The Quietest Place in America Is Becoming a Warzone
N 48.12885°, W 123.68234°—Amid the panoply of greenery that makes up the Hoh Rainforest, a gap in the old growth forest arises. Well, more accurately it’s a gap in a tree—a hollow inside a towering sitka spruce that stands like an open door. Beyond it, a short game trail through ankle deep mud and pools of water accumulated from the week’s rains ends in a clearing lined with ferns.
Gordon Hempton guides a group to the clearing where, on a log dotted with the tiniest plants and mosses sits a red stone, roughly one square inch. Hempton walks up to it, opens his satchel, grabs another similar red stone and places it on the log while grabbing the original one. It’s like the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hempton looks the part, except in a Northwest twist this Indiana Jones has swapped a leather hat for a felt one and a whip for an umbrella. He turns and presses his meaty palm into mine, closing my hand around the burnt red stone slick with rainwater without saying a word.
Our group of nine clad in Gore-tex and soggy socks instinctively gathers in a circle around the rock, the new altar of the rainforest, a monument to One Square Inch of Silence. We had come to hear a sermon. Hands crossed, heads bowed, bodies stilled, we listen.
Seconds pass, then minutes as time starts to warp. One by one, the group of locals and the regional head of a nonprofit working with Hempton to protect the site peels back into the wall of greenery toward the trail. Eventually, I’m standing alone at One Square Inch.
After years of painstaking acoustic measurements, Hempton identified this spot on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as the quietest place in the U.S.—the spot most free of our man-made noise pollution. He has nurtured this square inch, guided people to it, and protected it from encroaching cacophony of our modern world. But now it faces its biggest threat yet.
As I stood listening to bird calls, leftover rain dropping from higher parts of the canopy, and creatures scattering in the underbrush, a plane flew overhead like static in the middle of a sonata. Later David Youngberg, one of my fellow hikers and a former Navy mechanic, will tell me it was likely a Growler, one of the Navy’s loudest jets. Flights of these planes are ramping up over America’s quietest place, turning a secluded spot on the Olympic Peninsula into a playground for wargames.
We look at trash on the beach or in the forest with disdain. Noise isn’t any different. It pollutes the landscape, discombobulates wildlife, and can take years off our lives. When we wipe it out, we wipe out a connection to something more primordial.
Quiet spaces have long helped humans find their grounding. Many of the world’s major religions rely on quietness, from moments of silent devotion in Catholic Mass to Buddhist meditation to Trappists monks who observe a vow of silence.
“Silence is a way to get clear and ask questions about what kind of world we are building,” Timothy Gallati, a Harvard Divinity School MDiv student studying contemplation in nature, told me.
Yet quiet is disappearing at an alarming rate. The furthest you can get from a road in the Lower 48 is a whopping 19 miles, making cars one of the most ubiquitous sources of noise pollution. Air traffic is increasingly crowding our skies. Subways roar, people yell, jackhammers, well, jackhammer. And all this sound is doing a lot more than breaking our concentration.
A 2011 World Health Organization report found that Europeans were losing nearly 1.7 million years of healthy life annually to noise pollution. While it may seem surprising that noise can literally shorten our lives, the disruption of sleep takes a toll, as does the acute stress noise causes. There’s also evidence noise stresses our bodies out in ways that affects our heart, gut, and nervous system. The report found noise results in the loss of 61,000 healthy years to heart stress and causes 45,000 years in children’s cognitive impairment annually. Those numbers are all just for Europe, and the report says they’re conservative.