Lessons From the One Square Inch of Silence

by Jed Purses Dec 2, 2010

Red rock at One Square Inch of Silence

David at the OSI / All photos by author

Jed Purses heads into the bush and learns about finding the quietness within.

[Editor’s note: This post was originally submitted for a MatadorU workshop here.]


Something is continuously falling. I close my eyes and concentrate. I can hear the faintness of the wind, but not before I feel its slight brush on my skin. A breeze breaks the delicate last bonds between the Sitka Spruce needles and their branches. The needles tumble past my ears and I hear them collect on the ground. In the distance, the Hoh River faintly rumbles and I visually place myself on its bank, trying to create a contrast in sound to the details I am hearing now.

It feels like I’ve uncovered one of Earth’s secrets and I silently question myself, “is this always happening?”

The One Square Inch location in the Hoh Rainforest “is the only formally designated ‘quiet place’ in the world…”

Five months earlier I was listening to an interview with Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Silence in a Noisy World. I learned about the movement to preserve the few existing natural soundscapes left in the Unites States. A natural soundscape is a setting where only sound generated by nature can be heard.

One of the biggest obstacles in finding a natural soundscape is avoiding the sound of air travel overhead. Hempton, a leader of the soundscape preservation movement, designated a spot in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park that meets the requirements for a natural soundscape. In an email, Hempton told me his “One Square Inch” (OSI) location in the Hoh Rainforest “is the only formally designated ‘quiet place’ in the world, to my knowledge.”

After four months of living in a tent on a farm on Maui’s north shore, I felt deeply connected to and in love with nature. I slept and woke with the natural cycles of light and sound. Returning to Oakland and always needing to be somewhere — continually confronting televisions; falling asleep to the never ending flow of cars on the freeway and planes overhead; waking to an alarm clock instead of the sun peaking out over the horizon — was too sharp a contrast for me.

Sitka Spruce

Stilted Sitka Spruce

I needed a reconnection with nature. As I listened to some of Hempton’s recordings of natural quiet — melting ice, crickets over distant thunder, yelping coyotes — I took notice of his mention that hearing natural sound helped him understand that he “came from this earth.”

This resonated inside me. When I am in tune with the rhythms and sounds of nature I feel like I belong on this earth — I feel at home. When I am in Oakland, surrounded by manufactured noise, I often feel lost. Listening to Hempton clarified it for me: I needed to make a pilgrimage to the OSI. I needed to find home again.

So in late July I packed my car, picked my friend David up at the San Francisco airport, and hit the road for Olympic National Park in Washington state. Five days later we were driving in the park. We stopped several times to observe what we’ve never seen and felt before — these trees, this coast, this fog. At one of these stops I found myself looking up the trunk of a 200-foot Sitka Spruce. In the next moment, I looked out into the ocean and sensed its strength and scope. I couldn’t wait to get to the OSI.

We camped for free a few miles outside of the Hoh Rainforest. I woke up the next morning excited to make the 3.2 mile trek to natural quiet. During the hike, we stopped to jump into the Hoh River’s milky and frigid water, take pictures of Mt. Olympus, and climb up to a waterfall.

As this turmoil echoes in my head, I notice that all I am hearing is my inner chatter of frustration.

As we got closer to the OSI location, I referenced pirate-like directions for the spot: walk through the trunk of the stilted Sitka Spruce; turn left and follow the elk tracks; after 50 yards look for a wet area; veer to the left; and so on. We found the spot,
marked by a small red stone placed on top of a mossy log.

As we arrive, David and I intuitively grow quiet and give each other space to explore the natural sounds. I find myself wanting to hear a coyote yelp or a massive Sitka Spruce falling to the ground. I want grandness! This does not happen. Frustration with myself, this trip, and this spot arise as my expectations are not matching experience. “I drove fifteen hours for this?!”

Sitka Spruce

Author at the OSI

As this turmoil echoes in my head, I notice that all I am hearing is my inner chatter of frustration. Awareness! Where have you been?

Then I notice the soft sunlight patterns poking through the heavily forested setting and it helps to slow me down. I forgive myself for getting upset. I relax and get comfortable. I clear my expectations and accept everything about the moment: the heat, the mosquitoes, and my frustration.

My eyes close and with time and patience I start to hear the pine needles fluttering past my ears. The continuous falling of the needles on and past me wash away the physical tension that lingered from earlier, cleansing me. It becomes clear that in order to experience the subtlety of nature one has to create silence within and let go of expectation.

Twenty minutes after sitting down, it feels like I’ve finally arrived.


How do you find your inner quietness?

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