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|April 2-8, 2009
Sound tracker Gordon Hempton says manmade noise is
harming the natural world
by Dylan Otto Krider
Gordon Hempton was driving across country on his way to graduate school to study plants when he calculated how many meals he could eat at McDonald’s for the price of a hotel room and then spent the night in an Iowa cornfield. Fortuitously, there was a thunderstorm, and he was too exhausted to do anything but just lay there and take it all in.
“I was more than tired enough to empty my thoughts — and just took in the thunder and crickets, and could hear that sharp electric banging sound of steel,” Hempton says. “I had never really listened until that thunderstorm.”
So he dropped out of school, bought all the wrong equipment on the money he saved as a bike messenger in Seattle, and set out to become a professional listener. Hempton discovered that our brains selectively choose what noises to focus on, but the microphone does not distinguish. Listening to his recordings at home, he found an entire universe of sound that our brains filter out — and a lot of static competing for our attention.
He eventually made a career of recording soundscapes for film and video games. However, his specialty is recording nature. In his hunt for natural sounds, he has discovered that there was almost no place left free of manmade noise and machines: airplanes, helicopters, cars, chain saws. The only remaining sanctuary from the bustle of civilization (silence being defined as 15-minute intervals between artificial interruption) was in Olympic National Park in Washington.
Ever since, he has devoted himself to preserving “One Square Inch of Silence,” which also happens to be the title of the book recounting his trip across country in a VW van in search of noise-free areas.
“The reason we don’t listen is because we live in noisy lives where we’re just over stimulated by so much noise,” says Hempton.
The only way to clear our minds is to get as far away from the city as possible.
“Have you ever listened to melting snow?” he asks.
Probably not. But you’ll get a chance to hear what snow turning into water sounds like at his talk here in Boulder. It’s the sort of thing you could only hear in absolute silence.
There are other reasons to worry about the encroachment of noise. Recent research suggests hearing loss is at epidemic proportions. And noise can be just as harmful to animals as any other kind of pollution.
For example, Hempton says our American songbird populations are suffering because of excess, manmade noise.
“Imagine you’re a singer. You’re singing a love song, hoping your true love will hear this song and find you more desirable. Now, while singing this song, the janitor’s vacuuming the aisle, someone’s hammering against the wall — what’s the impact going to be?”
Some species have adapted by raising their songs above the low bandwidth created by machinery. The problem is that higher frequency sounds do not travel nearly as far, constricting the range of their mating calls, leading to higher concentrations of species competing for the same food supply.
Because big horn sheep use their ears to listen to approaching predators, they travel farther and spend less time eating when there’s an increase in helicopter noise. A subspecies of dolphin in China is the first reported extinction attributed to noise — with the Yangtze dam, the increase of boating noise interfered with their sonar location used to find and stun prey.
Colorado is one of the few places that has actually passed ordinances to limit noise in our national parks, but it is rarely funded or enforced.
“I know that quiet places are very low on priorities even here, a zero budget, not even on the radar for a lot of environmental concerns,” Hempton says.
But the importance of having places where we can clear our heads and reconnect with nature goes beyond these things.
Minor changes can make a huge difference — like having airline paths circumvent our national parks. In some cases, the flight paths could even be shortened by avoiding our acoustic Yosemites.
Even if there is some sacrifice, Hempton thinks it’s worth it.
“Think of [the environment] as someone you love,” he says. “If you know they need something, is it a hardship to give it to them? No, it’s a joy. When you see them recover, it brings you closer together.”
On the Bill:
Gordon Hempton will discuss his book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 2, at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.
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