Gordon Hempton MAx’82

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Gordon Hempton in green forest wearing headphones, standing behind microphone.

Shawn Parkin

One Square Inch of Silence

In 2005, Gordon Hempton MAx’82 was hiking an unmarked trail through a wild, wet corner of Washington state when he finally found what he was looking for: silence.

Hempton, an Emmy Award–winning sound recorder and engineer, placed a red rock on the spot and declared it the quietest place in America. The act was more symbolic than scientific, but it drove home the point that few places are truly free of human noise.

“Natural quiet is the antidote to the toxic noise that’s all around us now,” he says. “There is not one place on Planet Earth that’s set aside for protection from noise pollution.”

Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence site in Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest has become a monument to silence. Hundreds of people make pilgrimages to the rock-marked grove every year. A Russian TV crew, a German magazine reporter, CBS Sunday Morning, and a team of New York Times journalists have come calling.

Hempton has circled the globe three times, capturing the rarest nature sounds — “sounds that can only be fully appreciated in the absence of manmade noise,” he says. His recordings have been used by the National Geographic Society, Microsoft, and the Smithsonian Institute. In 1992, he won an Emmy for a PBS documentary about natural soundscapes on six continents.

At UW–Madison, Hempton studied the quietest of living things — plants. He was aiming for a master’s in plant pathology when he made a fateful pit stop in a cornfield. “I pulled over, and I just listened to the crickets and then an amazing thunderstorm that came over me,” he says. “I thought, ‘How can I be 27 years old and never [have] truly listened?’”

Hempton’s hero is naturalist John Muir x1864. From Muir, Hempton learned to listen deeply to nature.

“In his writing, he takes you on a sonic journey,” Hempton says. “With a river, he describes all the various voices — in the mountains where it starts, the river’s young and ‘babbling’ and ‘boisterous.’ Lower down, it’s quiet and meandering in old age.”

A few years ago, Hempton suffered an unexpected and career- crippling bout of hearing loss. He recovered, but not fully. His hearing comes and goes, but his work as a recorder and advocate of natural sounds remains constant.

“I’m still on a search for that next beautiful concert,” he says.


Published in the Spring 2018 issue

Tags: Alumni, Environment, Science

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