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Sunday, January 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Places

The Quiet Places -- They Are Harder And Harder To Find, More And More Worth The Trouble

TO REACH THE QUIET, you must slow way down first. Stopping the car and parking it isn't nearly enough. You have to slow yourself down, too. And listen.

Otherwise, your car will arrive at the Hoh Rain Forest but you will not. You and your thoughts will continue clattering and chattering ahead. And you will never really arrive at all. You will miss a music that is at its very sweetest now in the silent season of the new year, when birds grow quiet and the animals sleep.

The old-growth trees cloaked with moss are reason enough to come to the rain forest. But it is the deep, velvety quiet - a quiet that is not silence - that completes the specialness of this place. The velvet curtains of moss and the upholstery of leaves padding the forest floor soundproof this place like a recording studio. The quiet gives center stage to the Hoh's resident musician, the rain.

The moss cushions some drops, while leaves as big as dinner plates receive others with a staccato splat.

It is a music Gordon Hempton knows by heart. Hempton is a professional sound recordist who has traveled the world recording the sounds of nature. Hempton knows the three truly quiet places left in Washington, places, he says, where the sounds of nature are uninterrupted by the noise of man for at least 15 minutes.

The Hoh Rain Forest, in Olympic National Park, is one of them.

Deep in a grove of trees, Hempton flips on a hand-held sound meter. It shows why the place is precious: It is so quiet that when he talks, the meter goes off the scale. And he is just about whispering.

The rain forest is something we need to hear. So is the glory of Rialto Beach, just down the road. Hempton calls Rialto "the best surf symphony on the planet."

In winter, especially.

Winter storms bank the gravel and stones high and deep, building a steep beach that crowds a heavy surf close to shore. The waves sort through the beach endlessly, playing it like an instrument. There are pebbles providing bright notes, sand that softens the tones, and bigger stones that are the timpani of the tide, drummed by the pounding waves.

There also are what Hempton calls "the uncarved violins" - giant old-growth driftwood logs that reverberate with the tide. A concentrated roar of the sea fills the outer flare of the stumps, which gather sound like an ear. Hempton sticks his head in the rotted-out ends of the biggest stumps and listens. He finds the bit of silence each holds deep inside.

We were meant to hear these things. We must.

"There are as many kinds of natural quiet as there are natural waters to drink, and they are just as essential to life," said Hempton, who moved to the doorstep of Olympic National Park from Seattle to soak in the quiet.

Hempton loves to hike into the park alone and stay long enough to forget about talking, then forget about words altogether - to "lose his language," as he puts it - and finally hear only the sounds of nature.

"When we are out in natural quiet we get to regain our sense of rejoining our ancestral world.

"When we lose natural quiet, then all we will be hearing is each other and that's the quickest way to go astray."

SOME THINK WE ALREADY have.

Bernie Krause is celebrating his 30th year of recording the sounds of nature around the globe. Last summer Miramar Recordings of Seattle, a record company, signed an exclusive agreement with Krause's company, Wild Sanctuary of Glen Ellen, Calif., to distribute 32 of his recordings.

Krause is a pioneer in the field of natural-sound recording. He's recorded everything from snarling jaguars to the songs of wolves and the music of bugs in rain puddles. Along the way he compiled what he says is the largest privately held collection of natural sound in the world.

Krause believes we live in such a visual culture that we have forgotten how to hear. It comes at a price - of peace, of knowing ourselves, of knowing where we come from.

We need to hear what he calls ancient sounds of birds, bugs, bees, wind, rain and waves.

"If we lose the connection to those ancient sounds which are still around we become more and more abstract," Krause said. "We become, as a culture, incredibly pathological. Take a look around.

"In our culture you spend most of the energy filtering out the noises we don't want to hear. We've learned mostly to not hear, or to hear in a very limited way."

Our noisy world drowns out and even kills off the sounds of the wild nature. About 20 percent of the habitats Krause has recorded are now extinct.

As quiet and the music of wild nature have become scarcer, we have begun to fight for what's left.

The Right to Quiet Society, headquartered in Victoria, B.C., campaigns for quiet in public places, including stores and restaurants.

"It's almost impossible to find a shop or a restaurant or a public space not blasting music at you," said Peter Donnelly, president of the association, which has 200 members.

"It's not as big a movement as it might be. Quiet people are, well, quiet people."

He sees the advance of background music into every quiet public corner as an attack.

"The motive here is people want to program your experience. I'm not allowed to go somewhere and just have my own experience of it. It has to be the total entertainment experience."

Noise is more than an annoyance, said Eric Zwerling, one of the country's leading noise cops. He directs the Noise Technical Assistance Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The center works with communities around the country that are trying to adopt and enforce anti-noise laws.

"People do not habituate to noise. The body reacts years later," Zwerling said. If anything, frequent exposure makes noise more irritating. Consider a dripping faucet.

"The first night or two is OK. By the third you are willing to spend $200 to call out the emergency plumber."

Homes and relationships can be ruined by noise. The most serene, scenic places can be, too. Noise interferes with sleep, beginning a vicious cycle of reduced ability to face challenges and cope with stress the next day. It can be a health hazard, linked to elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate.

People fighting noise in San Juan County made national news when the county adopted the first successful ban on jet-powered water skis in the country. The ban was a grass-roots effort that began with the work of one couple determined to regain peace and quiet.

In Seattle, each of the five Seattle police precincts purchased noise meters last fall, and the City Council this month is scheduled to consider an updated noise enforcement ordinance. If adopted, the ordinance will allow police officers to stake out chronic noise offenders, from frat houses to bars. If they violate the noise levels set in the ordinance, tickets could start at $250.

Dealing with noise has fallen almost completely to local government.

The office of noise abatement at the federal Environmental Protection Agency was eliminated in 1982 as part of the Reagan administration's de-regulation efforts. The agency has been prohibited by law ever since from adopting any new noise regulations.

"I get 1,000 calls a year from people all over the country wanting us to do something about noise and I mostly tell them how the federal government can't help them," said Ken Feith, a senior scientist at EPA, and the sole surviving noise abatement contact at the agency.

WHILE GOVERNMENTS TRY to deal with the most abrasive of noises, Gordon Hempton is waging practically a one-man war against the noise he considers the most invidious: the sound of human activity intruding in nature.

The number of places in Washington where Hempton can record nature for at least 15 minutes without human sounds intruding has dropped from 21 in 1984 to three.

He would like to see one of them, Olympic National Park, recognized for the world-class acoustic treasure it is, and see steps taken to preserve it.

Park managers say that protecting wilderness is enough to protect its quiet, but Hempton wants something more specific. He says park managers should conduct a sound survey to take stock of the park's acoustic marvels and document a baseline quiet against which incremental deterioration can be measured.

He's waged a 10-year campaign, so far unsuccessful, to create a one-square-inch environmental preserve in which human-made noise would not be allowed to intrude. Protecting one square inch in the park would effectively quiet hundreds of miles around it, Hempton says.

Even that would not be enough for some people.

No matter how still the natural world, some believe peace can only be experienced when people quiet their thoughts. For them, quiet means a quiet mind, obtained in some cases through structured, organized retreats that are silent treatments for the soul.

There's a clue to the tone of our times in the publication of guide books to the country's 600 sanctuaries, abbeys and monasteries. Some of these places are booked more than a year in advance by secular seekers of divine quiet - people who will spend a weekend, a month or even longer amid nuns, monks, Quaker friends, Catholic priests and Buddhist teachers.

These are people trying to go cold turkey on the opium of distraction, the vapid racket that keeps us from listening to the knowing voice of our true self. In quiet, with a quiet mind, eventually, that self will be heard.

Fifteen years ago, David Branscomb built a guest house on five hilly acres near Castle Rock in Cowlitz County, where he and his friends could gather for quiet meditation. There was so much interest he wound up building what became the Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, bit by bit, as word got around.

By now Cloud Mountain has space for up to 50 people, and hosts silent retreats every weekend of the year. Over the years Branscomb has watched hundreds of people find peace, and a truer sense of themselves, in the quiet.

"It would be interesting to ask anyone what do they really want, until they run out of stuff. It might take 20 minutes to get to it. That's the point of silence. It is relentless, thank goodness," Branscomb said.

At one recent Cloud Mountain retreat the program consisted of sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, and walk - all in silence.

Coming together in silence with other people is a quiet unlike the quiet of solitude. Like colors of light, these silences are different, not better or worse.

"You are supported in your silence by having other people around you who are holding that same thing, without the need to interact and distract," Branscomb said.

"It creates what I can only call a field that supports that movement toward silence."

The contemplative power of collective silence has been known by Quakers since 1652. In Quaker meeting, Friends join one another in silent prayer that lasts as long as an hour. There is no pastor, no program, no organ, no choir. Together, in the stillness, Friends find God.

Even some CEOs have figured out the value of silence.

At Northwestern Mutual Life Co. in Milwaukee, the company decided to set aside two weeks a year, one in May, one in December, in which underwriters in the home office would not have to answer the phone.

They got so much more done, the company decided to make every Wednesday of the year Quiet Day. Productivity shot up about 20 percent.

IT DOESN'T TAKE A COMPANY policy or a paid retreat to choose quiet.

It can be as simple as taking a walk outdoors. There is no silence there. But there is the essential music of nature.

Of the three truly quiet places Hempton counts in Washington, he will divulge only one, Olympic National Park. But he offers this:

"To find great places to go out to listen . . . follow the deer trails. You'll see the depression in the high grass, and it's a great place to listen, you know it is, the deer told you that. It's quite frequently a place that is not only quiet, but collects sounds from the natural environment.

"Hey, as long as you have the opportunity to go yourself into nature you don't need a guide, a book, you just go there and open up. That's the end of it, and the beginning of it."

I didn't realize how right Hempton was until I was writing this story.

I spent a long day with Hempton in the Hoh and at Rialto Beach. We listened to the rain, to the waves, to the beach stones, and to the way the driftwood reverberates with the tide.

I have trained myself to be a good observer. This thing about the primacy of a visual culture is very real. I can usually describe the appearance of the people I interview down to the color of their socks and the way they hold a pen.

Not this time.

Without looking at a picture now, I couldn't tell you a thing about what Hempton looks like.

Yet I can describe the sounds of that day in detail, and be there again in my mind, vividly and completely.

Listening to the sound of music of nature - really listening - filled my mind completely. It silenced my own busy thoughts and observations. I lived completely in the present, just listening. It was a transporting and deeply quieting experience.

Try it. Take a walk outside, away from the traffic and the racket of people. Go alone, or go with someone and don't talk.

Breathe deeply. Breathe slowly. Really listen. And know you are home.

Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Harley Soltes is Pacific Northwest magazine's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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