Books: Decibel Destroyer

One man’s war against 747s, leaf blowers, car alarms, and your iPod.

A NOMBY is what you might call "acoustic ecologist" and Port Angeles resident Gordon Hempton, whose backyard is Olympic National Park. On Earth Day 2005 he launched a campaign, called "One Square Inch of Silence," to establish a sacred preserve along the Hoh River by limiting airplane flyovers. Two years later, he set out on a 60-day road trip across the U.S. to document the decline of silence and lobby federal officials to make quiet a greater priority in our national parks. His new memoir/manifesto, which carries the same name as the campaign (Free Press, $26), is a diary of that trip, a boomer autobiography (yes, he went to Woodstock), and an examination of how a toxic byproduct of civilization—noise—has contaminated even the most remote wilderness.Hempton's roadside tutorials on sound are by far the most fascinating part of the book (co-authored by magazine writer John Grossman). A professional sound recordist and avid hiker (who calls himself The Sound Tracker® and sells nature recordings on his Web site), Hempton contrasts the sharp crash of a creek in the Olympics to the quieter thrum of an Eastern stream:"From the sound of the water alone, I've learned to distinguish the age of a tumbling stream. Old flows, such as those in Appalachia that escaped the last glaciation, have been tuning themselves for many thousands of years. Their watercourses and stony beds, smoothed to paths of least resistance by the ageless cycles of torrents and floods, sing differently."Anyone who's noted how the smack of Puget Sound waves against a concrete bulkhead differs from the soothing, pebbly hiss of a natural beach will know exactly what he means.Likewise, the Grand Canyon sounds different than the prairie, and Hempton returns to this theme—that ecosystems are variously and precisely tuned—at each stop along his drive: the Rockies, Canyonlands in Utah, the marshes near Chesapeake Bay. His goal in "soundscape preservation" is to maintain some of the old ecology by forcing us to listen to it—or rather, to the ways it's been displaced by cars, freight trains, oil derricks, and even the churning new windmills being installed on the Great Plains. Each acoustic incursion in effect muffles our ancient ear against both appreciation and danger."Hearing is our most important survival sense," Hempton argues. "We evolved, after all, without ear lids." He reminds us that prey animals, like deer, are more vulnerable when sipping from a noisy stream—that's when the cougar pounces. And that man, like other mammals, can be quickly roused from sleep and alerted to a threat by the tiniest breaking of twigs or rustling of grass. But as any wilderness camper knows, that acute sensitivity requires near-total silence.Even in an urban environment, says the former Seattle bicycle messenger, ears give you eyes in the back of your head. Before you see it, the sound of an overtaking car or squeal of brakes can alert you to peril. For this reason, Hempton is vehemently opposed to iPods and other devices that buffer us from the sonic world. An even greater threat, which he discusses at length, is permanent hearing loss from overloud earphone gadgets. (Perhaps Apple could include a decibel-meter app for the iPhone?)Hempton's sound meter—which he calibrates at Benaroya Hall before setting off on his odyssey—is a constant presence in the book; he gives a number for everything, and many people, he meets. The resulting transcontinental graph, his "Sonic EKG of America," is interesting, though it must surely be irritating for interview subjects to be greeted by Hempton's little sound meter before he even consents to shake their hand. This disciple of John Muir and Edward Abbey is a bit of a silence crank. The book's funniest moment comes when he and a fellow silence evangelist go camping in Utah and basically drive each other crazy. ("You're making too much noise!" "No, you're making too much noise!")As always when confronted with puritanical scolds, it's hard not to note the occasional hypocrisy. Hempton loves to tell us about his low-impact camping routine, for instance. But amid his disdain for fellow travelers who wash their campsites with too much noise and light, his virtuous organic snacking, and the brewing of his favorite herbal tea, he somehow omits to mention the noise of his own camp stove. (Trust me: In remote, silent locales, even an MSR WhisperLite burns with a roar.)And while Hempton obsessively tracks offending Sea-Tac jets from an FAA Web site, he happily interrupts his journey to fly back to Seattle for family and business reasons. Still, though I'd never want to go camping or on a road trip with the guy (his teen daughter sensibly bails out early), and his battles with the National Parks Service and FAA verge on the Kaczynskian, Hempton's book is tremendously valuable for reminding us that what we can't hear has already been lost from our habitat. Songbirds have already changed their songs because of our urban din (or "grime"). Our own biological adaptation is likely underway, too, and not for the better.bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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