Part of Issue #12 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
ZABALO RIVER, Ecuador — By 5:30 am, Gordon Hempton had his high-end recording equipment unpacked and had donned a headlamp that glowed red, like Rudolph’s nose. The buzzes and peeps of Amazonian fauna were still muted, and the first rays of light were finding their way through the 100-foot-tall canopies of the kapok trees and chambira and pambil palms.
After pulling on tall rubber boots and applying the day’s first layer of bug repellent, four groggy campers followed Hempton from their tents and tarps down a muddy path to the mouth of a tributary of the Zabalo River, an inky-black channel roughly the width of a basketball court that cuts some 30 miles eastward across northeast Ecuador. Though daylight had hardly made a mark, they’d missed the beginning of the Dawn Chorus — the symphony of birdsong that takes advantage of the early morning’s optimal conditions for sound travel.
Here, in this obscure pocket of Ecuador’s northeastern corner, they hoped to wake up their “faint listening skills,” expanding their aural horizons to take in more of the soundscape. Everyone stood still, paying as much attention as possible to the acoustic information pinging their ears. After hitting the record button on his equipment and listening for a bit, Hempton handed around the headphones. Almost everything one can hear through them, he assured the campers, is audible to the naked ear if those skills are sufficiently honed.
A snatch of amplified rainforest evokes a chaotic, colorful, two-dimensional wall; the microphones erase the soundscape’s sense of space. The howler monkeys suddenly roar like revving motorcycles; insects buzz like TV static; the Zabalo babbles as if the ear is just above its surface; and birdsong cackles, shimmers tambourine-like, and pops like a toddler imitating a machine gun — pyoo-pyoo-pyoo! After a little while, the patterns and frequencies of the birdcalls give the impression of species waking up in waves and testing their vocal cords. The closest humans — in the Cofán village of Zabalo — are a dozen miles away.
This kind of soundscape, according to Hempton, a prominent Washington state acoustic ecologist and sound recordist, is quiet. Not the absence of sound, but a soundscape unadulterated by human ruckus.
The million acres of land that has belonged to the roughly 1,200 indigenous Cofán for centuries were certified last Earth Day by Quiet Parks International as the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park — a place measurably free from human noise. The organization, a nonprofit recently co-founded by 66-year-old Hempton, hopes not only to preserve the vestiges of all-natural soundscapes but to provide visitors with an aural experience that will help them realize the need to save quiet.
Noise is nearly everywhere, driven by the conveniences and economics of the modern world. Unwanted noise is linked to myriad health problems, while nature has been found to reduce stress and hasten recovery. Hempton believes our mental, even spiritual, well-being is being suffocated by our own din.
Listening on the banks of a tiny tributary of an unremarkable river in the biodiversity capital of the world, the visitors were removed from every distraction and stress of their noisy everyday lives. When it’s just them and the forest, Hempton believes, they will truly get to know themselves. Quiet, he says, is “the think tank of the soul and the birthplace of creativity.”
Urban areas, with their church bells and construction and ever-barking dogs, have always been noisy places to live. But 100 years ago, vast swaths of the United States featured only the sounds of chirping birds, thundering waterfalls, croaking frogs, or wind whispering through trees.
What kicked off the proliferation of noise into almost every nook and cranny of the country was the internal combustion engine. Unlike a laborer swinging a hammer, engines don’t tire and stop, and as they became integral to daily life, an ever-thickening web of roads crisscrossed the country, bringing with them the rumbling and revving of cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And where noise from roads couldn’t reach, noise from flight routes could. In between it all is the earth-rumbling machinery of fossil fuel extraction.
Our noise has doubled background sound levels in nearly two-thirds of protected areas in the US and caused at least a tenfold increase in more than a fifth of them. Noise is also a social justice issue: The loudest, most unwanted sounds — like those of industrial areas, highway overpasses, airports, and trains — ring out in the lowest-income neighborhoods, often populated by communities of color.
Humans are evolutionarily wired to respond to the abrupt sounds that indicate danger. An ambulance siren, a toddler stomping around in the unit above, or a jet flying over your house aren’t signals you’re about to get eaten, but they still trigger involuntary fight-or-flight responses, especially when they’re loud and unexpected. These aren’t reactions you’re necessarily aware of, nor will they necessarily feel bad in the moment.
But frequent fight-or-flight responses strain autonomic nervous and endocrine systems, which can lead to higher blood pressure, elevated heart pace, poor sleep, negative social behavior, and more. Those, in turn, leave us vulnerable to everything from heart attack or stroke to lower test scores in school. One notable study from the 1970s found that sixth-graders on the side of a New York school facing an elevated train track had reading levels a year behind their counterparts on the quieter side of campus.
And it’s not just humans who are thrown out of whack. In cities, birds are known to change their calls to be heard — or are driven out altogether. Scientists also found simulated road noise caused a 73 percent drop in the number of male sage grouse showing up to mating grounds in Wyoming. In another experiment in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, damselfish were less quick in their response to predators, and more likely to be prey, when motorboats passed over, stressing them out.
Even plant roots are thought to adjust their growth based on vibrations associated with water moving through the ground — vibrations that are altered by those of passing noise. In northwest New Mexico, scrub jays, which scatter seeds of the region’s pinyon pines, have fled the sounds of natural gas wells, leaving mice to eat up the seeds and diminish the pinyons, and causing hummingbird numbers to soar when their scrub jay nemeses disappeared. The domino effects are endless.
Even climate change is implicated in altering our natural soundscapes. Pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere raises the temperature, say, in a frog’s habitat, which affects the frog’s sense of when and how to croak during mating season. A soundscape can also lose, for instance, the babble of a brook when it dries up for good.
Exposure to nature, however, has the opposite effect of noise on humans. Not to say the far-off toll of a bell can’t be relaxing, nor the growl of a nearby wolf stress-inducing, but mounds of research have shown the cognitive, emotional, and physiological benefits of exposure to nature.
People come away from nature walks happier than people walking a drab hallway. Hospital patients recover faster when they have a window with a view of greenery. A prominent study of public housing buildings in Chicago found notably less aggression and violence in ones with better views of greenery. In the 1980s, Japan began embracing “forest bathing” as a form of preventive health care and healing, and the government has pumped millions into studying the mental and physical effects of being in nature. It led officials to establish dozens of official therapy trails in Japan’s forests.
It makes a sort of evolutionary sense: Trees, for instance, signal to our ape brains safety from predators. The sound of a babbling brook indicates water. But researchers also see answers in how much brain power our surroundings demand of us. Take attention-restoration theory, which says we have two main forms of attention: directed and involuntary. Your directed attention is given to things you’re actively paying attention to — like this story — and it’s easily depleted. Involuntary attention is driven more by interesting stimuli in the environment — birdsong, say, or the way leaves flutter gently on their branches in a soft breeze.
An environment with just the latter can help restore the former, says Marc Berman, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. “And we think that nature is one kind of environment that sort of meets these criteria.” That replenishment translates to just feeling good. And the places that are most natural tend to be the freest from human-made noise.
Our brains process visual and auditory information from natural environments more quickly and easily, says Holli-Anne Passmore, a positive psychology researcher at the University of British Columbia. “Because we’re using less brainpower, you’ve got all this other brainpower left to essentially be a more reasonable person.”
Our physiological equilibrium, thrown out of whack by our constant din, resets when there’s nothing to stress it out. Researchers tend to agree that the benefits of nature increase with our level of immersion.
And we don’t have to see it to feel it. Research has shown fatigued office workers feel more motivation to work when they listen to nature sounds rather than their workplace sounds. ICU patients under mechanical ventilation support who listened to nature sounds through headphones had significantly lower blood pressure, anxiety, and agitation levels than those who didn’t. The longer the patients listened, the better off they were.
On Earth Day 2005, Hempton set out from the Hoh visitor center, in the Hoh Rainforest in Washington’s Olympic National Park, carrying a little red stone given to him by the then-cultural elder of the Olympic Peninsula’s Quileute tribe. His plan was to meticulously document outside noise intrusions and work with the National Park Service and airlines to keep this forest sanctuary acoustically pristine.
After a few miles of hiking, he settled on a spot carpeted with springy moss and fallen logs sprouting all manner of Seussian plants and clumps of fungi. Birds and Douglas squirrels peeped and cawed. He placed the red stone on a furry log and declared the patch “One Square Inch of Silence,” a sacred space for quiet. If that tiny area was free from unwanted sound waves, he argued, the adjacent square inches, feet, and even acres could be, too. Though Hempton had made a small splash as the subject of a 1990s PBS documentary, One Square Inch garnered a steady stream of news coverage and a small cadre of devotees.
Hempton has circled the globe three times recording the sounds of nature, especially soundscapes that are disappearing amid human cacophony. He is motivated by more than simple conservation.
“The noise impact on the human soul,” Hempton says, “is a sense of hopelessness and pessimism about the future.” Those feelings, he believes, will eventually become untenable, leading people to seek out a salve. We’ll feel driven toward quiet, he believes, the way someone cooped up in an office for too long yearns for a walk in the park. Humans evolved in a quiet world, after all.
A natural raconteur, Hempton has a backwoodsman’s frame and ruddy face, close-cropped hair and beard more salt than pepper, and regularly body-surfs along the rugged coastline of the north Olympic Peninsula. But his hearing is going — a cruel twist of irony that only moderately fazes him.
His obsession with quiet and listening began on a cross-country trip to grad school, when he stopped to spend a night in a Midwest cornfield and was bombarded by not just a rainstorm but also the epic boom of its thunder — “magnificent, deep, primordial, soul-shaking sounds,” he’d later write. “I’d never heard thunder like this before.” He had found his calling — becoming the “Sound Tracker” — and promptly dropped out of school and abandoned the idea of becoming a plant pathologist.
A decade later, by which point he had a young family, an illness prevented him from working and paying the bills; what saved him was early-morning birdsong that inspired a grant-funded project to record the Dawn Chorus. Companies including Microsoft sought his professional audio services and recordings.
Then came One Square Inch in the forests of Washington state, which he defended from noise intrusions by comparing sound recordings to air traffic patterns and asking offending airlines to reroute. In 2009, Hempton wrote a book about it. A few years later, it was translated into Chinese, a version of which was picked up by Laila Fan, a field recordist and educational radio producer in Taiwan.
To find the most effective organizations pushing for quiet — as opposed to just tamping down noise — look abroad. Fan, founder of the Soundscape Association of Taiwan, is the Gordon Hempton of her country. Until she read One Square Inch of Silence, Fan had never considered taking action on the nature sounds she recorded.
One of her recording sites was Taiping Mountain, naturally quiet and blanketed in a lush forest resembling Hempton’s Hoh Rainforest. She told its forest ranger it needed a silent trail, but for a couple of years, no one took her seriously. So, in 2015, Fan established the Soundscape Association of Taiwan — a conservation and policy organization for natural soundscapes — and wrote a book about her efforts. On the cover was her own quiet stone.
Three years later, the Taiwanese forest bureau recognized a “National Silence Trail” at Taiping Mountain. Word of mouth and word of social media has brought more people to the silence trail, and Fan is now working with Yangmingshan National Park, at the country’s northern tip, to make it an “urban quiet park.”
Quiet is an even more entrenched value 5,200 miles to the northwest. Over the past two decades, Stockholm, Sweden, has mapped its noise and quiet multiple times and has identified 65 spots across a dozen nature and culture reserves where folks can find relative quiet. The city has held events and activities and printed brochures in the hope of attracting people to the parks to experience it.
Oslo, capital of another Scandinavian country with lots of uninhabited open space, has taken quiet seriously, too. The Norwegian city is surrounded by forests and claims that about half its residents live within 500 meters of a “designated silent area.” The European Union has recognized the city for its robust noise monitoring and public engagement.
Forests seem to be promising places for clawing back a little quiet. In 2011, researchers simply asked folks entering the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument, north of San Francisco, to speak quietly and silence their phones. It resulted in a 3-decibel drop — the equivalent of removing 1,200 people from the park.
Wide-scale solutions, however, remain a challenge. “I think it is an uphill battle,” says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, which has battled noise from air tours over the national park. “There isn’t a neighborhood in wilderness,” she says, where residents might go NIMBY on noise. “I also think it’s one of those things where people don’t appreciate it as much until it’s gone.” Development percolates in, Bahr says, and people simply say, “Oh, well, what’s one more road?”
By 2018, Square Inch of Silence was dead. For the umpteenth time, Hempton made the trek out to the Hoh and discovered that this time, he couldn’t go 10 minutes without hearing a plane flying over. He threw in the towel. The sense of loss was brutal, but freeing himself from that project, he says, allowed him to see other opportunities. Hempton teamed up with Vikram Chauhan, a digital user-experience consultant in Mumbai who had had his own quiet epiphany, to found Quiet Parks International.
In 2010, Hempton had met Randy Borman, a Cofán leader, at a TED event in Brazil, and Borman invited him to the Oriente, Ecuador’s eastern half. The visit eventually sparked the idea for Zabalo as the first wilderness quiet park, and an invitation to see whether true quiet evokes the transcendence necessary to inspire folks to rejigger their lives — and society as a whole — to save an intangible and disappearing natural resource.
Quiet Parks’ 28 advisers, representatives, and committee members come primarily from the worlds of sound research, sustainability, and environmentalism. The organization certifies places as, well, sufficiently free from noise, and has its eye on about 200 more sites besides Zabalo. At its heart, its focus is humankind’s need for silence, but the organization also preaches benefits including overall environmental preservation and improving visitors’ and Indigenous land managers’ well-being.
The group plans educational programs and research into noise pollution and the geographic spread of quiet. If finances or lack of interest make a trip to such a remote place impossible, the group will also certify “Urban Quiet Parks” (which, naturally, won’t be Zabalo-grade quiet) and “Quiet Communities,” which will be residential neighborhoods committed to putting a firm lid on their noise footprints (the first of which is a 365-acre community in rural western North Carolina).
“Those experiences are significant enough that, whether or not we choose to take advantage of it, it should be there,” Hempton says. “It should be in our repertoire of choices.” Quiet trails, quiet marine parks, and even quiet hotels are also in the works.
All of which signals that ecotourism is perhaps the key to this endeavor’s success. Hempton and company are betting people will hear about these respites from our soul-sucking din and pay to experience them, and then tell their friends. Tourism has already been a lifeline to Ecuador’s embattled Cofán, who’ve fought off attempts to extract the oil that lies beneath the land’s trees and rivers. A certification would signal that quiet has economic value, too — that some of the economic motivations that drive us toward a noisier future can also be harnessed to preserve, and spread the gospel of, quiet.
The certification was not “something that we were searching for,” says Borman, a self-deprecating, avuncular man with an encyclopedia’s worth of forest trivia. But “it’s a nice recognition of what we’ve been trying to do here.”
Led by Borman, the Cofán have lobbied the Ecuadorian government for land titles and put significant energy into conservation and blazing trails demarcating their land. “That is because we’re so, so aware, from our past experience, of the speed with which all of this can disappear,” Borman says. A critical part of funding that work is donations from abroad. The most effective vehicle for inspiring those donations, he says, is ecotourism.
“But the quiet park concept to the average American entrepreneur, it’s a nice thought but it’s entirely aesthetic,” Borman said one afternoon, lounging in a handwoven hammock in Zabalo village. “It’s a fine porcelain base, but it’s not a car to be able to drive to work in.” In order to get a reaction, it has to “move from that aesthetic to being seen as — it’s not exactly the right word, but — a product.”
Noise regulation in the US is piecemeal, often urban-focused, and oriented toward tamping down our racket rather than instilling appreciation for quiet. In the 1970s, the brand new Environmental Protection Agency addressed the growing din with its Office of Noise Control and Abatement. But the office simply faded away under Ronald Reagan, who pushed for the current paradigm of regulating noise at the state and local levels.
Small, ragtag citizen groups abound, though they’re focused mostly on addressing nuisances: banning gas-powered leaf blowers, cracking down on car stereos, limiting noise from a nearby airport. One of the most concerted efforts is not far from Seattle, where residents of Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula are pushing back against expanding the take-off and landing practices of a class of extraordinarily loud military jets stationed at a Whidbey naval air station. Last summer, after years of failing to sway the Navy, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Navy for allegedly ignoring the effect of the noise on health and wildlife during the Navy’s environmental assessment.
But few such groups have the national reach needed to effect paradigmatic change. “The movement is destined to be a little fragmented because the impacts are fragmented, are localized,” says Les Blomberg, head of the Vermont-based Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, which raises awareness of the effects of noise and compiles resources for fighting it.
Our lack of meaningful silence may not feel like an existential crisis to most, anyway. Even when we are aware of our flagging productivity or creativity, our grouchier mood or higher blood pressure, we don’t always suspect a sonic origin.
Noise doesn’t kill us like a blow to the head but grinds us down the way a poor diet or sedentary lifestyle does: gradually, imperceptibly, almost abstractly, in a way that doesn’t feel urgent. Maybe a quiet life would be better, we’d think, but our noisy one goes on satisfactorily enough. We’ve found Band-Aid solutions, anyway: Just see the proliferation of meditation apps and Spotify nature playlists.
Perhaps the best way to gauge whether Quiet Parks International is onto something is to look at the International Dark-Sky Association, which has been doing virtually the same thing with light pollution for more than 30 years. Once the project of a couple of astronomers in Tucson, Arizona, the organization now has 24 chapters outside the US. There are 10 International Dark Sky Sanctuaries — IDA’s version of Wilderness Quiet Parks — along with dozens of dark-sky parks and two dozen dark-sky communities, to name a few categories.
The 300-person town of Lake Tekapo, in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, saw an explosion in tourism after the already-popular Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin received their Dark Sky Reserve designation in 2012 — so much so that guest lodging has to be booked months in advance. Two more dark-sky parks have since been certified in the country. “It’s one of New Zealand’s biggest attractions now, looking at the stars,” says John Hearnshaw, a University of Canterbury astronomer and an Aoraki Mackenzie board member. It was a singular success for the dark sky organization, but it showed the possibilities.
On a drive through northern Ecuador one afternoon, under the cover of ominously dark clouds, Hempton described how those sorts of economic incentives could apply to quiet. Governments, the press, and tourism organizations have asked about certification, he said, even if their primary concern appears to be tourism and self-image.
Even rerouting flights around quiet places can be spun to appeal to corporate bottom lines. What airline, Hempton asked, wouldn’t want the opportunity to say they were the first to change their operations to protect a natural resource? The airlines, the FAA — someone — just has to knock down that first domino.
A day and a half after the Dawn Chorus listening session, fresh off a long, silent float back to camp from the headwaters of the Zabalo, Hempton and Borman’s son, Josh, were playing gin rummy at a makeshift table under a tarp roof. Rain had given way to dusk, which prompted tea and candles. Hempton teased Josh, who responded with exaggerated throat-clearing as he prepared a bluff.
Josh mentioned that one of the campers from Washington state had lost his new glasses in the river during the float. “Well, in Zabalo you can still see without your glasses,” Hempton replied. “And you can still listen with hearing loss.”
Sam Goldman is a writer and freelance journalist based in Berkeley, Calif. He enjoys covering the quirky and unheard-of. Follow him on Twitter at @Sam__Goldman