Gordon Hempton: Love at First Listen

By Gordon Hempton, Founder of Quiet Parks International



Everyone should be blessed with a place they can call their own—a place where they can feel intimately connected with the rest of life; a place where they can shed, like water off a salal leaf, the cares (most of them trivial, after all) of a busier, stressful, noisy life back home; a place of contemplation and reinvigoration and peace.  For me, that place is the Hoh Valley.  I discovered it with my ears.   

But not initially.  I first walked up the Hoh Valley trail alone the summer before my senior year as a botany major at the University of Wisconsin.  This was 1975, and I was taking a summer exchange course on photography at Evergreen State College.  I backpacked in with an Olympus OM-2 and plenty of Kodachrome 25, intent on photographing what I’d been told was a spectacular, towering, temperate rainforest. I took plenty of photos, all right, but looking at them later, I felt frustrated, and didn’t really know why until some six years later, when I returned to the Hoh not as a sightseer, but as a listener, and began to appreciate the rare charm of this secluded valley. This came early in my career as a nature sound recording artist and acoustic ecologist.  

Since then, I’ve circled the globe three times searching for the pristine sounds of nature untrammeled by the noise of man on every continent but Antarctica.  I’ve set up my equipment in every state in the nation and in most of America’s national parks.  Sadly, I’m almost always disappointed.  Typically, there’s truck traffic from a highway 10 miles away. Or the steady, low frequency hum of a paper mill.  Or noise intrusions from overhead aircraft.  More and more I find myself listening for something that has vanished, which explains why I keep coming back to the Hoh.  Tucked away in a remote, often overlooked corner of the continental United States, in a rare national park unbisected by a roadway, beneath few prescribed jetliner routes, the Hoh Valley remains a listener’s paradise and a national treasure.  I believe it’s the quietest spot in the lower forty-eight.   

Even in the rainy season the listening is good.  Every kind of rain can be heard, and every leaf and forest fiber seems to produce its own sound if you can get close enough to hear it…the patterning of the rain on top of a dried fallen maple leave…the soft tap of a lone raindrop onto moss.  There’s a fascinating delay factor in this Pacific rain forest, a terrestrial take on starlight.  Because of the towering, many-layered structure of the Hoh forest you rarely hear rain falling straight from the sky.  What you’re actually hearing is forest showers, drizzles, and drops, secondary precipitation that may take a Rube Goldberg path through the forest canopy, off a succession of different leaves, and then, finally, to the ground.   

Fall is my favorite time of the year in the Hoh. Arriving at the visitors’ center parking lot and turning off the engine, the first sound I hear is the tinkling of the motor as it begins to cool. I can be nearly a mile up the trail and still hear the beep-beep of somebody’s remote door lock shouting out the job is done. But step-by-step up the gentle trail the ties to civilization fall away.  Climbing up the old riverbank, onto the first plateau, home to some of the Hoh’s largest trees, I’m reminded of a cathedral.  The size and spacing of the giant spruce are nature’s counterpart to the columns of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  And there’s a soul satisfying, cathedral-like quiet here, because the river is distant at this point on the hike.  In the absence of wind and rain, my sound meter has registered in the low 20 decibel range, as quiet as a bedroom at night. 

Here, you’ll hear the far off hot of owls, even during the daytime.  And the sledge-hammer blows of the pileated woodpecker.   And the high-pitched twittering  cascade of the winter wren, a great favorite of mine.  You’ll hear them much more often than you’ll see them, which is why even the best photographs can’t capture the full experience of the Hoh.  Sound does not hide behind a fallen tree or a bend in the trail. Our ears take us where our eyes cannot--and in a listening sanctuary like the Hoh, reward us again and again. 

Further up the trail you come to a grove of moss-draped, big-leafed maple trees that put on a spectacular show on a sunny autumn day when they’re in full color and a gentle breeze begins to blow.   This performance starts on high, with as few as a handful of wind-blown leaves fluttering from the upper branches, colliding with other leaves.  Soft.  Individual handclaps.  Then a strong gust will dispatch hundreds of leaves, triggering a gentle, building applause.   

A bit further on, where the Hoh River comes into view, you may begin to smell the    


sweet muskiness of the elk and perhaps be fortunate enough to hear them bugle.  Fall is the peak of their rutting season and the males are announcing their challenges to other males.  From a distance, echoing up and down the valley, you’ll hear a high, flutish whistling sound But up close, as here, where the elk like to come, their bugle sounds very different: throaty, aggressive, testosterone driven, and fear inspiring. Standing totally quiet and motionless, I’ve had elk pass within ten feet of me, though I don’t recommend such close encounters, as they are large dangerous animals.   

Another sound I’ve come to enjoy resounds as you step across the occasional boardwalks over wet terrain and various streams flowing into the Hoh.  The native cedar slats replay your footsteps rather like outdoor xylophones.  Yes, they announce your presence in the woods, but in doing so, you hear your footfalls, and as you hike further and further up the Hoh trail, you can hear your rhythm slow in tune with your sense of urgency, the further from the asphalt parking lot you travel.  

About three miles from the visitor’s center begins the rare opportunity for true aural solitude.  You’ve passed out of earshot of activities at the camping area at the trailhead and the turnaround point for many day hikers.  It’s not uncommon to walk for hours and pass only one or two hikers, generally descending from the mountains after a several-day backcountry experience. They no longer smell like their laundry detergent.  Nor are they fretting about things left undone back at home or at work.  I love the contented looks on their faces.  

At 3.2 miles up the trail, I turn left off the path when I reach a cave-like opening made by a co-joined stilted spruce and hemlock, and soon step through a low muddy area often crisscrossed with elk tracks.  I stop when I come to a small red rock atop a chest-high moss-covered log.  The stone, given to me years ago by David Four Lines, the late cultural elder of the Quileute Tribe, marks the spot that I’ve designated One Square Inch for Quiet—a sanctuary of silence that I am defending from all human noise intrusions.  My actions to defend this single square inch, I believe, may protect as much as 1,000 square miles. (visit www.quietparks.org for more information)  

We need quiet places like this to bring us closer in touch with our planet—and also ourselves.  Living in suburbia and the city, as I once did myself, we’ve come to equate the loudest sounds with the most important.  (TV watching and movie viewing only reinforces this.). We listen to the loudest first. The squeaky wheel gets our attentive grease.  But in a profoundly quiet place like the Hoh Valley, you come to learn there is a wealth of meaning and understanding carried on the musical score of delicate and subtle sounds—natural notes that can be enjoyed only in the absence of manmade noise and only after quieting yourself emotionally as well.   

Listen long and hard and you’ll not only hear pine wind, but also learn to discern what species of evergreen you’re listening to.  Spruce wind…cedar wind…long leafed pine…short leafed pine—the shorter the needle the higher the pitch; the longer the needle the lower the pitch.  In the Hoh, a dedicated listener can be led blindfolded to a spot and identify the surrounding trees by the music they make. And discern the future in the forest’s most delicate rain of all:  the soft taps of mature seeds, landing first on the firm, hard salal leaves before sliding to rest on the fecund forest floor.   

Another sound that I love is birthed in the Hoh but not heard there. I’ve spent hours listening to it on the pebbled shore of nearby Rialto Beach.  Winter’s storms and floods often pull riverbank dwelling Sitka spruce into the torrent and carry them down the Hoh into the Pacific.  Some wash up on shore, frequently bearing enormous, cave-like root cavities big enough to walk into.  Giant ears-of-wood, I call them, for I’ve spent hours and hours enthralled by the unforgettable listening experience they afford. This, after all, is the same wood used to make violins and the sounding board of Steinway pianos.  Step inside one of these Ears of Wood and you’ll hear a secret symphony born in the Hoh, music that unfolds as the huge rolling waves sweep up through the soft sand, then into the tinkly pea gravel, then further up the beach, rattling the ever larger, surf-sifted and smoothed stones—and then recede.  With the seasonal changes in the waves, the beach sings a different song in the winter than it does in the summer.   

I’m convinced I would have never heard that distinctive music had I not, decades ago, put away my camera (for a time) and hiked into the Hoh Valley carrying sound recording equipment instead. Ever since, the Hoh has taught me much.  Its sonic wonders have helped me hone my listening skills and opened my senses to unheard opportunities around the world.  Simply stated, the Hoh has won my heart—not at first sight; at first listen…and 100th listen--for it is surely one of the last truly quiet places on Earth, one of the planet’s most sublime natural symphony halls.    

kelsey bumsted