Saturday, November 13, 2010


I'm reading this book called One Square Inch of Silence, by Gordon Hempton. It's about his project, his quest, to preserve the experience of silence in the backcountry (namely, Olympic National Park in northwest Washington) by designating one square inch that is meant to have only purely natural sound. With his sound equipment, he checks on the place often. Now, this square inch of silence impacts much of the surrounding area, because it means in theory, no jets anywhere near there, no sigh-seeing flights, no chain sawn, no off-road vehicles, etc. I'm only 50 pages into the book, but already find it very eloquent and fascinating. I'll be writing more about this book in days to come, I'm sure.

It strikes me, though, the irony of reading this book here in the Dallas area. Today I was sitting out on the balcony with the book, and would from time to time come into awareness of the soundscape around me. Almost 100% unnatural. I'd say it was all man-made, but in truth, it was all machine made. Sometimes it seems to me that we've created this system of engines and mechanics and electronic beeping, and are no longer really in control of it; it has a life of it's own. Human noise isn't as bad, it's voices, coughing, clapping, farting, belching, laughing, singing. It's the growl of internal combustion engines, the car horns and alarms, the scanners beeping in the store that are out of place and stressful.

Point is, save for the occasional gust of wind rattling the leaves of the few trees that poke up through the grassy islands of the parking lot, there wasn't much natural sound. But, I still have my memories. I've been to a lot of places, way out in the backcountry, more or less. One instance where I especially remember the presence of silence really hitting me was on a camping trip at Horseshoe Lake, MI. It was a tiny rustic campground on a small kettle lake, a left-over from the glaciers and hardly more than a pond, surrounded by second or third growth pine forests. A beautiful place. Of the nine campsites, only three were occupied, including mine, and when I arrived no one else seemed to actually be in the campground.

After I'd set up camp and had begun to unwind from the city and the drive, I walked down the slope to the edge of the lake, just below my site. Presently, it struck me how quiet it was. Not true silence, no. That's not the point, neither of my story or of the book. But the stillness of the world, even as it hums its own slight chorus of light wind in the white pines, the occasional burst of a chickadee's song, the tiny sound of the little waves caressing the sandy shore... Suddenly it seemed even a sin to speak aloud, only a whisper was permitted. But, it was also all that was needed.

It occured to me that back in our city world, we're usually almost shouting at one another, just to be heard. I think Mr. Hempton said it well, right at the start of his book, when he mentioned that in order to hear the silence, one must first silence one's mind. In our city world, this is impossible; there's always so much going on, so much to think about, and no down time. Down time means the TV is on, with the commercials screaming at you, the laugh-track playing, the talking-heads pontificating. It's all so loud, making up with volume what it lacks in substance.

Even if unconsciously, I know the persuit of quietness is a big part of why I'm always heading for the hills. A Forest Service employee I knew in Utah once mentioned, with a grin, that he belongs to the Church of G.O.D., that is, the Great OutDoors. I agree. Like walking into a church, the wilderness demands quietude, not the roar of engines.

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