"If you don't visit quiet, the quiet will disappear."
When was the last time you sat in silence and heard no sound made by humans? There's a good chance you don't remember, as it's an increasingly rare experience. Ninety percent of children are expected never to experience natural silence in their lives, and 97 percent of Americans are exposed regularly to highway and air traffic noise. It is so pervasive that many hardly notice it anymore, but that doesn't mean it's OK.
Exposure to incessant noise has a toll. It can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment, tinnitus, and low birth weight. It harms wildlife as well, driving away bird populations and causing them to become malnourished because they cannot hear well enough to communicate or hunt.One man is on a mission to change this, or at least to create oases of silence where people have the opportunity to escape noise and relearn the value of quiet. Gordon Hempton is an American acoustic ecologist who has spent years traveling the globe in search of the rarest sounds, which can only be fully appreciated in the absence of manmade noise.
He created One Square Inch of Silence, a tiny stone cairn in Washington's Olympic National Park, which he monitored for years, while trying to keep the sounds of the world at bay. Now he has embarked on another project called Quiet Parks International (QPI), which has the ambitious goal of identifying and certifying some of the quietest places on Earth in an effort to preserve them for future generations. (The concept is similar to that of the International Dark-Sky Association, which fights against light pollution.)
From a writeup in Outside Online, Hempton's team has so far identified 260 quiet places around the world and, with permission from local officials, will certify these as quiet parks:
"The teams will test each potential site for three consecutive days, measuring natural-noise decibels and intrusions; while no area is pristine, these readings will help them set the organization’s official standards for certification... Any 'alarming or shocking' signature, like gunshots, sirens, or military aircraft, would immediately disqualify it from certification. Loud noises, if they’re natural, are fine."
The very first quiet park just attained certification in April 2019 in Zabalo, Ecuador. It is home to the Cofán people and, as Hempton explained to me over the phone, its new status allows them to turn quiet into a valuable resource, preserving their land from the oil and mining companies that have been trying to gain access for years. The Cofán, he said, were already trying to develop ecotourism as a sustainable economic opportunity that would allow them to protect their land, and now QPI has helped them to cement their position has a purveyor of silence.
He recently returned from the first guided quiet tour of Zabalo, which lasted 13 days and cost US$4,485 each. QPI's assistance (and Hempton's guidance) were volunteer-based, and the money was split between a travel service and the Cofán.
When I quizzed Hempton about the seeming irony of bringing a group of tourists into a place to experience silence (he had previously referred to a group of birders as causing a "swath of disturbance"), he explained that quiet tourism would have an active educational component:
"You'd be instructed about what quiet means – how to notice, what makes this sonic environment so different, how sound behaves, what listening means. Most adults have forgotten how to listen correctly."
Such an experience changes a person profoundly, he said. It takes a week for a person to stop feeling disoriented by the silence, then the brain starts to develop new neural pathways to hear things it couldn't before. Time seems to slow down.
I understand the benefits that monetizing quiet would have for people like the Cofán, but I wonder if it's possible to have similar experiences closer to home that don't contribute to global noise pollution by taking an airplane. Hempton said yes, there is always a benefit to be had from quieter experiences, even if they're not fully quiet.
The most important thing, he advised, is to prepare yourself for listening by acknowledging a reason. Do you want to hear songbirds, frogs, the prairie, the forest? Then "let go of all your expectations because they'll be filters, standing in the way."