Gordon Hempton has spent his life recording the sounds of the natural world, from the rainforest of Hawai’i to the vast dry prairies of North America.
Then, one morning, he woke up to silence.
Ever since his first sudden encounter with hearing loss, Gordon has made it his mission to share the art oftrulylistening. He believes that in our noisy, busy world we’ve forgotten how to hear. With Sound Escapes, we teach you how to listen with new ears.
Gordon Hempton: BirdNote Presents.
Ashley Ahearn: What if you had dedicated your life to recording the sounds of the natural world...
...from the rainforest of Hawai’i
[CROSS FADE TO COYOTES AND ICONIC PRAIRIE SOUNDS]
...to the vast dry prairies of North America.
[Sound levels rise and rise]
But then one day you woke up…
[Sound cuts out, abruptly]
Gordon Hempton: I have pretty substantial hearing loss, I have good days and bad days. And it was about two years ago that I couldn’t understand the spoken word on a telephone or anything like that.
Ashley Ahearn: Over his long career, Gordon Hempton has mastered the art of truly listening. He’s known as the Sound Tracker. Some people call him an acoustic ecologist. His recordings and books have made him an international expert on the beauty and importance of undisturbed, natural soundscapes - and the ways human beings have changed them.
Now, Gordon Hempton is losing his hearing. But with that loss has come an intense urgency to share his life’s work - and his passion - with as many people as are willing to listen.
So, Gordon and BirdNote have teamed up to bring you a truly unique audio experience. Over the next six episodes of this podcast, we’ll be immersed in soundscapes that Gordon hand-picked from some of the most wild, beautiful and sound-rich places he’s visited.
And, he’ll give us a crash course in the art of truly listening. Something that he says is a dying art that’s constantly under threat in our noisy, modern lives.
Gordon Hempton: So noise pollution today has become the curtain that separates us from what is truly meaningful. The connection that we have for gaining information, for our sense of place, from nature.
Ashley Ahearn: First, I want you to meet Gordon and hear the story of how he became the Sound Tracker…
I’m your host, Ashley Ahearn. And welcome to Sound Escapes, from BirdNote.
We’ll be right back…
[Music fades out]
MARY MCANN: BirdNote is your daily 2 minute introduction to birds and nature, as a podcast and on public radio. Find a station near you or subscribe to the podcast, at BirdNote.org.
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon Hempton believes that we are born good listeners, but over time we lose that skill. As we age, our busy lives and cultural expectations pull us away from this wonderful, innate skill that we all possess.
Anyone who’s spent time outside with a kid - maybe on a warm summer night, walking through a forest, listening for birds, knows that children are the best listeners.
Gordon Hempton: I find that they make great naturalists. There’s nothing we need to teach a preschooler about listening.
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon remembers the first time he was captivated by sound. But it wasn’t what you might expect. There were no birds or wind in the trees, no coyotes in the distance - the kind of soundscapes he’s spent his life recording. It was a much more simple, elemental experience.
Gordon Hempton: I think the first time I listened to a natural soundscape, was when I was a child. And I would dive into the pool and I would let the air out so I would sink to the bottom of the pool. And I really enjoyed the pressure around my whole body, it was this swaddling effect. And when I was down there I felt a calmness and isolation. You know, had I been a fish, it would not have been a silent experience - but with terrestrial ears not much sound goes in. So it was that silence of the natural underwater world for me, where I truly listened and didn’t criticize it, didn’t evaluate it. I simply took it all in.
Ashley Ahearn: That last bit - not criticizing or evaluating - just taking it in - is the foundation of being a good listener. And Gordon says that’s what gets schooled out of us.
Gordon Hempton: You’ll receive instruction as soon as you go to school on how to listen. The teacher stands up in front of the class and says, “Class! Listen!” Right? And everybody turns in the direction of the teacher. And they find out that “oh, she’s important.” And so listening is paying attention to who’s important. And you know, there you begin to apply filters.
Ashley Ahearn: Over the course of our lives we just keep applying more and more filters. We filter out interests, hobbies, the types of music that we like or don’t like. We winnow our experiences down to make the world more manageable and less overwhelming. Well, the same is true for the way we listen to the world around us. We don’t hear the birds anymore. Or the wind in the trees.
And life is less rich for it, Gordon says. But here’s the good news: we can re-learn how to listen. Gordon had to do that, too.
But that didn’t happen until many years after his experience as a kid, listening under water in the swimming pool.
He was in his 20s, driving non-stop from Seattle to Wisconsin to start grad school in plant pathology. He’s young, he’s full of himself, he thinks he’s got it all figured out. And on this long drive he pulls over somewhere in the middle of Iowa, completely exhausted.
Gordon Hempton: I just laid down in a corn field to get some rest during a long drive, and a thunderstorm rolled over me, and I simply took it all in. And I had such a vivid description of the valley as the result of the echoes of the thunder and the textures of the rain and the insects. It was so overwhelmingly informative about where I was. But the question that remained was “Who was I?”
[Thunderstorm rolls in, builds, rolling peals then trail off…]
And it was at that moment that I truly listened. That I understood that I didn’t know who I was. That I had been living someone else’s life, as if there was some invisible set of instructions. And that the first step that I would take in trying to discover who I was, was to become a listener.
[Pensive, sound break to let that last thought sink in - the sound of the thunderstorm... building behind his cut, then rolling peals of it trailing off here - segue into rain]
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon Hempton is what’s called an acoustic ecologist. He spends hours listening to nature — all the intricate, subtle layers of sound that make up a landscape — and really, an ecosystem. He’s particularly fond of the dawn chorus, that special moment as the sun rises and the birds greet it with song.
[Dawn chorus rises]
Each day, as the earth rotates on its axis, the sun’s light spreads around the globe, and the dawn chorus happens again and again and again, across the earth’s surface.
It’s kind of beautiful when you stop to think about it - that somewhere, at every moment, birds are awakening and singing to the sunrise. Gordon calls it “the global sunrise.” And he’s described the Earth in his writing as “a solar powered jukebox.” And he wants more of us to experience the wonder of actually hearing it.
Gordon Hempton: I was recently in a very remote part of the Amazon rainforest. And I just was taking it all in. Just, like, listening to the place. And trying to relax, because, you know, I knew there were jaguars and like countless viperous snakes, but, relaxing, nevertheless, because the ears do contain some of the smallest muscles and bones so the slightest tension will interfere. And I begin to hear the insect patterns, and how they are rhythmic and each rhythm is a different insect, especially as the light weakens and we make the transition from day into evening and night. Oh my God. And I realized this is the sound of the spinning Earth. That this is actually like a huge clock, and I’m listening not just to the seconds but to the milliseconds, and it’s a beautiful clock. It’s just so elaborate and so precise that it’s beyond human invention.
Ashley Ahearn: To make one of his recordings, Gordon chooses his spot carefully. He looks for parabolas in nature - places where sound collects and from where you can hear in many different directions - sort of like scenic viewpoints… but for listening. And often, the locations he picks are popular with wild creatures, as well. There have been times where Gordon will pick a spot and sit down, and then he’ll notice that the grass is flattened or warm around him because a deer has bedded down there.
He uses special microphones, arranged to simulate the human head and the way sound comes from all directions. And once he’s got his gear set up, Gordon will sit for hours, perfectly still, just letting the sound wash over him. It’s a sort of listening meditation that sometimes reveals surprising things.
Gordon Hempton: It takes me a certain amount of time just to get deeply immersed myself. Because it’s not the early sound, it’s not the obvious sound, it’s those faint, subtle layers which really provide the depth of the experience. I can’t move my head or the microphone will just pick it up. My eyes, you know are quiet, though, you know? They’re just - they can move, they can look wherever they want. And then I look around and it’s amazing how often that I see evidence of ancient people. I was in the cliff dwellings area of Utah. I picked a site that was indicated by wildlife to be a choice listening spot. So there I am, and sure enough my eyes then rest on the charcoal and the smudges on the walls that have been left there for literally thousands of years.
Ashley Ahearn: Ancient peoples - like those who left the charcoal etchings on the cliffs - depended on their ears to survive far more than we do today. The human ear evolved to hear within a certain range - between 20 to 20,000 vibrations per second. We don’t all hear those frequencies the same, especially as we age and our hearing degrades, but there’s a sweet spot right around 2 to 5 kilohertz, which is the resonant frequency of the human auditory canal. It’s the frequency our ancestors adapted to hear best.
Gordon Hempton: Now, they aren’t around anymore. We can’t ask them or run experiments or even listen to their world. But what we can do is take all kinds of sounds, put them in the studio mix, put insects, frogs, put howler monkeys in there just because they’re so much fun to listen to. I’ve even put modern sounds, like people talking and highway noise. So I mix all these sounds together and then I apply a steep filter so only those sounds that are around 2.5 kilohertz make it through.
Ashley Ahearn: There’s only one sound that makes it through the filter…
Gordon Hempton: Birdsong. Birdsong makes it through. And isn’t it surprising, and perhaps not surprising that bird song is the number-one indicator of habitats prosperous for humans? That if the birds are singing, there’s food, water, shelter, and there’s also a favorable season to get the young off the nest. And I believe that the ability of our distant ancestors as nomadic tribespeople, to be able to hear faint birdsong, guided them as a sonic beacon towards prosperity. And we are here today. Isn’t that great? That birdsong, more than any other sonic element of nature, appears in our classical music? Appears through the ages? That birdsong is music to our ears.
Ashley Ahearn: So what happens when you lose the ability to hear that music?
We’ll get into Gordon’s struggle with hearing loss, and what we can all do to be better listeners, when we come back.
MICHAEL STEIN: You're listening to a special podcast from BirdNote. In the next 6 episodes, Gordon Hempton will immerse us in some of the most phenomenal natural soundscapes he's ever recorded. Subscribe to Sound Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, or your podcast player of choice. And find us online at BirdNote Dot Org Slash Sound Escapes.
Ashley Ahearn: Welcome back to Sound Escapes.
Birdsong may be music to our ears, but we live in a world where it is harder and harder to hear it - or any natural, undisturbed soundscape, for that matter. We humans are spending more of our time in crowded, noisy cities…
Gordon Hempton: Urban soundscapes are the harsh reality. I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced an urban soundscape where all the sound elements relate to each other in any way. It’s simply an exploding place, and you’re in the way of the shockwaves.
Ashley Ahearn: And that may not be good for our health. Research has shown that transportation noise can contribute to higher blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. Living in noisy environments can elevate stress hormone levels in our blood… even shorten our lives.
And those clanging urban environments lack harmony, Gordon says. The sounds in a city have not evolved together the way sounds animals make in nature co-evolve over millennia.
Gordon Hempton: If the Pacific Wren is singing, it will be singing in its own bandwidth and niche in such a way that it is recognizable to other Pacific Wrens. And the thrushes, for example, will be singing something entirely different.
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon says that when we listen to nature, uninterrupted, we start to hear a bioacoustic system at work - a network where birds and insects and predators and prey are all talking to one another. Like a kind of sonic social network.
If you want to be a good listener, Gordon says the first step is to acknowledge that you’ve probably been doing it wrong.
The second step is to put down your phone, close that social media app, and take control of your own attention span.
Gordon Hempton: In our modern world we do have a choice to pay attention to this, pay attention to that, and there is such a thing as called the “attention economy.” It’s kind of the new currency. Because when they get your attention, then they can sell you this, or sell you that, and that’s the way the whole thing works in our world. But that is all intentional information. That’s all information that’s often loud and called “important.” And all these things remove us from the present moment. And once you become aware of the actual place you are, fully, it’s transformative. There’s no other way of expressing it. Because you can never go back.
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon talks about noise as a form of pollution. It clouds out our thoughts and it can even separate us from our feelings.
So, the next step to becoming a good listener?
Gordon Hempton: Notice how you feel. There’s already a conversation happening between your senses and where you are. So no matter where you are, notice how you feel. There is this connection going on. Stand on a downtown street corner for just a few minutes and then notice how you feel. And then make the journey sometime to a true wilderness area - and notice how you feel.
Ashley Ahearn: When Gordon’s struggling with tough life questions, he says he tucks them away until he can get to his favorite wild place, way out on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State…
Gordon Hempton: And then I pull them out and I ask the quiet - in thought only - I read down the list, I ask the quiet, and the quiet immediately responds to me. Of course, not in words, but in feeling. Okay? In feeling. Because it’s - it’s really not the information that’s getting in the way, alright? But it’s the distractions of modern life that are getting in the way. When you’re a true listener, there are no distractions. It’s all information.
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon talks about his transformation into a “true listener” as a sort of pilgrimage. He says he realizes now that throughout his life, he’s been on a quest to find a true connection to home, to the earth... through his ears.
But then, one day at the age of 50, his ears failed him...
Gordon Hempton: The first time I lost my hearing, I was laying in bed and I had my bedroom window open, because I always - I love sleeping where I can listen to the outside and know where I am. And I woke up one night and I was hearing “va vum va vum va vum va vum.”
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon thought it was a large tanker ship motoring by his home on the Washington coast, but the sound was actually his own heart beating. Within a matter of days, his hearing was gone.
He figured it was the flu - and that it would pass and his hearing would come back. But as the months went by and doctor after doctor couldn’t diagnose the problem, Gordon started to lose hope.
Gordon Hempton: It was very discouraging. It took me, um - really, it’s hard. [long pause and crying] It’s hard for me... to relive that. I was put out of work. Unprepared to be out of work. I was cut off from… everything and everyone I loved. Including the voices of my children. And on top of that my own brain created a storm of noise. The sound was a lot like an AM radio being played through a long hose or a tube. It strangely sounded musical, but you couldn’t really make out a rhythm or any words. And the tune never seemed to change. And that was my life, 24/7.
Ashley Ahearn: A year and a half went by and Gordon was grasping for answers. He started sinking into depression… and then, out of the blue…
Gordon Hempton: One night next to the wood fire I heard the fire crackle perfectly in such detail. The cellulose chambers collapsing and those high frequencies. And then plus the draw of the air. And like, my - the true world, the real world around me, was so vivid. And it lasted like 5 seconds and then disappeared. That’s all I needed. I knew it was possible to hear again.
Ashley Ahearn: As his hearing came back, Gordon threw himself wholeheartedly into his work. He started an organization to advocate against noise pollution in national parks and wild places. He wrote articles and did interviews about the importance of protecting natural soundscapes.
But then, four years ago, Gordon’s ears started to fail him once again.
It was an April morning and he woke up and noticed that he couldn’t hear the sounds of the birds outside his window.
Gordon Hempton: And so I leaned over and asked my wife, “Do you hear bird song?” And she goes, “Yes.” And… [sigh] Here we go again. And, once again I didn’t waste any time. I went to the doctors and got all kinds of diagnosis and prognosis. And I’m still in the middle of it.
Ashley Ahearn: But he’s determined to continue his work.
He’s hired two young assistants - with healthy ears - to help him go through the thousands of recordings he’s made over his career.
Gordon Hempton: You know it’s been interesting to lose my hearing. It started out devastated at first, but in long term it’s really been a blessing. Because I can no longer work alone, and I have to work with young people with perfect hearing. This is an opportunity for me to pass on, not just the information of what I’ve learned over the decades about listening to nature, but also to pass on my passion.
Ashley Ahearn: Gordon still doesn’t have a diagnosis for his hearing loss, but he does have a heightened sense of urgency to bring his recordings to the greatest number of people, while he still can...
...because the ability to listen - to truly listen - is such a profound gift.
Gordon Hempton: I am sure there are people that take their hearing for granted. And all I can say is, “Boy, you have a real transformation comin’ up.” You’re going to find out that sound will change your life.
Ashley Ahearn: Over the next six episodes of this podcast, you’ll hear soundscapes that will immerse you in incredible places and help you become a better listener.
We’ll start in a rainforest on the Big Island of Hawai’i in episode two. Then we’ll head to the grasslands of Saskatchewan to hear a prairie dawn chorus - complete with coyotes.
In episode four Gordon takes us to the Land Between the Lakes in Tennessee. Then in episode five we’re off to the banks of the Mississippi River in Arkansas to hear so many birds that Mark Twain called the experience “a jubilant riot of music”.
Episode six takes us to a remote lake in Eastern Washington. And finally, we end in Ecuador, with some amazing sounds Gordon recorded along the Zabalo River.
Gordon Hempton: Well, for me, the podcast series is an opportunity of a lifetime. Because I’ve spent a lifetime recording all over Planet Earth, and I do have my favorites. It wasn’t hard at all for me to pick themes or locations where I felt these moments - as a listener - of being spiritually enlightened just from listening to the real world around me. Where I felt like, “oh man, life is beautiful, what an opportunity.”
But beyond that, I want you to know that these are only invitations, these podcasts, to the live concert. These are invitations to listen to yourself and not listen to what I think you might want to listen to. But invitations so you can go and explore the world, notice how you feel, listen to the place, and find your special spots.
Ashley Ahearn: These recordings are Gordon’s gift to all of us all, and we’re so grateful to share them with you.
Thank you, Gordon Hempton, for creating this series for BirdNote.
I’m your host, Ashley Ahearn. Let’s start listening…
Sound Escapes is made possible by Jim and Birte Falconer of Seattle, Idie Ulsh, and the Horizons Foundation.