The Last Quiet Places: The Sounds of Nature’s Silence Are Essential to Our Own Contemplative Lives

by Krista Tippett, host

Hoh Rain ForestSunrise on the outskirts of the Hoh. (photo by Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

This week and next week, we’re bringing people to the air who feel like discoveries. Their chosen vocations surprise and enrich the world in graceful ways. Sarah Kay, next week’s guest, is a young spoken word poet and teacher. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, an explorer and collector of natural sound. At heart, they are both about listening as an essential, if somewhat lost, art. In very different spheres, they are leading a renaissance.

Gordon Hempton tells of a turning point when he was in his mid-20s, just a little older than Sarah Kay is now. He took a break alongside the highway on a cross-country drive, and lay down to listen to an approaching thunderstorm. He felt like he had never really listened to life before, and pledged to give himself over to it. Our producer Chris, who mixes the sound of these shows, has created an immersive experience, guided by Gordon Hempton’s ears, which will also make me a more passionate listener to “ordinary” sounds ever after.

Gordon Hempton went on to become one of the world’s first acoustic ecologists. He has gathered sounds from the Kalahari Desert, the edge of Hawaiian volcanoes, inside Sitka spruce driftwood logs of the same wood as violins. His work appears in movies, soundtracks, and video games. Along the way, he’s also invented another, related vocation — that of “silence activism.”

Big DriftwoodSitka spruce driftwood washes ashore at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Silence, as Gordon Hempton experiences and seeks to preserve it, is not a vacuum defined by emptiness. It’s not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. True quiet has presence, he says, and is a “think tank of the soul.” It is quiet that is quieting.

This is one of those insights that is in the realm of re-learning as much as novelty. We live in a picture-drenched culture. Gordon Hempton suspects this is, in part, because the noise level of the 21st century is so high that we would be overwhelmed if we really focused and took it in. He helps us remember that most of the world’s creatures move through life by way of sound more than sight. The history of humanity is no different. Hearing was always a primary source of never-ending information and of staying safe, of survival. Our eyes close and stop working for us at night, but our ears work for us all the time.

Gordon Hempton also shares a fascinating piece of truth that human ears are most attuned at their peak sensitivity not to other human sounds — but to birdsong. In our not-so-distant past, the sound of birds signaled a habitat that would be compatible for human flourishing. We’ve intuitively nurtured quiet in spiritually and aesthetically nourishing spaces in our common life, like places of worship, libraries, theaters, and music halls. Gordon Hempton also tells of research that links the noise level of environments and our capacity to be actively caring toward other people.

ForestaAmazon rain forest (photo by Oscar Federico Bodini/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

As I was preparing to interview Gordon Hempton, I came across an essay by Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer, a globe-trotting journalist and a non-religious person, shared how he periodically goes on retreat at a monastery. He described the other unlikely modern people he encounters there — like an MTV executive who comes to the monastery regularly with his young children, and has been transformed by the delight they can take together in a quieting, technology-free place. “The child of tomorrow,” Pico Iyer reflected, “may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.”

Gordon Hempton, I think, has been ahead of a lot of us on this particular frontier. He helps us understand ourselves better as listening, contemplative creatures — not for what’s new, but what’s essential, and why.