On an April morning in 2011, Gordon Hempton awoke to sunshine. Spring was unfolding outside his Indianola house, and yet all was quiet.
“And I thought, ‘Well, this is kind of funny,” Hempton recalls. “’The birds should be singing.”’
Hempton says he was reminded of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and wondered if something strange had happened to the birds in his neighborhood. He turned to his partner, Kate.
“And I said, ‘Kate, do you hear birdsong?’ And she goes, ‘Yes.’ And I thought, ‘Whoa, this is a problem,’” he says.
It is a problem because Hempton’s ears are his livelihood. Known as the Sound Tracker, Hempton has spent decades as one of the foremost recordists of nature sounds in the country. His recordings are used in movies, music, video games and television documentaries. The Emmy he earned for one of those documentaries sits on a stand in his office.
And Hempton has been an active and outspoken crusader against noise pollution, a champion of silence.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Hempton says with black humor. “Perhaps in my prayers I should have explained in a little more detail that I want noise pollution to be reduced, not to lose my hearing.”
‘Square Inch Of Silence’
Hempton scours the Earth for pristine spots to record the sounds of nature. Very few of these spots remain in the United States. “There are only 12 places at last count where you can escape noise pollution for 15 minutes or longer during the daytime,” he says.
One of the most sacred to him is a spot on the Olympic Peninsula, deep in the Hoh Rain Forest, away from roads, air traffic and the urban buzz of humanity. Hempton calls this spot his “one square inch of silence.” He wrote about it in a 2010 book by that name.
He still seeks out places where he can capture the unblemished sounds of nature. He says he typically hikes in with camping gear and all of his recording equipment, which includes a dummy head outfitted with special mics to mimic human ears as closely as possible.
“Hopefully I’ll be far from the nearest highway. I like to have it at least 18 miles,” he says.
Even so, Hempton says most of the time, when he gets to his destination, his exquisitely-tuned ears detect some remnant of human-made sound — the far-off rumble of an airplane or the distant din of cars and trucks. When that happens, he simply stays the night, packs up his stuff and hikes right back out the next day.
‘This Is My Worship’
These days, most of the really pristine places to gather sound are in other countries, especially in the subtropics.
“I remember standing there in the Belize forest, the rain forest down there, just listening to what I might hear, and then this bird comes along. And it’s like, oh my God, that can really be a bird and sound so musical?” he recalls.
Hempton says when he records, he’s not listening for anything in particular. Instead, he simply opens up and receives all the sounds of the place with equal value.
“And when I do, I find that my mind organizes it and is able to listen to even complex insect textures at night, for example, like in Sri Lanka, and weave together these sonic tapestries that clearly are music,” he says.
“This is my worship. When I push record, I feel like I’m a true listener,” he adds.
That deep appreciation for the sanctity of the Earth’s music has led him toward his life’s work, a compendium of nature sounds from all over the world called "Quiet Planet." It was to be his opus. And it was what preoccupied him as he was going deaf: Could he finish his crowning achievement before his malady snuffed out his hearing altogether?
The 2011 incident was actually not the first time Hempton lost his hearing. About a decade earlier, he had another scare with hearing loss. That time, he ascribed the problem to an adverse reaction to some alternative medications he had been taking. Once he dropped those products, his hearing returned.
But this time, there were no unusual supplements to discontinue and no diagnosis from medical professionals. Hempton saw doctors and audiologists, and none was able to figure out what was ailing him. In fact, they didn’t even seem to know all that much about sound.
“All the conversations with the doctors and the audiologists and the assistants about sound, I thought, ‘They really don’t know much about sound,’” he says. “They only want to talk about human speech. Well, human speech is a very small percentage of our hearing range. In fact, in my word, that’s not where my meaning comes from. My meaning comes from nature.”
Hempton turned to help from younger, fresher ears in his race to complete his masterwork. He’d have volunteers sit next to him, wearing headphones, to help catalog and calibrate his sound files as he raced to finish "Quiet Planet."
And all the while, Hempton’s world was getting quieter and quieter.
An Unexpected Answer
Then came a breakthrough. Hempton’s ordeal had gotten some media coverage, and people began contacting him with their own stories of hearing loss. A number of them had found an unexpected culprit: allergies.
“I’ve had a few allergies in the past, but we’re talking itchy eyes, stuffy nose. Well, as it turns out, allergies can affect the inner ears just as much as they affect any other part of the body,” he says.
Hempton went next to an allergist for a work-up, and got back a list of probable allergens.
“It looked like my shopping list at the grocery store. I’d been basically living off of food that was not good for me,” he says. “But also, a big concern was that I was allergic to environmental substances like pollens and molds. I was allergic to the outdoor Northwest.”
Hempton went on a regimen of limiting the foods he’s sensitive to, and taking daily mmunotherapy drops under his tongue. And since then, his hearing has gradually been returning. The Sound Tracker seems to be getting a second chance at completing his life’s work.
‘Baby Steps Toward Progress’
Now Hempton says his right ear is back up to about 80 percent acuity. His left ear has lagged, at about 25 percent. And that varies somewhat day by day.
“Most of my day was spent doing this,” he says, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together several inches from his ear. He’s giving himself a hearing test, measuring the progress he’s made.
“Oh, it’s really nice. I like that a lot,” he says, his face brightening. “It shows that there’s some grip to my fingers, it skids along. There’s not only that guh-guh-guh-gunk, but there’s a nice, bright ch-ch-ch-ch going along with it. That’s, like, epic.”
He moves his thumb and forefinger to his other ear, which has been registering little more than muddy, shuffling sounds.
“Ah, it’s wonderful!” he says. “I told you my left ear was at 25 percent, but I don’t believe that’s true right now. I'm also getting a little gripping sound. These are the baby steps toward progress that I make that really make my day and get me excited.”
Hempton can once again peel apart the layers, the details, the nuances of sound that make him not just an ordinary nature lover, but the Sound Tracker.
“I thought I might have two more years [of recovery], but based on what I’m hearing today I’ll give it [a chance that] possibly within 2015, I’ll be 100 percent,” he says. “And that’s when you’ll see me buying some tickets online to go to the next great place to record.”
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as part of our new show, “Sound Effect,” which airs on Saturdays at 10 a.m.