Gordon Hempton believes exploration and listening go hand-in-hand. For almost 40 years, he’s circled the globe as the Sound Tracker, recording and listening to the prairies, ocean waves, crickets, thunderstorms and songbirds—a joyful euphony for Hempton. An acoustic ecologist, his audio collecting had led him to focus on the need to preserve these precious quiet places for all of us.
“The opportunity to hear something new is around us at every moment,” explains Hempton, who with co-founder Vikram Chauhan and a team of advisors, environmentalists, sound recorders and scientists have formed Quiet Parks International (QPI), a non-profit committed to the preservation of quiet.
QPI has identified 262 sites around the globe to be designated quiet places. Hempton was motivated by his first conservation project, the One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, which had focused on protecting the solitude of the Hoh Rain Forest. Located in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, this rainforest is one of the least noise-polluted places in the lower 48 states, but its status was threatened by noise pollution from practice missions by the US military.
2010 Keynote at American Academy of Audiology by Guillaume Bureau
So, what makes a quiet place?
It’s an area with the least amount of man-made sounds from industry and transportation. The US Department of Transportation has documented that 97 per cent of the American population is exposed to noise from aviation and highways. The process of designating a quiet park involves recording a place at different times during a day and on multiple days, listening and documenting natural and man-made sounds. QPI has created testing methods, classification, management guidelines and assistance with education, research and advocacy in order to encourage individuals and groups to nominate places as well as trails, accommodation and communities.
The global pandemic has hampered Hempton’s ongoing research, but he found a silver lining early on in Spring 2020 at home in Washington. “In Port Townsend, the quiet was so profound, it was spooky,” remembered Hempton, as industry sounds had been silenced, birds began to sing differently.
“Birds learn their song from their parents, but existing in a noisy environment, they are often learning a sing-along version, not the hi-fidelity version of their songs, “explained Hempton. “For two weeks I listened to a robin, every day expanding its knowledge, belting out the characteristic sound of spring in the Pacific Northwest. The songs changed from a wakeup call early in the morning to a sign-off before it went to sleep.”
Camp nightlife at Zabalo WQP credit QPI
The QPI team also includes Jonathan Kawchuk, an Edmonton-based composer and sound artist. His love of nature sounds started with nature documentaries when he was a kid and was soon using a hand-held recorder to capture the sounds of the wilderness. In 2019 while working on a major project at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, he learned about QPI.
“Unlike the US, it’s easier to find quiet places in Canada,” explains Kawchuk, who is hoping for the borders to open so the QPI team can formerly designate Canada’s first quiet wilderness park, Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. “It’s one of the most ecologically diverse areas in Canada, and the prairie offers a wide variety of natural sounds, many only heard there.”
2012 Zabalo River Ecuador in Amazon credit Abby Hempton
As the world was about to shut down in March 2020, Hempton was in northern Ecuador recording and experiencing one of his favourite sounds: thunderstorms. “They’re essential to my soul,” said Hempton, who has a tattoo “Ccaen’stu Daja,” which translated from Cofan, an Ecuadorian Indigenous language, is “let it happen.” It’s one of the reasons he loves the unbridled energy of a thunderstorm, and a reminder of what’s important in his life, like his belief in preservation.
The first wilderness Quiet Park is the Zabalo River region in northern Ecuador, but QPI is also focused on urban areas. New York City, London and Stockholm are being considered, with Taipei’s Yangmingshan National Park becoming the first urban quiet park. Hempton believes now is the time to preserve. “We are hearing our neighbourhoods again . . . we still have the opportunity to listen.”
Microphone in position to measure