I can’t recall exactly when the night voices began, but lately they’ve been speaking at a pitch that’s been difficult to ignore. These aren’t auditory hallucinations. And I’m not cracking up, at least not as Fitzgerald would have it—it’s not 3 am in my soul yet—although that is the approximate time when the voices begin to whisper and wheedle in the porch of my ear, prodding me from REM with their imperfect syntax. Because that’s the thing about the night voices: they’re flawed. They’re nothing more than the very same words I struggle with every morning when I sit down to write, the words and phrases of half-realized books, still-flawed stories, and not-quite-finished essays. They bounce around my sleepy head, falling this way and that, grinding together sometimes, and other times slipping under or atop each other, but never fitting exactly as they should. It’s a frustrating feeling, and yet, they do seem to be the right words: precise nouns and lively verbs clear enough in their meanings. But, somehow the cadence and flow—the sound—remains elusive.
One September morning last year, it was this writerly discordance that roused me from bed, grumpy as an ostrich, and sent me limping to the kitchen on my prematurely arthritic left knee, the result of multiple basketball injuries as a kid. Meanwhile, Burton, my trusty tomcat—a creature whose amputated hip bone (he was hit by a car as a kitten) foreshadows the knee replacement awaiting his master—padded along silently in step, using that stiff back leg like a crutch. We’re bonded in this way, I guess. Both of us a little banged up. His clever tail twined around my calf, and he stared up at me, a charismatic rogue in a soft black suit shamelessly flirting for a bowl of milk.
Then I found myself thinking of Burton’s namesake, the scholar Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a book I spent years writing a book about. Burton lived in the shadow of the Dark Ages, back when people took evil spirits and hell more literally. In fact, it was commonly believed malignant forces could invade the body via sounds, which gained entry through the ears and took up residence in the soul. The peasantry used bells and hymns to hold such evils at bay, wholesome sounds to ward off the wicked. One can only imagine what deviltry they’d have heard in the roar of a passing 747.
As the coffee perked, I wondered about the night voices and the curious way in which they talked me awake. They were simply my own words, of course, half-formed phrases stuck on spin cycle in my overtaxed and overtired brain. Definitely nothing medieval or demonic about them. Still, there was something uncomfortable about the night voices; perhaps, it was that they reminded of things I’d tried to ignore or forget, things I’d pushed aside and papered over in the fifteen years since I’d left the Illinois of my boyhood for the West Coast, where I’d roamed, lost and usually alone, while struggling to become a writer.
Later that same morning, Robert Burton forgotten and Burton the cat off doing his own roaming through the neighborhood, I looked up from my laptop, freshly disturbed. Vehicles whipped up and down the hilly street, engines blatting and brakes screeching. To my left, the coffeemaker emitted an exhausted hiss. The woman downstairs was busy blow-drying her hair again while across the kitchen the fridge hummed and the dishwasher gurgled and knocked. How had I ever hoped to write anything amidst such a din?
Worse, soon came the roar of leaf blowers. Not just one or two but a half dozen at one hundred decibels apiece, wielded by the otherwise silent immigrant men my neighbors hired to keep their driveway and yard tidy. There’s little that bothers me more than noise. Quiet I am, and quiet I crave for reasons that run deeper than the simple peace necessary to corral thoughts onto paper.
A few minutes later, Burton reentered the house through his cat door, little black feet padding the hardwood silently, as if shod in felt slippers. From his whiskery jaws hung a vole, limp and gray. He dropped this prize on the mat by the sink—a delicate and boneless plop—and then settled back on his haunches to gauge my reaction. Considering the macabre gift, I thought again of all those leaf blowers, how they deafen the natural world and thereby aid and abet the murderous impulses of three-legged cats, how they scatter the thoughts and words of writers just as surely as the dust and fallen leaves.
In search of quieter environs, I tossed out that unfortunate vole (much to Burton’s chagrin), stuffed a water bottle and a rainproof jacket in my backpack, and left the house, driving slowly in deference to the leaf-blowing men in their hooded jackets and protective earphones.
The Hoh Rain Forest is located five hours north of my home in Portland, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The Hoh is one of the remotest places on the continent, and it’s also one of the wettest, receiving upwards of twelve feet of precipitation a year between rainfall, glacial melt, and near-constant fog. The peninsula was protected by the Roosevelts after Teddy—having witnessed the elk herds slaughtered and the ancient forests clear-cut—declared large tracts a national monument in 1909; his cousin Franklin finished the job by declaring the Olympics a national park in 1938. Today, herds of Roosevelt elk tromp through the park in unknowing tribute to these men; the Hoh is off limits to logging and development, and UNESCO has named it a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The coastline features massive spires of bone-white driftwood, glacial peaks puncture the cloak of gray cloud, and deep inside the forest, hemlocks and cedars grow eerily huge, the tallest rising some three hundred feet over the forest floor.
The Hoh is also very quiet—one of the quietest places left in the world in terms of a lack of manmade noise—and somewhere in the rain forest is a moss-covered log, and on that log a small red stone has been placed to signify the fragility and value of that quietude. This spot, known as One Square Inch of Silence, was my destination.
One Square Inch of Silence was created by Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and soundscape recorder. Hempton makes a living selling his environmental sound recordings and consulting on film projects (wind sounds for Alive: think rugby team, plane crash, cannibalism) and video games. He’s recorded dawn’s birdsong on every continent sans Antarctica (do penguins not bark at the rising sun?), and he’s even won an Emmy. A cool bio by any measure, but it was Hempton’s activism that drew me. His idea is to protect a single inch of the Hoh from artificial noise to ensure the soundscape for many thousands of miles, which boils down to diverting commercial jets. Even at thirty-five thousand feet, they produce a roar that destroys the natural quiet.
He’s coauthored a book about all this, which chronicles his cross-country road trip in an old VW bus from Washington to Washington (the Olympics to DC), where he tried to interest various legislators and administrators in protecting this quiet. Because there’s precious little left. We may think we’re experiencing quiet, or even total silence, but that’s only because we’re accustomed to a lo-fi world flooded with the assorted babel of people and machinery and electronics. This matters because, in Hempton’s words, “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” meaning, the presence of all naturally occurring sounds.
While I’d known of One Square Inch for some time, I’d never felt compelled to search out the spot. But as I passed through the gray-faced resource towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam—the clouds lower and darker and the trees taller and closer and the massive smoke-belching logging trucks ripping past—I listened to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the albums cycling through my Honda’s old CD player, and wondered what I might hear, or perhaps what might arise, should I manage to find that small red stone.
According to what I’d read, the turn off for One Square Inch was just over three miles up the Hoh River Trail from the visitor center. (“Fun Fact of the Day: banana slugs breathe through a hole in their side called a pneumostome!”) Although OSI has no official marker, a few landmarks—a splintered tree, a stilted spruce—point the way. My knee was by no means up for a hike, but pain was my faithful Boswell, and so I popped a few Advil and got on with it.
Soon, I was passing through a towering cathedral of greenery, one so cretaceous and prelapsarian and flat-out Middle-earthy that I wouldn’t have been surprised to stumble upon a troupe of questing Hobbits. Mosses swathed the spruces and firs, from the bottoms of their massive trunks—some even wider than the grills of those logging trucks—to the tips of their slenderest branches. Moss was everywhere, hung in diaphanous sheets and strung like spidery tinsel. The cumulative effect was a soft and dampening quiet, as if the air were filtered of noise as creek water is filtered by passage over sand and rock. The trail itself was well maintained but muddy in spots where the sun never quite reached.
Then I noticed a small sign, one I took for an informational plaque. I stopped, stooped: WARNING! YELLOW JACKET SEASON! STAY ON THE TRAIL!
And sure enough—a burning sting on my Achilles, right above my boot.
I cussed and slapped out of reflex, the sounds instantly absorbed by the forest. Once sure I wasn’t being swarmed, it occurred to me that, had I not stopped to read the sign warning of yellow jackets, I likely never would’ve been stung. A bad omen, sure, and a less-than-ideal time to discover whether I happen to be allergic to wasp venom. But my breathing seemed normal, I hadn’t broken into hives, and my leg wasn’t swelling (other than my knee, that is, which was already swollen to the size of a grapefruit), and so I continued on, and in that meditative way of long walks, I soon found myself wandering down the briar-strewn footpaths of memory.
We may think we’re experiencing quiet, or even total silence, but that’s only because we’re accustomed to a lo-fi world flooded with the assorted babel of people and machinery and electronics.
My father died the previous spring, and while his passing was relatively quiet, in life he’d been anything but. He enjoyed a good yell, particularly if directed at a loafing son or wayward neighbor, but he also enjoyed the yelling of others—especially if the subject was conservative politics. His favorite yeller was Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show played at max volume on a little boom box commandeered from yours truly. Walking home from school, I’d hear Limbaugh’s belligerent voice raging from down the block, the spuming roar growing louder and louder the closer I got to home. The boom box had been a Christmas gift from my mother, one I’d circled in the Sears catalogue, and yet I wanted to rip its wiring out.
My father, a conservative journalist, found much inspiration in Limbaugh. And while his weekly newspaper lacked a national audience, it did provide a soapbox for his political beliefs, which mirrored Limbaugh’s. Rare was the day my father missed a show. In fact, he’d often listen to multiple airings of identical broadcasts. He even cracked open his piggy bank (a rare occurrence, indeed) to purchase a new headset from RadioShack—a big yellow one with a yard-long antenna—which he wore around town so as to never be without the soothing balm of his favorite tirades.
“You’ll deafen yourself with that Republican yakety yak,” my mother would say, but if my father sensed his wife was embarrassed by his tune-in-Neptune headset and Cuckoo’s Nest fashion sense, he never let on. Her warning had a whiff of prophecy though, as a decade later Rush Limbaugh actually lost his hearing (recovered with cochlear implants), and this shortly before his bust for possessing ill-gotten prescription drugs. While Limbaugh claimed his deafness owed to a disease of the inner ear, it’s well established that prolonged opiate abuse can result in profound hearing loss, never mind all that talk about how America had best simply toss her addicts in jail and throw away the key.
But irony is a quiet pleasure, and my childhood home far too loud for it. The radio show wasn’t the only noise either. By the time I reached high school, the house was filled with the jowly righteousness of Fox News pundits like Bill O’Reilly. At least in memory, the TV on my father’s side of the house (my mother had a set of her own, tuned to M*A*S*H reruns and Married . . . with Children) was rarely, if ever, silent. My father took his meals in a recliner, fork in one hand and remote in the other, as Fox’s anchors screamed about the evildoing (and presumptive sapphic bent) of Hillary Clinton, not to mention the clandestine Oval Office blowjobs enjoyed by her philandering husband. My father even slept to Fox News, head drooping, chin on chest, his nighttime ears serenaded by fearmongering about Archie Bunker’s lost American dream.
As a kid, I took all this noise for granted. Conservative talk was the Muzak of my childhood, something heard but not really listened to. Didn’t all fathers crank the TV volume to ear-bleeding levels so they could hear it from the back yard? Now though, I suspect my father used noise as a shield. With the volume loud enough and the yelling constant enough, other people tended to go away. He was never good with people. In fact, he didn’t have a single friend in this world. And while he’d have surely claimed this as his preference, does anyone honestly want to be quite so alone? He wasn’t always such a recluse, at least according to my mother. So there must’ve been a time in his younger days, perhaps shortly after he opened his newspaper and moved his family to a new town, when he’d wanted to open up a little, when other men might’ve seemed like potential friends instead of competitors, strangers, enemies.
The newspaper quickly failed, though he and my mother kept it limping along for years, and that failure owed, at least in part, to my father’s social troubles. Without exception, he clashed with others. Instead of asking, he told. Instead of conversing, he lectured. And instead of listening, he shouted. But such defensiveness has to come from somewhere. A superiority complex is one thing, a megalomaniacal ego another. I think he’d also simply tired of seeing a look in the eyes of townspeople and even his own family members, a look that suggested he wasn’t connecting, wasn’t really part of the soft but crucial fabric of community—that he simply wasn’t liked. So, instead of turning his feelings inward and becoming a sad man (or a melancholy one, to use Robert Burton’s preferred term), he pushed them outward and became an angry man. And what could be handier for an angry man than an armor of wrathful noise that rendered him safely immune from others?
He wasn’t the only noisy one around the house though. His other sons, my big brothers, spent the eighties locked in their self-proclaimed “weight room.” This was a sweaty and ill-ventilated back bedroom, strung not with tinsel-like moss but sweat-stained muscle tees and reeking, yellowed jockstraps. The weight room was every bit as loud as the rest of the house. My brothers and their friends blasted Iron Maiden and Def Leppard on an old eight-track player, using the cacophonous music as motivation to hammer out endless sets of bicep curls or to attempt that mythic three-hundred-pound bench press, and while lifting, they grunted and shouted at one another (“Let’s go, pussy! One more rep!”), and when the lifting was finally done and it came time to chug a glass of raw eggs, there was the requisite gagging and cussing (not to mention the constant and hideous farting), and all of this absurd noise in service of some Schwarzenegger- and Stallone-inspired vision of manliness.
While the bad music was part and parcel to the decade and typical insecurities fed much of their bodybuilding, I think now there was something darker present: a violent conflict imagined, perhaps even longed for, by boys who grew up in the shadow of a man who ignored them right up until the moment he began yelling at them. The politics screaming at one end of house and the heavy metal blaring at the other constituted a sort of proxy war—and maybe only in that way could men and boys so hurt and insecure, so ego-fragile and unaware, avoid having to actually fight.
Teenagers are predictable creatures. As a teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time working with them, and often it seems the earbuds they sport aren’t really for listening to music. Instead, they’re a means of blocking out an adult world that feels hostile and frightening. I don’t suppose my father’s mass consumption of conservative talk was altogether so different. But while I can sympathize with that, when I ask those teenagers to remove their earbuds and listen, they always do, and, often as not, they seem relieved (though grudging, perhaps) at the implied invitation to hear and be heard by a member of that same adult world, whereas my father took his headset to the grave and never found a way to be quiet with his community and family, let alone himself.
Excerpted from “One Square Inch of Silence” by Phillip Hurst, featured in the Gettysburg Review, Vol. 33, No. 3.