In Search of Quiet Places

  • Gordon Hempton uses a mic stand shaped like a human head to accurately capture the sounds we hear. (Photo by D Harrington)

There are very few truly quiet places left in this country. There’s noise pollution even in the wildest, most remote national parks.

Gordon Hempton has been traveling to some of those last quiet places and he wants to protect them. He’s an Emmy-winning professional sound collector. He’s traveled the world to record everything from city streets to howler monkeys. He’s the author of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. He’s joining me from Olympia National Park in Washington State.

You’ve said that you’ve found just 12 places so far in all of the U.S. where there’s an interval of at least 15 minutes without human noise. What do you think we’re missing out on if we lose those places?

AUDIO EXTRA: Hear more from Gordon Hempton

The Sound Tracker

Hempton on WBUR’s On Point

Hempton in Newsweek


HEMPTON: In a quiet place in nature not only are we listening to many, many square miles, but we are connecting, we are re-connecting, with where we come from, who we are and how our bodies have evolved to take it all in.

RW: A documentary has been made about you – called Soundtracker – and in it, the thing that struck me the most was when you talked about having to trust your gut feeling. You were in Sri Lanka, it was dark and you were recording…

(sound of Hempton’s Sri Lanka recording comes up under)

HEMPTON: Right, I learned a very important lesson that morning in the Sri Lanka rainforest of Sinharaja. And I was there to record morning bird song and that means getting up early, so I was walking into the forest, in the dark, and started to roll. And then my good feeling changed to panic. I could honor my panic and simply leave my equipment running, and so I walked away. Months later, I’m sitting in my Seattle studio reviewing the tape… I hear my footsteps disappear and moments later, there’s the guttural growl of the leopard.

(leopard growling)

RW: I have to tell you I found that sound to be terrifying!

HEMPTON: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, I know. I hate to think what would’ve happened if I’d remained there.

RW: So you’ve recorded all over the world for 30 years. How do you find these true quiet places?

HEMPTON: You know, I’ve been looking at Michigan. The very first thing I do, I look at the nighttime view of the United States, and I looked in this case at the nighttime view of Michigan. The upper half of Michigan was surprisingly dark. Then I went to the FAA chart to see all the airways that are charted and I could see that most of Michigan was covered. But there were two areas that were not. So I went to Google Earth and zoomed in on those places and I could see there were quite a few roads. But there were two locations: Manitou Island, particularly a site on that island that is Perch Lake. And also Lily Lake on Isle Royale National Park.

RW: So what can we do to protect these places?

HEMPTON: There’s one action we can all participate in to save the vanishing quiet places of this country. And that is to pass a single piece of legislation that will create for the very first time these areas off limits to all aircraft over our most pristine national parks.

RW: Gordon Hempton is a professional sound collector and the author of: One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. Thank you so much.

HEMPTON: Well, all right, thank you Rebecca.

RW: You can hear some of Gordon Hempton’s work and his favorites on our website: environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Only Trees Can Prevent Forest Fires?

  • Active flame front of the Zaca Fire, the second largest fire on record in California. (U.S. Forest Service photo by John Newman)

New technology might help the US
Forest Service detect fires in remote areas
more quickly. Lester Graham reports:


New technology might help the US
Forest Service detect fires in remote areas
more quickly. Lester Graham reports:

A chemical reaction makes batteries generate electricity. There’s a ph difference
between trees and the soil around them. MIT researchers say they can use that
chemical difference to generate a tiny amount of electricity.

Andreas Mershin and his MIT colleagues say it’s just enough power to trickle charge
sensors that read temperature and humidity. Then they send that data to the U.S.
Forest Service so it can determine the risk of fire.

“The advantage comes from the fact you no longer need to be going to very remote
locations and changing batteries all the time.”

The Forest Service will be testing these sensors next spring. They cost about one-tenth
of other sensors that need batteries. So it could mean more sensors in remote
locations. That way the Forest Service could have a better idea of if and when it needs
to put fire equipment near hot, dry areas.

For The Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

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