The Sounds of Nature: One Square Inch

by Paul Klenck | May 1, 2006

© Paul KlenckYou never know what you might see—or hear—when you take a walk in the woods. On an April Sunday, I was hiking the Hoh Rain Forest River Trail in Olympic National Park, Washington. A Pileated Woodpecker gave me a fleeting glimpse. I stood and listened for its drumming and would move to try to find where it had flown. While doing this, one of the few other people I saw on the Olympic trails that week was also listening—and carrying a tripod.

We chatted. He asked about my bubble level and I gave him my business card to show where he could buy one. He said he could hear two pileateds. As we talked I learned his tripod was for sound equipment. Just up the trail, he said, was the quietest place in America—one of the few places no human sounds intrude -no cars, machines, airplanes. Imagine that. Turns out Gordon Hempton is an Emmy Award-winning recorder and conveyer of the sounds of nature. Some refer to Gordon as an acoustic ecologist.

Hempton has named this place “One Square Inch,” and he advocates protecting the aural integrity of Olympic National Park, over 900,000 acres of diverse habitat ranging from untouched coastline to glaciers and peaks. By protecting the natural soundscape of a single square inch, he hopes to help preserve vast areas of the Park’s wilderness. He encourages the National Park Service to live up to its soundscape management policy:

“The National Park Service will preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural soundscapes of parks. Natural soundscapes exist in the absence of human-caused sound. The Service will restore degraded soundscapes to the natural condition wherever possible, and will protect natural soundscapes from degradation due to noise (undesirable human-caused sound).”

–NPS Management Policy, Chapter 4.9 Soundscape Management.

On April 22, Earth Day 2006, the first anniversary of his dedication of “One Square Inch,” Hempton released a CD with a compilation of some of his best sound recordings from Olympic National Park. These are the sounds we hear when we are in the field looking for the right light, the elusive subject, the ideal composition for our photographs. These are sounds without the intrusion of noise.

Skunk cabbage © Paul Klenck

But these sounds are much more than background. They are part of the environment we hope our images can convey: These are the calls of the prairie chicken, the bugle of the elk, the rolling of thunder in the approaching storm.

Hiking alone those few days in the Olympics, I was treated to many sounds – the drumming of a grouse I first thought might be an old gasoline engine sputtering to a start; the painful “SLAP” of a steelhead hitting a boulder as it failed in its leap over the waterfall, when I thought I could only hear the roar of the falling water; the riffling of the water over eelgrass in the outgoing tide. I don’t know if you can hear those sounds in my photographs, but I can.

More about Gordon Hempton’s story, links, and the history of One Square Inch can be found at where you can order a copy of his Earth Day 2006 CD as well as other recordings.

About the Author

Paul Klenck was born in Chicago and grew up in Florida. He returned to Illinois for a History degree at Northwestern University and a law degree at DePaul University. His practice has consisted of representing unions and employees throughout the Midwest. He is currently counsel to Illinois Education Association where he represents employees in a full range of labor, employment and association law and regularly lectures and writes in that field. A recent article for the North American National Academy of Arbitrators examined the constitutional issues surrounding employees' off duty conduct on the Web. Paul was invited to be a moderator for NatureScapes in 2004. He enjoys meeting NatureScapes members on travels in the state and around the country and is constantly amazed at the talent, skills and generous nature of members at NatureScapes.

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