The quietest place in America, according to Gordon Kempton, is marked by a small red stone atop a moss-covered log on the Hoh River Trail in Washington’s Olympic National Park. He calls it “One Square Inch of Silence” and for the past 10 years has been promoting it as a way to draw attention to the pervasive noise pollution that surrounds us.
Kempton puts it this way: “Close your eyes and listen for only a few seconds to the world you live in, and you will hear this lack of true quiet, of silence. Refrigerators, air conditioning systems, and airplanes are a few of the things that have become part of the ambient sound and prevent us from listening to the natural sounds of our environment.”
I was thinking of Kempton and his mission last week as I left the office of my audiologist, my new hearing aids securely stuffed into my ear canals. The world is a loud place.
But what a revelation!
Suddenly, I could hear the rustling sound of my jacket as I put it on, the rat-a-tat-tat of the zipper on my backpack, the shuffle of papers in the hands of the woman behind the counter. Outside, I collected slices of random conversations, the sharp click of my padlock as I unlocked my bike, and the rattle of my basket when I rolled over a bump in the road.
It was like some concealed layer of the world had been peeled back, suddenly granting me full access to the environment. I had expected that things would be louder, that the muffler I’d been wearing for the past several years would be removed, but I hadn’t dared to imagine capturing the bits and pieces of sound that bounced around the concrete walls of the coffee shop where I met My Lovely Wife a bit later.
We were chatting across the table, me catching every word amid the cacophony of coffee grinders, espresso machines, and echoes of conversations from faraway tables, when it occurred to me, quite out of the blue, that this whole hearing thing had affected way more than my ability to take in information.
Ten years of gradual hearing loss had kind of worn me out, I realized. I could see that my ability to communicate — even with MLW — had over the years eroded to the point where it seemed hardly worth the effort anymore. And I wondered out loud whether I’d been sliding precariously close to the border of depression, which I know can happen to those who suffer from severe hearing loss.
I’ve dodged that bullet, at least, and I now find myself marveling at every bit of din and clatter I encounter: the squeaky floorboards in our bedroom, the whistling tea kettle on the stove, the crackling pages of the newspaper. It’s all music to my artificial ears.
Someday, MLW and I may make the trek to Gordon Kempton’s square inch of silence, and bask for a few moments in a place where life’s noise is held at bay. But for now, anyway, I say “Bring it on!”