Was it John Muir, dedicated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, who said, "Passion doesn't carry a watch"? I dunno. But from wherever it came, this would-be adage crept into view every page or so while reading Gordon Hempton's new Muir-indebted book, One Square Inch of Silence.
Hempton has spent much of the last 30 years cultivating a taste for natural quiet. As an Emmy-winning sound recordist and acoustic ecologist, he's even carved out a distinguished career from this love-that-dare-not-speak-any-names. One Square Inch began as an attempt to mark one of the quietest spots on Earth, a patch of land tucked deep inside Washington's Olympic National Park. The book documents his attempt to preserve the park's quiet, which means writing nasty letters to airlines and journalists who pen articles praising commercial flight. ("It is a sign of America's good fortune that it has worries on this scale," writes long-time Atlantic Monthly Editor James Fallows in response to Hempton's sniping.)
While Hempton's prose is often Muirsian—vacillating between crisp descriptions of quietude and plainly recorded takes on life on the road—his attitude toward our noisy world is borrowed from another environmentalist guru, R. Murray Schafer, the father of acoustic ecology and author of the extraordinary, though maddening, 1977 book The Tuning of the World. Unfortunately, Hempton's views are every bit as overblown as Schafer's. While there are plenty of numbers that prove our world is louder today than ever, acoustic ecology has yet to explain how noise pollution is an environmental threat on par with, say, global warming. So the fascinating side of acoustic ecology—the study of "soundscapes," a term Schafer coined back in the '70s—remains crowded out by its practitioners' self-importance.
This problem is built into One Square Inch's very design. Hempton's insistence in politicizing what is, at heart, a matter of taste works against his intentions—it emphasizes rather than buttresses the quaintness of his passion. With One Square Inch, we have a paradox: a book as dull as its subject is interesting.