The Soundscapes of Cities Transformed

April 22, 2020

Deep in Olympic National Park lies one of the least noise-polluted places in the United States, maybe the world. The distant drone of the Hoh River fills the valley, as the piercing song of Swainson’s thrush bounces around 800-year-old Sitka spruce trees, a cathedral-like reverberation. It is home to One Square Inch of Silence, a research project started by nature sound recordist Gordon Hempton to protect and preserve the rare ecosystem from noise pollution.

I took Atlas Obscura to this magical place in 2018 for a collaboration with NPR’s All Things Considered. The Hoh Rainforest remains a special, transformative place in part because of the way it forces you to listen, really listen, to the world around. And it highlights some of what we are all experiencing today. The sonic landscape has changed. Even in the biggest, most densely populated cities, amid the uncertainty and suffering of the pandemic, people are beginning to hear something entirely new.

I am a nature sound recordist. Yes, that is a job. I seek out and record sounds that get used in movies, television, video games, and apps. I capture the sounds of factories, mines, farms, and cities around the world, but I specialize in trying to document the pristine, sans-human world. Recording the uninterrupted sounds of nature in our industrialized world is difficult, if not nearly impossible.

All you have to do is look at a map of air-traffic patterns to grasp how few places in the world are truly quiet—even in Olympic National Park, a plane flies overhead every 15 to 20 minutes during peak traffic. It’s amazing how much we’ve just grown accustomed to the noise. I work to protect the few remaining “quiet” places through a nonprofit called Quiet Parks International.

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