the first of many great rainstorms arrives, unleashing its mighty anthem, each species of tree makes its own sound in the wind and rain. Even the largest of the raindrops may never strike the ground. Nearly 300 feet overhead, high in the forest canopy, the leaves and bark absorb much of the moisture … until this aerial sponge becomes saturated and drops re-form and descend farther … striking lower branches and cascading onto sound-absorbing moss drapes … tapping on epiphytic ferns … faintly plopping on huckleberry bushes … and whacking the hard, firm salal leaves … before, finally, the drops inaudibly bend the delicate clover-like leaves of the wood sorrel and drip to leak into the ground. Heard day or night, this liquid ballet will continue for more than an hour after the actual rain ceases.

Recalling the warning of Robert Koch, developer of the scientific method that identifies the causes of disease, I believe the unchecked loss of silence is a canary in a coal mine-a global one. If we cannot make a stand here, if we turn a deaf ear to the issue of vanishing natural quiet, how can we expect to fare better with more complex environmental crises?

Photo by Dan../Flickr

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The Last Quiet Places: The Sounds of Nature’s Silence Are Essential to Our Own Contemplative Lives

by Krista Tippett, host

Hoh Rain ForestSunrise on the outskirts of the Hoh. (photo by Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

This week and next week, we’re bringing people to the air who feel like discoveries. Their chosen vocations surprise and enrich the world in graceful ways. Sarah Kay, next week’s guest, is a young spoken word poet and teacher. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, an explorer and collector of natural sound. At heart, they are both about listening as an essential, if somewhat lost, art. In very different spheres, they are leading a renaissance.

Gordon Hempton tells of a turning point when he was in his mid-20s, just a little older than Sarah Kay is now. He took a break alongside the highway on a cross-country drive, and lay down to listen to an approaching thunderstorm. He felt like he had never really listened to life before, and pledged to give himself over to it. Our producer Chris, who mixes the sound of these shows, has created an immersive experience, guided by Gordon Hempton’s ears, which will also make me a more passionate listener to “ordinary” sounds ever after.

Gordon Hempton went on to become one of the world’s first acoustic ecologists. He has gathered sounds from the Kalahari Desert, the edge of Hawaiian volcanoes, inside Sitka spruce driftwood logs of the same wood as violins. His work appears in movies, soundtracks, and video games. Along the way, he’s also invented another, related vocation — that of “silence activism.”

Big DriftwoodSitka spruce driftwood washes ashore at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Silence, as Gordon Hempton experiences and seeks to preserve it, is not a vacuum defined by emptiness. It’s not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. True quiet has presence, he says, and is a “think tank of the soul.” It is quiet that is quieting.

This is one of those insights that is in the realm of re-learning as much as novelty. We live in a picture-drenched culture. Gordon Hempton suspects this is, in part, because the noise level of the 21st century is so high that we would be overwhelmed if we really focused and took it in. He helps us remember that most of the world’s creatures move through life by way of sound more than sight. The history of humanity is no different. Hearing was always a primary source of never-ending information and of staying safe, of survival. Our eyes close and stop working for us at night, but our ears work for us all the time.

Gordon Hempton also shares a fascinating piece of truth that human ears are most attuned at their peak sensitivity not to other human sounds — but to birdsong. In our not-so-distant past, the sound of birds signaled a habitat that would be compatible for human flourishing. We’ve intuitively nurtured quiet in spiritually and aesthetically nourishing spaces in our common life, like places of worship, libraries, theaters, and music halls. Gordon Hempton also tells of research that links the noise level of environments and our capacity to be actively caring toward other people.

ForestaAmazon rain forest (photo by Oscar Federico Bodini/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

As I was preparing to interview Gordon Hempton, I came across an essay by Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer, a globe-trotting journalist and a non-religious person, shared how he periodically goes on retreat at a monastery. He described the other unlikely modern people he encounters there — like an MTV executive who comes to the monastery regularly with his young children, and has been transformed by the delight they can take together in a quieting, technology-free place. “The child of tomorrow,” Pico Iyer reflected, “may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.”

Gordon Hempton, I think, has been ahead of a lot of us on this particular frontier. He helps us understand ourselves better as listening, contemplative creatures — not for what’s new, but what’s essential, and why.

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