One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World

Why do all male nature writers ultimately turn out to be sexist jerks? The list is long— Edward Abbey and Colin Fletcher come immediately to mind although I’m sure there are others, including this latest, Gordon Hempton. At first I was mildly charmed by this kook/crank who obsesses over keeping one square inch of the Hoh Rainforest in northern Washington completely silent. His descriptions of the natural sounds he encounters are dreamy and he passes on a tip that opening your mouth improves your hearing because the auditory canal straightens and your mouth becomes a resonant chamber. But then he sets out on an ambitious round-the-country tour to listen to America’s sounds in his (noisy) 1968 VW van that he never tires of telling you how much people ogle, starting with a leg that he forces his reluctant teenage daughter on. He’s horrified when she deigns to SPEAK at the sacred spot of the one square inch of silence instead of understanding his weird pantomimes where he asks for a bag to put the red stone that serves as a mascot. He pouts when she refuses to wear the stone around her neck, stews when she prefers to listen to her music loudly through headphones and panics when she decides to abandon him once she reaches her maternal grandmother’s house.

I didn’t start to loathe him until he’s deep in the wilderness of Utah at a secret spot for several days with another soundscape enthusiast. In the midst of a pleasant experience, “two female rangers burst into camp  barking questions, pointing fingers, expecting answers… Both women have darting eyes, as if they suspect us of a crime. The bulldog of the two barks out the big question: ‘Why have you come here ten years in a row and stayed without moving on?’… In the expanse of the desert you need days, not minutes, for your senses to adjust and new experiences to come your way. But come your way they will—unless the Rangerettes barge in. I’m still pissed at the Rangerettes….” Ah, yes. Uppity women doing their job are always a grain of irritating sand in the sweaty gym sock of dudes.

In Montana he meets Doug Peacock, the friend of Ed Abbey who he based the main character of Hayduke on. Peacock’s wife hovers in the background, serving coffee as all good little silent women must.

He’s constantly jumping up and recording sound levels of everything, noting the time that jets are passing by overhead during the night, 1AM, 2AM, 3AM, he’s up and monitoring. He takes this instrument everywhere, taking measurements at sports games, the symphony, diners, in elevators.

At a motel front desk, the manager is a “an attractive Eastern European woman (must be her elderly mother looking on from the back room)”—I can’t make this up.

An online reviewer says, “He comes off as a single-issue zealot who alienates park rangers, airline officials and even his own daughter.”