The acoustic ecologist on his fight to preserve dying soundscapes, how ambient noise affects the psyche, and recasting silence as a presence.
Photo credit: www.soundtrackerthemovie.com.
In my living room in Maine, I can hear the buzzing of thousands of tropical insects punctuated by heavy drops of water dropping onto leaves in the distance. I think I can make out the drill-like call of some kind of tree frog. These sounds are from a recording, titled “Tropical Night,” made by Gordon Hempton in Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja Forest in 1990. Hempton, who calls himself an “acoustic ecologist,” creates evocative “sound portraits” from sounds gathered around the world, with an emphasis on remote locations and disappearing soundscapes. He earned an Emmy in 1992 for the PBS documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus, and was the subject of Soundtracker, a documentary about his work.
When Hempton was twenty-seven years old, he drove across the country from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin, to pursue a graduate degree in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. He pulled over to sleep in a cornfield, and woke to find himself caught in a booming Midwestern thunderstorm. Instead of running for cover, he stayed—and listened. The experience was transformative: Hempton soon left graduate school, and has spent the past thirty years traversing the globe in search of some of nature’s rarest and least heard sounds. “I work in the same style as classic landscape photographers,” he told me. “You find the right perspective, and then you wait until the light is right. I do the same. I find the right location, and then I wait for the sound, the atmosphere to be right, and for the space to be revealed.”
Since Hempton doesn’t edit his recordings, atmospheric conditions have to be perfect on location. The longest he has ever waited for ideal conditions, he said, was six weeks. In an effort to reach a particular old-growth cedar grove in southwestern Washington, Hempton “had to get up in the dark, in the early morning, paddle a canoe to an island, take a mountain bike out of the canoe, ride in three miles, set up my equipment all by headlamp.” He laughed, “You know, when you’re five weeks into an experience like that, you really think you’re insane, because it hasn’t happened yet. And until it happens, you are insane.” But his efforts paid off: in that cedar grove, he managed to record the calls of the last mated pair of northern spotted owls.
Hempton has become something of a silence activist, and is a passionate opponent of modern, man-made din. In 2009, he published One Square Inch of Silence, about his crusade against noise pollution. He likes to say that silence “isn’t the absence of anything, but the presence of everything.” In seeking to preserve quiet, what he is actually advocating for is sound—that is, the full spectrum of natural sound, minus the ambient, mechanical cacophony of our daily modern lives. He argues that the omnipresence of man-made noise is altering not only nature itself but the way we interact with our environments and with each other. By living with constant noise pollution, we’re not receiving all the information that would allow us to come up with innovative solutions for the problems of our time.
Hempton’s work reminds us of the sonic richness of the natural world, and, in doing so, provokes us to listen more consciously. I spoke to the acoustic ecologist twice by phone. After our initial conversation, he asked me to go on a walk and report back on both the farthest sound and the faintest sound I could hear. From there, we discussed sound as information, dominant senses, the effects of an urban sound environment on the psyche, and how becoming a better listener changed his life.
—Nika Knight for Guernica
Guernica: You call yourself an “acoustic ecologist.” How do you define acoustic ecology?
Gordon Hempton: Well, “acoustic ecologist” is basically a fancy name for someone who tries to become a better listener. Not just listening to those thoughts, ideas, and productions of human intention, but listening to places—whether it’s an urban environment, residential, industrial, or even the farthest corner of the world, in one of our last great quiet places where we can listen to the pure sounds of nature without any human-caused noise intrusions.
An acoustic ecologist is a listener who is aware that sound is information. It’s information because it’s created by events, events produce sound, and that sound has all kinds of data, if you will, that conveys what event occurred, what the materials were, whether it was sudden, slow, loud, in what direction. And because it is information, we can think of it as a message. The acoustic ecologist studies information systems that are both intentional and sometimes wild.
So, we have message-sending and message-receiving. This is a good way to introduce one of the biggest problems with acoustic ecology, and that is noise pollution. Noise pollution is basically defined as the presence of simple information that makes it impossible to hear all the other more delicate—and often more important—information. Noise pollution creates, if you will, dumb environments. Our industrial areas, many of our downtown urban areas, are dumb acoustic environments. Very simple, very loud, often unhealthy.
Healthy areas that are richest in information are those areas in the wild where we can get all the information that’s available to us within our human hearing range. And the most valuable information throughout human evolution has been faint sounds. You know, we tend to think in our modern world that if it’s loud, if it grabs our attention, it’s important. We get a lot of that in advertising. But in nature, it’s the faintest sound that’s important; it has determined, in the past of our ancestors, perhaps, if they will live or die. Faint sounds are the earliest clues of newly arriving information.
While we let our eyes relax, our ears are still hearing.
Acoustic ecologists are also acutely aware of a couple of facts. Most people think visual information is more important than aural information—like, what’s this big deal about sound? And why should I bother to listen, rather than look? And here are the facts: there are blind species, in the backs of the caves, the bottoms of the oceans. It’s not essential on planet Earth to be able to see, to be a species. But there are no deaf animal species. You have to be able to hear, or you won’t get the information you need in order to survive.
This is so important it’s even exaggerated by the fact that visual information is such a luxury that eyelids are common. If you’re tired of getting additional information, you can just close your eyes, get some sleep. But earlids, covering of the ears, never evolved. Not once do we find it, even in the fossil records. Because while we let our eyes relax, our ears are still hearing. And that’s why alarm clocks work and wake us up. We still gather information. Every animal is gathering information 24/7. So I like to think of acoustic ecologists as people who are trying to become better listeners, 24/7.
Guernica: Well, my walk was good. I live in Portland, Maine, which is technically a city—a small city, but still a city.
Gordon Hempton: In your small town, when you walked, did you have a chance to listen?
Guernica: I did, and I was surprised by how loud it was. I moved here from New York City, and so I’ve always thought of Portland as quiet. But there was a lot of urban noise, a lot of cars.
Gordon Hempton: Yes.
Guernica: At one point there was an airplane, so that was the farthest sound I could hear. But before that there were a lot of seagulls.
Gordon Hempton: And what was the distance to the seagulls, do you imagine? Would you guess it’s a hundred yards, a mile?
Guernica: I would guess it was probably about a half-mile.
Gordon Hempton: Okay, a half-mile. Good, good. And so what about the faintest sound?
Guernica: At first I thought it was the footsteps of people around me, but then I realized that I could hear the wind in the trees, and I think that was fainter.
Gordon Hempton: Yes, yes, yes. It would be. You’re right about that. All right, so we have a couple of parameters to measure your acoustic environment. Was that jet lifting off, is there an airport close by? Or was it at cruising altitude?
Guernica: There’s an airport close by, so it was landing, I’m pretty sure.
Gordon Hempton: All right, so it was landing. Yet when those events were not occurring, even though there was traffic noise, you could still hear footsteps, is that right?
Gordon Hempton: All right, and the faintest sound was probably the wind in the trees. So that paints a picture for me that your space, your auditory horizon, is roughly somewhere between a half-mile and a mile, which is great. So I think your “small town” idea of Portland still applies, although it’s not nearly as quiet as you had imagined that it would be.
Gordon Hempton: The fact that you were able to hear footsteps is an indicator that Portland, in the area you were walking through, is achieving what is a goal for most towns in America and worldwide. Most cities in America, you cannot hear footsteps, because it’s that loud. Footsteps are generally brief, peak sounds that measure anywhere from fifty-five to sixty decibels from about six to ten feet away. That’s on par with the human voice at the conversational level. And then the wind in the trees is usually about thirty-five to forty-five decibels, depending on the sounds, the strength of the wind, and the type of the tree. So, that’s just a description, a crude one at that, of the acoustic environment around you. Acoustic ecology looks at these crude parameters to begin to analyze what the communication is.
In the system you’ve described, people can have conversations. When they do have conversations, their voice would not necessarily have to be elevated to be understood, but all the vocal inflections, which are important in choosing whether the person’s being sarcastic, whether the word was heartfelt—you know, the essence of personal communication and a sense of intimacy—these are definitely threatened. It’s endangered, even in this quiet town ambience that you’ve described.
That’s one way that the modern acoustic environment can alter the everyday experience of the listener. Now, let’s go to One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park, which is one of the last great quiet places. I think that it’s fair to say that it’s representative of the conditions that existed during the time of human evolution. The dominant sounds were really the sounds of nature: both the loudest and the quietest sounds throughout the day were by and large from a natural source, including humans. Humans at that time would be fairly quiet, unless it was for ceremonial purposes.
Whenever you’re in a natural system and you’re making sound, you are putting yourself at risk. We know that as you go up the evolutionary ladder, from insects to frogs to birds and on up into mammals, the higher intelligence recognizes that when you vocalize, you put yourself at risk. So mammals generally vocalize or make noise much more rarely than, let’s say, insects or frogs. And when they do, and put themselves at risk, it has to be worth the risk, and have true meaning, such as signaling during a hunting party, calling in prey, some religious or spiritual ceremony, something like that.
In the Hoh Valley, instead of the ambient sound pressure level of Portland, Oregon, which I imagine is somewhere around sixty-five to seventy, the ambient level is twenty-seven. Twenty-seven decibels is as quiet as an unoccupied modern symphonic hall. No orchestra playing, the doors to the ventilation system are closed. The daytime ambience is as quiet as our best concert halls.
The auditory horizon right now, this time of year, on this day, would probably be created by the bugling call of the Roosevelt elk, which travels calmly for a distance of about eight miles. So the area that we’re listening on winds up being hundreds of square miles when you do the math on an eight-mile auditory horizon. When we’re in the Kalahari Desert, the auditory horizon would be twenty miles away, which creates an area larger than a thousand square miles. This is the area that a human, or wildlife with matching hearing thresholds, would be able to survey. And the faintest sound in the Hoh Valley would be something like a single hemlock leaf falling on a salal leaf. It would just be the slightest tick.
What this means to you, even today as a modern person, is that [the Hoh Valley is] an incredibly secure area. Any event occurs around us, we will instantly become informed of that event. This can even happen at a distance. When the body recognizes that you have a very large listening area, and you’re getting all the information, the body relaxes. You can breathe more gently, the cortisol levels that are created by stress in our bloodstream dissipate, and we actually become healthier. And as a result, if we are actually fortunate enough to live in a place like that, we will live longer.
Now, back to Portland. We’re not only in a smaller awareness, a much smaller area, but we’re also not getting all the information. We still have the problem of less valuable information masking or covering up our perception of highly detailed information.
What this does to the listener is it creates an underlying feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. Someone will be able to approach you from behind and perhaps attack you and you wouldn’t be able to know. In a quiet area, you would know. You would be able to hear their footsteps when they’re a hundred feet away and you could take evasive action or whatever you needed to do. It’s nothing that we’re instructed in; it’s innate.
Modern listening doesn’t inform us of anything new. It simply keeps us in the past.
We’re all born listeners. And as a result of our modern lives, and living in a world that has less meaning than the natural world that we evolved to hear, we learn to think of listening not as taking in all the information with equal value, which is the definition of true listening. In our modern world, we tend to think of listening as focusing our attention on what is important and filtering out everything else.
How are we going to know what sounds are important before we’ve even heard those sounds? It’s an absurd question. The only thing we can say is that we’re going to base it on our past experience. In other words, modern listening doesn’t inform us of anything new. It simply keeps us in the past.
Earlier you asked what acoustic ecology is. To rephrase the answer, acoustic ecology is the study of information systems: the shared acoustic environment and how species send and receive messages in this shared acoustic environment. What these messages mean—meaning, what are the consequences and the changes of behavior in any species. And it has as much to do with us individually and biologically as it does with the shaping of cultures and beliefs.
Guernica: A lot of people spend the majority of their lives in urban environments, where most of the noise they hear is man-made. What effect do you think this has on their bodies, on their psyches?
Gordon Hempton: In acoustic terms, they’re living in a war zone. When you think about war zones, a battlefield, there is so much noise, so much commotion going on. The normal way of gathering information is through sound: when you hear information that you want to gather, you look in its direction, you see what it is, if you choose you can get closer, you can see it, you can touch, and then, finally, the most committed form of data gathering is to taste it and eat it.
But for the urbanite, we’re cut off from our primary sense, and I want to stress that—our primary sense of gathering information about the place that we’re living in—and instead, we’re in a war zone. You’ll know that combat soldiers can no longer rely on acoustic information at all, in that they’re busy getting visual signals.
Visual signals, although they can be very precise, have to be simple commands, they don’t really allow finesse, they don’t allow specification or complexity. Because [urbanites are] now seeing as their primary sense by default, it changes the whole way that they perceive communication in the world around them.
I was engaged for three years to a deaf woman. And that was very informative to me, because besides being in love and hoping to have a future together, it emphasized for me how different a person is, in terms of their whole psyche and their way of perceiving the world, when they cannot hear it. And what happens, you see—right now, you’re looking out of your eyes, right?
Gordon Hempton: Are you in front of a computer?
Gordon Hempton: What exactly is behind the screen of the computer?
Gordon Hempton: You can guess. You can guess, but you can’t see. What visual information does is it creates priorities. You cannot know with certainty what lies behind something else. There are very few transparent materials in the natural world or the built environment. And so we deal with things superficially, and we deal with what’s in front of us, not what’s behind our head that we can’t see, or to the left or the right. Visualists are often linear and timeline-oriented, whereas the natural condition and the natural way of problem-solving throughout evolution is to be multitasking. When we listen, it’s not linear, it’s 360, and it’s in a time-space continuum, so you don’t have to create a list of priorities, because it’s all important. You can deal with everything at any given time. Not only that, but it happens very simply, without effort.
For example, if you’re listening to a symphony, imagine 150 musicians seated onstage, performing a beautiful piece. You’re getting all the information, including the audience around you, the delay from the sides of the concert hall, the whole thing. And you can just relax and enjoy the experience. If one of those musicians is sharply out of tune or starts to play a different piece of music than all the others in the orchestra, you immediately notice. When you analyze systems by listening, you can just listen, and you can tell whether the system is healthy or unhealthy. What I’ve created for you is a perfect model of how we should be listening to our stock market, rather than trying to see it graphically.
Guernica: Can you explain what you mean by listening to the stock market? I’m having trouble imagining it.
Gordon Hempton: Let’s talk about the symphony. Each member of the symphony will be a different stock that you’re invested in, and you have certain expectations of each stock. It’s climbing up, going smooth, it’s increasing, there’s music playing when everything is performing well. You’re hearing music, and you can read a book, you can do your other work, and if all of a sudden you hear an instrument go out of tune or play really loud or be absent, that’s going to attract your attention. This is a natural process. Then you can look closely at what the figures are, and make changes. You can divest out of that, replace the instrument with a different stock, and say, “You know, this is an excellent performer but I think it’s time for him to move on.” Into a solo act, or however you want to do it.
You don’t really need to engage your visual sense, because the natural wiring of the human psyche is to monitor the environment through sound, not through sight. But we’re convinced through modern conditions that we have to look at everything, and that creates stress in our life, because we’re trying to solve problems in ways that are much more time consuming, not efficient, and not fun.
When you’re so aware of the square miles around you, you can feel the optimism. You can feel truth and beauty.
Guernica: I’ve heard that you’re suffering from hearing loss. How has it affected your life and your work?
Gordon Hempton: Well, it’s made my work very inconvenient. What used to take me an hour now takes me a full day, and I now require the presence of healthy human ears with me in the studio to answer my questions. But it’s also been a delight, because I’ll be sitting next to a person, usually in their twenties, who has perfect hearing, but they don’t know how to listen. They’re busy thinking, they filter out, and they’re listening for something. And here I am, I’ve spent my whole life trying to become a better listener, and I have impaired hearing. So Gordon Hempton, impaired hearing, and my assistant, impaired listening, and together we exchange our skills and work and I get to see their faces light up when they go, “Oh my god, this is so incredible.” They didn’t know nature could sound like this.
They’re listening. And once they get opened up to the fact that these recordings were from the real world, not a studio, then the whole enlightenment occurs that everything is really tangled up and dependent and it’s not about this or that, it’s about it all.
The people I work with usually have another job, and that other job is work. They know how many hours they’ve worked because it really feels long and like drudgery. When they work with me, the time flies by and they leave inspired, because there’s so much to look forward to: a quiet place is not only the increase in your awareness, but when you’re so aware of the square miles around you, you can feel the optimism. You can feel truth and beauty, and be willing to act on it.
I’ve never really understood how people cannot value the future, or think that the world is going down a fast slippery slope of degradation. No, I don’t think so; this is just what it’s going to take to wake us up, and allow us to do what our ancestors did. You know, our ancestors brought us here by tooth and claw. A lot of people perished, a lot of pre-humans perished. Life has never been easy. Why should it be easy for us?
When you listen to nature, it may still be difficult to live a life, but it’s inspiring. And that’s why we’re going to do it.
Guernica: Do you see your work as connected to the larger environmental movement?
Gordon Hempton: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s to remind environmentalists that often how you define the problem will determine whether or not you’re able to find a real solution. And many environmentalists I know are listening-impaired. Many are also hearing-impaired: noise-induced hearing loss, undiagnosed. But the listening impairment is a real problem, because they won’t be able to fully understand the system. They’ll be looking at things in terms of priorities rather than in terms of it all being important.
Many environmentalists have failed to recognize that the preservation of quiet areas, places off-limits to noise pollution, should probably be a number-one environmental concern, not something we’re going to get to later. And I say that because in that quiet is a whole experience that people can have that reaches to their soul. I like to think of quiet places in nature as the think tank of the soul. It’s in these very basic levels that we’ll be able to see what the real problem is.
Most environmentalists think that we have a real environmental problem. We don’t. The earth has continued to change, from rapid climatic changes that have caused the glaciers and the ice sheets to basically bulldoze the landscape and cause species compression in the tropics and cause mass species extinction—you know, all these huge changes. In terms of evolution, every species is doomed to eventual extinction. The natural world is constantly changing. So, to deal with “environmental problems,” in quotes, totally misses the issue. That is not the way we want to define our problem if we’re going to find our solution.
It’s a spiritual issue. It’s that we think the problem is out there, when the problem is really in here—who we are and how we experience the world around us. The acoustic ecologist listens, as the primary sense, to the world around us, and I believe that they have a significant contribution to make to all environmental groups who think that they’re solving environmental problems, when we’re actually all on a spiritual pilgrimage.
Guernica: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier on. You said that you’ve also recorded in urban environments?
Gordon Hempton: Oh, yes, quite a bit. I have recorded in London, Tokyo, Paris, Venice, all over the world. I’m just as fascinated by urban environments as natural environments. I think they both have a lot to teach.
Birdsong is the number one indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.
Guernica: What have you learned from urban environments?
Gordon Hempton: Well, I used to hate the urban environment and the urban din. But I realize now that it’s really not that much different than living next to a waterfall for wildlife. Most wildlife—unless they’re specifically adapted, such as the water ouzel—avoid being around a waterfall or whitewater streams and rivers because it jams their sense of surveillance. They are more vulnerable, and their message loses intelligibility. Now, the ouzel is able to overcome that in various ways. But back to the urban environment, we’re still talking and delivering messages as if we weren’t next to a waterfall, and that’s a problem. We’re missing a lot of meaning in our conversations and our behavior that we intend to be sending, and that we want to be received.
But besides that, I have to say I do find music in urban noise, when heard from particular positions and in certain ways. Particularly with trains. The documentary Soundtracker, which is an independent film produced about my work, shadowed me in pursuing the right combination of train sounds, and this bird, the western meadowlark, because I really felt that I could achieve—not in the studio, but on location—the right power of this iron horse as this deep, overwhelming, low-frequency content, balanced with the quiet, inspiring song of the meadowlark. To me, I was capturing a portrait of what it’s like to be listening today.
Not only does the modern person often think that sight is more important than sound—there’s no objective evidence to indicate that. Many people, even audiologists who study the science of human speech and hearing, have assumed for a long time that the human ear evolved to hear the human voice, rather than the voice changing to fit the human ear. And the human ear is actually not a perfect match if we map its sensitivity to the different frequencies in the human range of hearing; it’s an unequal curve, it’s kind of a wavy line.
The most sensitive frequencies are at the resonant frequencies of the auditory canal. In other words, the ear has shaped itself to naturally amplify certain bandwidth. And that corresponds to sounds in that bandwidth that were most important to our evolving ancestors to hear, in order to survive. And it doesn’t match the human voice. It matches birdsong.
Gordon Hempton: I believe that our distant nomadic ancestors came forward and survived because they could hear distant, faint birdsong as an acoustic navigational beacon, if you will, and by moving toward the birdsong, they were able to find places with shelter, food, and water, and a prosperous growing region. Indeed, birdsong is the number one indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.
Guernica: Have you ever recorded in more sonically polluted places in nature? How do your recordings in pristine environments compare?
Gordon Hempton: There are only a handful of pristine environments left, so I usually record in areas that are polluted. You can listen to a birdsong, and from the content of the birdsong, you will be able to determine whether or not the bird grew up in a noise-polluted environment or whether it grew up in a pristine, clean environment. Isn’t that incredible?
How it works is like this: for a long time, science thought that birds were like wind-up toys. If it was a western meadowlark, all western meadowlarks sounded the same. They were just genetically programmed to communicate in a certain way. Well, now the general rule is that young birds learn their songs from their parents. And because this learning process occurs, there’s a natural trend where birds of the same species sing in different dialects. The people I use to identify birdsongs in my recordings, I don’t even have to write down the location. They already know the location. They know that this mockingbird is from southern Arizona and this mockingbird is from Louisiana, just from the way that it sings.
If you’re trying to communicate—if you’re trying to learn how they’re singing, how they’re communicating—yourself, you’re going to have to hear them. All the nuances, all the intelligibility, inflections, the meaning of the song. If you can’t hear it because of noise pollution, you’re going to wind up singing simpler. And you might just wind up reproducing the frequencies that you can hear. What winds up happening is that birdsong shifts out of the lower frequencies noise pollution occupies to a higher frequency and has less fluctuation, less amplitude and frequency modulation.
The birds are already evolving, changing the way that they sing as a result of noise pollution. And we have yet to do that. We’re still not communicating. We’re not changing our words. We are not testing, not providing this new lexicon for noise-polluted areas. If you study the way that the military speaks, generally they rely on visual signals, which I explained before. But when spoken words are included, all the words are standardized so that every word has a specific meaning for an action and words cannot be confused, such as “repeat.” “Repeat” means “to fire again.” Those are the consequences of living in a noise-polluted environment and not acknowledging that, and not adapting and changing our behavior.
The most important thing for our species is, before it speaks, to listen to its environment. That has a higher priority in any species’ survival. We need to be listening to our environment—in other words, restoring the quiet—not just to our natural areas, but also to towns like Portland, Maine.
Guernica: Would you say that listening—becoming a better listener—can lead to action?
Gordon Hempton: I would say that to listen is to become aware. To become truly informed. You will discover whatever you do. I don’t want to speak for how becoming a better listener will affect other people, but I’ll certainly describe for you how it’s affected me.
If you’re going to listen, you have to be willing to be changed by what you’ve heard. My life has gone through so many changes. I’m sixty-two years old right now, and I’m as busy changing now as I was when I was a teenager, or in my twenties. Every day is different. Every day brings new information. And what are you going to do but make your decisions based on your information? Right?
You also fall back in love with planet Earth. I’m in love with Earth. I truly am. And so it’s not work, to work toward a better future. It’s joy. To not be able to work toward a better future would be work. That would be tough.
I’m very thankful, hearing impairment or not, that I’ve brought listening into my life. I will never say that I’m a good listener, however. Thinking that I was a good listener was one thing that kept me from being a good listener. It’s a very dangerous thought. I just want to be better.
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