Saturday, August 18, 2018

ONE SQUARE INCH OF SILENCE – Hearing the Whisper of Nature

The other day I listened to an NPR interview* with Matt Mikkelsen, an audio technician and recording specialist with the nonprofit One Square Inch of Silence.** The organization was founded by Mikkelsen’s mentor, audio ecologist Gordon Hempton.

Mikkelsen points out that, sadly, there are fewer than ten places left in the U.S. where one can spend 15 minutes without hearing a single man-made sound.

IMAGE: U.S. Forest Service

This doesn’t surprise me, and it makes me quite sad.

      He saw that expansive spot of quietude as    
      powerful enough to affect entire ecosystems.

Tuning in after the piece was well along, I thought at first that the challenge had been to find an area of ground as represented by a square inch on a map. But the real concept may not be that much different.

Hempton felt that if one could find a mere square inch of actual ground where true silence survives, the effect of that tiny locus would surely radiate out for a considerable distance—miles, in fact—all around. He saw that expansive spot of quietude as powerful enough to affect entire ecosystems.

Symbolically, he located one such spot, in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington's Olympic National Park, and marked it with a single, approximately one-inch stone which he’d painted red.

PHOTO: Wikipedia

For the interview, Mikkelsen led writer Samir S. Patel to the spot. As they approached it, Patel wasurged not to speak. He was first to spot the red rock.Then Mikkelsen left him alone in the silence. For an hour. 

And the effect on him was quite amazing. He soaked in the pure beauty all around. He reflected on the recent death of a loved one. He felt both utterly insignificant and all-powerful at the same time. A profound sense of gratitude moved him to tears.

I suppose it takes a certain kind of person to open himself to that kind of affect. For listening is about not just what you hear, but how you hear. Like other kinds of sensing, real listening is an act of generosity.

In this age of constant stimulus, instant gratification and seamless interconnectedness, such moments are indeed rare, and it’s hard to see how they won’t soon vanish entirely from the human experience.

All the more reason to resist the brazen, visionless oligarchy that’s overthrown our great nation—a nation characterized as much by its traditional affinity for wilderness as by its constitution—and is evidently bent on appropriating every inch of public land for private gain.

       My fear turned to a prayer, and I knew
       I was getting reacquainted with my inner 


I encountered my one square inch of silence in Minnesota’s precious Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness about 30 years ago while on a solo canoe trip.

My second night out, I lay in my tent immersed in both total darkness and utter silence. My ears probed, like a sweeping radar dish, for some sound—an insect, a breaking wave, a whisper of air through pine needles, anything. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it, but the depth of that silence caused my brain to invent a sort of roar.

That deafening void, the sense of alone-ness, was so profound, my mind even stumbled into thoughts of possibly not being able to stand it. I mean was it even safe to be so completely alone?

It took me a few minutes to realize that, as anxious as I may have been to hear the sound of a human voice, its absence had put me in touch with other voices, ones ever fewer of us are privileged to hear any more. My fear turned to a prayer, and I knew I was getting reacquainted with my inner strength.

I awoke the next morning at first light, not sure what it was that had roused me. I was still shrouded in stillness. As my senses tried to get their bearings, I wondered if the eerie noise I was hearing was another imaginary one. A chill rattled me as I realized it was a pack of wolves, awakening with me and musically greeting their day on the other side of the bay.

Would that sound have affected me that way if it hadn’t emerged out of total silence? Would I still have let it feed my inner strength? I don’t think so.

So when was the last time you experienced 15 minutes listening to the unadulterated, calmly-empowering voice of Nature? Has it happened even once? If it has, I’m guessing you remember it well and invite you to share it here.

I also urge you to speak up in protecting those precious gifts a couple of generations of wise and prescient Americans chose to set aside for all future generations: our National Parks,*** where most of the nation's remaining square inches of silence tenuously survive.





jean said...

This is a beautiful post, and one that makes me quite sad, Jeff. I am in what was a small town, almost rural, and suddenly, we are a big city with lots of new and already congested roads and huge buildings that are much taller than were ever supposed to have been built here (there was an ordinance against blocking the view of our mountains). I used to be able to sit outside at night and hear only the night birds and insects but now there are traffic noises and other sounds that destroy silence. I am sure there is silence on top of our mountains somewhere but not complete and not all of the time.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Indeed, it is sad, Jean. I sometimes wonder if it's not the epitome of selfishness to want to protect wilderness. Is it, by definition, wanting something for oneself to the exclusion of others? Still thinking about it...
I'm sorry to hear that your once-small town has lost its innocence. Must be especially hard for someone as reflective and creative as you.

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.