Recently, I visited Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. Powell’s is one of the remarkable independent booksellers in the United States, reportedly the largest seller of new and used books in the world, covering an entire city block and featuring more than one million titles.
As I wandered this famous landmark, I noticed in the author-autographed section Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (New York: Free Press, 2009). The title intrigued me because of my interest in the subject (see my November 3, 2008, posting, “Solitude, Silence, and Darkness“), and I quickly added it to my armful of books. Hempton is an award-winning sound recorder who lives in Port Angeles, Washington, near Olympic National Park—the site of “one square inch” whose sounds and silence he has recorded.
This book tells the story of his epic road trip across the United States to record the natural landscape of America. He filled his 1964 VW van with a decibel-measuring sound meter and recording equipment before starting out for the East Coast. It is difficult to escape the noise of the modern world, as Hempton demonstrates. Even in some of the quietest places in America—our national parks—airplanes break the silence or modern labor-saving devices used by the park’s employees themselves sometimes disturb both humans and animals present.
When he finally arrived in Washington DC, where he met with federal officials to advocate legislation that would preserve natural silence in national parks, he had recorded the sounds, images, and word pictures of some amazing places, including some of the backcountry in Utah (121–56). The book features a CD preserving those sounds.
Certainly, we face noise pollution today. We have to turn the TV, radio, or iPod off if we are to get some peace and quiet. As Hempton notes, “The words peace and quiet are all but synonymous, and are often spoken in the same breath” (12).
Hempton notes the benefits of a quiet, natural place. He suggests that “good things come from a quiet place: study, prayer, music, transformation, worship, communion” (12). He argues that “if we turn a deaf ear to the issue of vanishing natural quiet,” we lose something precious, something irreplaceable (3). He notes, “It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the sounds of the natural environment” (2).
In an interesting insight, Hempton observes, “Wildlife depend on their sense of hearing to detect the approach of predators and will not remain very long in places where it is difficult to hear” (20). Interestingly, he opines, “Only hearing can monitor every direction at once, even foretelling what may lie around the corner” (56). I could not help but wonder if humans struggle to hear the voice of the Spirit, which could warn them of unseen dangers or what lies around the corner, because of the increasing levels of noise that so often seek to distract us from more lofty and noble thoughts and actions. Maybe we do not enjoy such experiences often enough—the natural silence and sounds required to attune our ears to a heavenly voice. Increasingly, competing voices and sounds seek to fill our ears with advice and sounds that keep us away from the things of the Spirit. These voices and sounds are not only seeking to capture our attention; they want to capture our hearts as well.
The Psalmist said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). A timeless truth from the past—it was good advice then and is good advice now.