The Listener's Yosemite

If Yosemite National Park signifies our country's most iconic natural landscape, then Olympic National Park may represent its quietest placebut for how much longer?


By Gordon Hempton


True listening is worship. So said German philosopher Martin Heidegger. My own personal cathedral lies about three miles up the Hoh Valley trail in Olympic National Park, one of the few truly quiet places remaining in America. My quiet sanctuary is marked by a small reddish stone atop a chest-high, moss-covered log, which led me to call it One Square Inch of Silence. I’m headed there today, in uncertain early February weather, with my friend, Nick Parry, and his wife, Sally, so that they can experience what may be quiet’s last stand and so that I can measure the impact of an apparent increase in jet traffic overhead.

In 1994 I made my home near Olympic National Park so that I could better pursue a career as a nature sound-recording artist. Since then, I’ve circled the globe, recording on every continent but Antarctica, seeking the pristine sounds of nature—only to find the planet’s sacred soundtrack increasingly drowned out by the harsh mechanical sounds of man. Many have bemoaned the tragic loss of wondrous night skies to the creeping blur of light pollution. But right under our very ears, we’ve been losing a natural treasure every bit as spiritually uplifting. And losing it just as fast, if not faster. When I started recording in my home state of Washington 25 years ago, I soon hiked to nearly two dozen locations where I could reliably record the unspoiled sounds of nature—wild trout breaking the surface of a mountain lake to feed on the evening hatch of insects or the clear ringing morning song of western meadowlarks from grass-covered hillsides—for at least 15 minutes without an intrusion like the brrrrr of a chain saw, the whine of an off-road vehicle, the crackle of power lines, or the roar of a jet passing overhead. That’s become my gold standard: 15 minutes of natural silence. Sadly, the list of quiet havens in my home state has shrunk to three.

Nationwide, it’s no better. By my extensive travels and sound safaris, I’d guess that about only a dozen places remain in our vast country where a quiet-seeker can reliably hear nature unencumbered by noise for a quarter-hour during daylight hours. Most people doubt me when I say this, and often mention a recent “quiet” experience. Surely those experiences are quieter than the person’s normal city or suburban or even country environs, but they likely do not offer the total escape from modern noise, the total immersion in nature that grizzly tracker and author Doug Peacock calls “the closest way to really get in touch with… your innermost humanity—that’s how we evolved, listening and smelling in ways that aren’t imaginable today. We’re the same species. The human mind, our intelligence, our consciousness, it all evolved from a habitat, whose remnants here in this country we call wilderness.”  Peacock told me this when I visited his Montana home as I toured America while writing my book. “We evolved from that, which is essentially a wilderness, a wild habitat, using our senses, and that which evolves doesn’t persist without sustaining the conditions of its creation,” he continued. “That’s a giant argument for silence right there.” 

Even our most spectacular national parks no longer deliver extended soothing doses of natural silence. The Park Service is charged with managing and preserving the natural soundscapes in our parks, but much more time and effort and expense have gone into battling the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over regulation of flight-seers who seek scenic beauty but overlook the noise shadow they cast below. More than 30 years after Congress passed The Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act, recognizing “natural quiet as a value or resource in its own right to be protected from significant adverse effect,” some 90,000 sightseeing plane and helicopter overflights are still permitted each year above this national treasure. In 2000, the National Parks Air Tour Management Act charged the FAA and the Park Service with the task of working together to preserve these resources; the FAA has yet to complete a single air-tour plan. During daylight hours in Yosemite, commercial jet traffic is audible 50 percent of the time. I wonder what John Muir, the father of our National Park System, would say if he were to return to one of his favorite listening perches today. Here is what he wrote about Yosemite Falls nearly a century ago: 

“This noble fall has by far the richest, as well as the most powerful voice of all the falls of the Valley, its tones vary from the sharp hiss and rustle of the wind in the glossy leaves of the live-oaks and the soft, sifting, hushing tones of the pines, to the loudest rush and roar of storm winds and thunder among the crags of the summit peaks. The low bass, booming reverberating tones, heard under favorable circumstances five or six miles away, are formed by the dashing and exploding of heavy masses mixed with air upon two projecting ledges on the face of the cliff, the one on which we are standing and another about 200 feet above it.”

Today, a listener five or six miles away cannot escape the commotion of Yosemite Village, the most highly developed area of the park, with hotels, a post office, gas stations, bank services, a deli, an art gallery, and nighttime noise levels comparable to those in Manhattan. On my last visit, daybreak resounded with the thunder of dumpsters being emptied into garbage trucks.  I’m not suggesting a ban on park visitors, but rather scaling back visitor support to the bare essentials and scheduling deliveries and garbage service in the early afternoon, when sound or noise is attenuated more than any other time of day or night.

Olympic National Park, however, is still a listener’s Yosemite. Tucked away in the remote northwest corner of the continental United States, it is often described as three parks in one, boasting glacier-capped mountains, temperate rainforest, and wilderness seashore. Unlike most national parks, it is not bisected by scenic highways, and air tours have barely taken wing due to the near constant cloud cover. Furthermore, only three FAA-approved flight paths are overhead. Here, attentive visitors encounter the greatest diversity of natural soundscapes and the longest duration of natural quiet in all of the 391 units managed by the National Park Service. Yet this endangered natural silence remains virtually unprotected. The park’s sound-management budget isn’t meager. It’s nonexistent. Zero dollars.

Highway 101 winds through the knees of the Olympic Mountains that frame Lake Crescent, revealing picture-perfect views of the rising mist over the near mirror surface of the lake. To the south, we see snow-capped 4,534-foot Mount Storm King and pass through an inspiring gauntlet of some of the world’s tallest living creatures—Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar—rising some 300 feet. Nick sits beside me. Behind us, Sally is reading One Square Inch of Silence, the book that John Grossmann and I have written about the importance of preserving sonically endangered treasures like Olympic National Park.

We turn off Highway 101 onto the snow-dusted Upper Hoh River Road and pass several gathering clusters of salmon and steelhead fishermen, dead-ending 18 miles later at the Hoh Visitor Center parking lot at 11:17 a.m. Ours is the third car in the lot. Anxious to smell the forest and listen, I swing the car door open, and even with the cooling car engine pinging away in the frosty air, the roar of a jet is clearly evident. Nick and Sally don’t notice, and I say nothing. We shoulder our rucksacks and lace on hiking boots, then slip onto the river trail.

Like many who’ve joined me on this trail, Nick is slow to shed his everyday voice.  Leading the way by a good 50 feet, he’s apt to start a conversation without even turning around. When he does pivot, I hold a finger to my lips. His wide-eyed look seems to ask: “Who are we disturbing?”

“Nick,” cautions Sally. “You can’t talk so loud—if we want to see any wildlife, we need to be quiet.” 

When we all stop to listen, the Hoh Valley thrums with a deep river tone speckled with the sonic consequences of the sun’s rays piercing the forest canopy—the tinkling of melting snow and ice cascading branch to branch to the forest floor, which, away from the larger Douglas firs, has as much as a half-foot of snow from the recent and rare snowstorm. For now, there’s not a bird or insect or any animal to be heard.  Here, more than 300 yards from the rushing waters of the Hoh, I get a reading of 32 dBA on my sound level meter. Away from the river, at One Square Inch of Silence, I’ve seen the readings go as low as 26 dBA, which I learned, early in my cross-country sonic exploration of America, is equivalent to the ambient sound level of an unoccupied Benaroya Hall, Seattle’s premier orchestral venue, built at a cost of $120 million.

Six decibels quieter may not seem like much of a reduction, but it is the difference between eating a whole pie or a quarter-slice for dessert. The decibel scale is a logarithmic scale. So that if one person is speaking at 60 dBA and a second person joins in at the same level, the two voices measured simultaneously would be 63 dBA, not 120 dBA. Just three decibels indicate a doubling of the sound level. To address individual perception of loudness is much more complicated; each of us registers sound “loudness” quite subjectively.

As we approach the trail marker for the first campsite, I spy something moving through the thick wildwood and snow-covered moss drapes. Evidently our silence has paid off. My eyes soon focus on about a dozen Roosevelt elk, equally split between ewes and their young. No males. Silently, I tap Sally on the shoulder. She freezes. Then I point. Nick is too far ahead for us to quietly clue him in. In fact, his footsteps alert the herd, which turns away, with only a few twig snaps. The ambience of the valley is as quiet as many recording studios, except today this moss-draped natural amphitheater is beautifully flocked with snow and seems to damp sound even more than usual.

“Wow, that was incredible,” Sally says.  “They hardly made a sound.”

We meet up with Nick at a point where the trail disappears off an embankment at the river’s edge. More damage from a recent deluge lies horizontal in the Hoh, a flood-felled Sitka spruce. I inspect this prize carefully, noting its flared, buttress-like root cavity, and I imagine this huge piece of driftwood ultimately being swept to the beach at Hoh Head many miles downriver. Spruce wood is prized by violin craftsmen because the wood vibrates particularly well. Along the wilderness coastline of Olympic Park, the longest uninterrupted coastline in the lower 48, such giants come to rest as nature’s largest violins, played not by a human hand brandishing a bow but by nature itself. Pacific rollers crash onshore and send a wall of vibration into the noble wood. A tree this size will be large enough to walk inside and, as Muir would say, “bend an attentive ear.” I may have to wait years for this tree to wash upon the beach, but when it does I’ll hungrily step inside with my recording gear and add to one of my favorite niches in my sound library, my collection of more than 400 beach log sound portraits, all from Olympic National Park.

With each breath along the trail I can feel myself become quieter and more relaxed; my awareness is broadening, tuning, and I am more perceptive not only of my surroundings but myself. Though natural silence has become a luxury, it’s really a necessity, as important as clean water and fresh air.

Shortly after 1 p.m. we arrive at a stilted Sitka spruce tree, which serves as a kind of gateway to One Square Inch of Silence. We stop for a simple lunch of trailmix and bananas. And listen. The silence is profound.

But not for long. A jet intrudes at 1:08, then another at 1:20, and again at 1:27, before we leave the trail and hike the remaining 100 yards to One Square Inch. We follow an elk path and then join the snowy footprints of an earlier silence-seeking pilgrim. Soon we’ve arrived at the log topped with the one-stone cairn to quiet. The setting never fails to inspire me. The forest reaches for the sky and lifts me. The moss bed is deep and comforting; today’s rare snow adds another layer to nature’s acoustic blanket. A stillness sweeps over us. Sally is drawn to tears. Nick lifts his arms around Sally, silently embracing her.

At 1:41 p.m., nine minutes after the last overflight, another jet roars over the Hoh Valley. (Later, with the help of an Internet site called WebTrak, I identify it as a Northwest Orient Airlines Airbus A-330-200 bound for Tokyo-Narita International Airport.) Climbing with full thrust, it drags its cone of noise across our national treasure, sending my sound level meter to 54 dBA. It is by far the loudest sound in the forest, 22 dBA above today’s base ambience, or more than a doubling seven times over of the voice of the forest. 

Each passing jet actually shrinks the aural world of those on the ground in a quiet haven like One Square Inch of Silence. I learned this from bioacoustician Kurt Fristrup in the Fort Collins, Colorado, office of the Park Service’s Nature Sounds Program. 

“You’re saying the noise impact of aircraft on the wilderness reduces a person’s range of hearing?”

“Yes,” Fristrup explained. “Our auditory horizon shrinks, and it’s affecting the very frequencies that travel the farthest. And the same is true of snowmobile sound. Ironically the Park Service allows snowmobiles and boats to produce more sound than roadway vehicles—even though sound carries over snow and water better than anywhere else.

“It’s just an artifact of history. I think in many areas, noise control in the United States has not been driven by the values of acoustic resources so much as by the cost of annoyance or by what’s easily achievable by industry in terms of controlling it.”

Indeed, though the FAA protests that it would be way too expensive to bend those jetways around the Hoh Valley to protect one of the quietest places in any national park, the truth is likely very different. Using an Air Transport Association figure of $66 per mile to fly the average commercial jet, and assuming no empty seats aboard that 243-seat Northwest aircraft, it would cost less than $1 per passenger to skirt One Square Inch and make that Seattle to Tokyo flight more sonically green. 

During the hike out I hear another jet, then another, as the snow begins to fly hard. My thoughts go to the trees lining the path, each one a miracle. I should be discouraged after having my quietude stolen by the passing jets. But I’m not. Though I worry that today’s children may be the last generation to experience natural silence before it becomes extinct, I’m not without hope. Back before the Environmental Protection Agency axed its Office of Noise Abatement and Control in the early days of the Reagan Administration, our very own government cared not only about noise but about the subtler inherent value of natural silence. The October 1979 issue of the EPA Journal, an issue entirely devoted to noise and the environment, included an essay on “Quiet as a National Resource” written by David Hales, who was then deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks in the Department of Interior. I didn’t come upon this essay until long after I’d established One Square Inch of Silence. But surely I must have channeled Hales, for consider what he wrote:

“A most appropriate, in fact, necessary role of the National Park Service in years to come will be the preservation of some special places which are not polluted by sound, just as we would not allow them to be polluted by dirty air or water. In these places, the artificial and unnecessary introduction of sound into a natural environment is more than just an irritation caused by what you can hear. It is, in essence, an act of robbery, a theft of those sounds which naturally belong in these environments, and which are part and parcel of the natural and cultural heritage of this Nation.”

I also take encouragement from Muir’s words to his wife, Louie, in July 1888: “The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” 

Nor are the national parks yet half-made. Designated as unique and irreplaceable national treasures by the Organic Act of 1916, their innate natural soundscapes have been undervalued and impaired, as we have become impaired as listeners to the land. Let’s commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary of our national parks by making Olympic National Park—our nation’s first national quiet sanctuary—off limits to all aircraft. This can be accomplished clearly and decisively with a 20-mile-radius no-flight zone around Mt. Dana, located in the heart of the park.

“Listen to what the white pine sayeth,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. He did not reveal what the white pine said, because words cannot speak it. Natural silence must be heard to be understood. As we cherish our remaining stands of old-growth forests, let us also preserve the few vestigial quiet havens in our national parks.

Take Action

NPCA is working with its Congressional allies to clarify language in the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 this summer. Please call your Senators at 202.224.3121 and ask them to contact the Senate Aviation Subcommittee and support the Park Service’s ability to protect natural sounds in our national parks. For more information visit www.npca.org/atma. Click here for a reminder of what’s at stake.

Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist and Emmy award-winning sound recordist who lives in Joyce, Washington. One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (Free Press/2009), written with co-author John Grossmann, retells his cross-country sound safari to preserve America’s few remaining naturally quiet places. To learn more, visit www.onesquareinch.org

This article appears in the Summer 2009 issue.

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