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Award-winning sound recordist in race against hearing loss

Tom Banse

The man who identified the quietest place in the Lower 48—dubbed the "One Square Inch of Silence"—is going deaf.

This Olympic Peninsula fellow campaigned against noise pollution, particularly at his symbolic spot in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. The self-described "Sound Tracker" is now in a race to edit his life's work before he loses more of his hearing.

'I knew my life was going to be different’

For Gordon Hempton, it started with a common experience: having to keep saying, "What, what?" Then the stakes got higher.

“I was laying in bed in the springtime about a year ago. The sun was shining. The birds could be singing. They SHOULD be singing. And I was hearing none,” Hempton said.

Hempton leaned over to his partner at their home on the west side of Puget Sound.

"And I said, 'Kate, do you hear birdsong?' She said, ‘Yes.’ I knew my life was going to be different,” he said.

A race to finish extensive project

Hempton's eyes get watery as he describes the cruel irony. More than two decades ago, he trademarked his moniker as "The Sound Tracker." Keen ears drove his career as an Emmy award-winning sound recordist and spurred his activism against noise pollution. He has literally circled the globe three times in pursuit of the sounds of pristine nature.

He has heard the howler monkeys in Belize. Closer to home, he has captured a coyote chorus in an Eastern Washington canyon. He also found places so quiet he could isolate the soft sound of a hummingbird's wings.

Hempton says his hearing loss is accelerating. That lends what he calls "real urgency" to a culminating project. 

“It is a race, very much,” he said. “I'm not totally deaf, but I have lost most of my hearing in my left ear, and my right ear is quickly disappearing. So I am running a race to finish the Quiet Planet collection.”

That's the title of a planned 19-volume set of nature recordings. The sound tracks could be licensed for use in movies, video games, exhibits, and plays and the like.

Not hearing is like not being awake

Volunteer assistants now help Hempton review and edit sound files and identify imperfections.

"I miss the sounds, I miss it. I feel so connected when I can listen to the place I am. The difference between hearing where you are and not is like the difference being awake and not,” said Hempton.

The ruddy-faced 60-year-old says the exact cause of his hearing loss is unclear; more tests are needed. Doctors tell him it may be the result of an infection, or a tumor, or a combination of things.

"I have not had a CAT scan yet. I'm holding off on the CAT scan, because all of that and what the CAT scan reveals is going to be expensive,” he said.

Hempton is self-employed. He says his catastrophic health insurance plan doesn't cover treatment of his hearing loss. So he's prioritized his "greatest hits" album.

"I'm pushing for Quiet Planet. After I get Quiet Planet finished and out there and I have an economic cash flow to get my hearing back, then we're going to do it. That's the first thing on my to-do list,” he said.

The Sound Tracker says he's hopeful his hearing loss can be reversed.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.