Practice 01

Listening for Silence

by Adam Loften & Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

Emergence practices offer meaningful ways of connecting to the living world, inviting you to bring an element of one of our stories into your life. Inspired by the virtual reality film Sanctuaries of Silence, this practice invites you to discover how a new experience of sound can change our relationship to the wild.

Silence is the poetics of space, what it means to be in a place. —Gordon Hempton

The Hoh Rain Forest is one of the largest temperate rain forests in the United States. Situated within the Olympic National Park in western Washington State, the Hoh is protected from commercial logging and is a haven for old-growth Sitka spruce, western hemlock, coast Douglas-fir, big-leaf maples, and black cottonwoods. Far from trafficked roads and the unrelenting bellow of development, the Hoh remains one of the quietest places in North America.

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton defines silence not as the absence of sound, but as the absence of noise from modern life. For thirty-five years, Hempton has been documenting the sounds of the Hoh and its many species: Pacific tree frogs, Roosevelt elk, northern spotted owls, red-breasted nuthatches, Pacific wrens.

But even the remote Hoh is increasingly polluted by noise. Planes fly over the rain forest en route to Seattle, emitting a dull roar that punctures the silence of the landscape.

Hempton believes that silence, everywhere, is on the verge of extinction.

Listening through a microphone taught Hempton to take things in with equal value, without judgment. We were struck by this, and as we joined Hempton in this practice, we found that we were completely present in the landscape and deeply connected to the space around us. We were surprised by the intricate sounds of life, from the creaking trees to the cacophony of birdsong filling the forest. We felt attuned to nature in ways we hadn’t experienced before. As we considered what would be lost in a world where silence has gone extinct, we wondered how we could offer others a chance to experience the world through Hempton’s way of listening, in which sounds have their own voice.

Our hope with these listening exercises is that you come away with a new perspective toward sound and the power of silence. The simple act of listening to the natural world can profoundly impact our relationship to place, rooting us in a presence that we otherwise often take for granted.

We invite you to participate in a five-step practice of listening—an opportunity to experience place through sound. These exercises could be done over the course of a day, a week, a month. Try to listen without judgment and simply be present, open, and curious.

If you are going to listen, you have to be willing to change. —Gordon Hempton

Step One

Where is the place you spend the most time indoors? Go to this place. It could be a room in your home or your office. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Spend 10 minutes with your eyes closed, listening to all of the sounds around you, nearby and far away. What do you hear?

Step Two

Seek out a public or urban environment—a local coffee shop, a busy street corner, your rooftop. Again, for 10 minutes, listen to the sounds around you. Try to take it all in, with equal value, without judgment. What do you notice?

Step Three

Find a natural/green space within your town or city—a public park or garden or a tree in your yard. Close your eyes and listen for 15 minutes this time. How is the quality of sound different in this location compared with the location in exercise #2?

Step Four

Seek out a natural space, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This space could be a wooded trail or a meadow with a stream. Sit or lay down with your eyes closed. For 30 minutes, listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear in this place?

Step Five

Return to the place indoors from exercise #1. Repeat the first exercise. Has your experience of listening changed? If so, how?

Sanctuaries of Silence
Related Feature

Sanctuaries of Silence

by Adam Loften & Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Open story

Sanctuaries of Silence is an immersive listening journey into Olympic National Park, one of the quietest places in North America.

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