Speaking For Silence

by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

With winter’s snow behind us, it’s easy to be nostalgic about a very special aspect of a fresh snowfall: silence.  If “silence is golden,” a book by acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton argues the nation we live in is on the verge of bankruptcy.

During and after a snowfall, the blanket of fresh snow muffles many background noises.  When it’s a big snowfall that closes schools, offices and roads, the constant drone of engines is magically absent.  Stillness and quiet is hard to quantify, and its impact on the human spirit is hard to explain.


Of course, in this state we’re in, that golden silence is usually cut short with the clatter of snowplows and buzz of snow blowers.

In his book One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, co-written with John Grossman, Emmy Award-winning sound recordist Hempton has found that there are fewer than a dozen places left in America “where natural silence reigns over many square miles.”  He defines silence as “the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”

It’s no coincidence that “peace and quiet” go hand-in-hand.   In quiet we can settle our minds, center ourselves, and relieve stress.  Recent studies even show that time spent outdoors – in the relative silence of nature – help in the treatment of autism.

But the average noise-free interval in American wilderness areas, Hempton claims, has shrunk to less than five minutes during daytime hours.  In 2007, Hempton identified only 12 places in the United States where he found a noise-free interval of 15 minutes or more.  He found none in Europe.

In his native Washington state, Hempton documented this alarming trend.  Twenty-one quiet sites were identified in 1983; by 2007 there were just three.  On Earth Day 2005, one of these locations within Olympic National Park was designated the quietest place in America and dubbed “One Square Inch of Silence.”  This square inch has become symbolic of Hempton’s quest to preserve quiet places, especially in our national parks, where the silence of even the most remote areas is upset by air traffic.

Why shouldn’t all of us experience the silence of nature?  Close to home, we can’t find one of Hempton’s 12 sites. But New Jersey’s varied parks, forests, farms and trails all have relatively quiet spots.  And we can be advocates for natural silence. Hampton is urging Congressional action to divert air traffic from above our most pristine national parks.  You can read all the details in his blog at http://onesquareinch.org.

And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.

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