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Original Essays

Deconstructing a Thoroughly Modern Collaboration

by Gordon Hempton
  1. One Square Inch of Silence: One Man
    $7.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Many books help us see the world differently; this one induces us to hear the world clearly, and the message is loud and compelling." Booklist (starred review)

    "After a while we begin to sense that it is silence that is our greatest teacher....But it is in nature, as this wonderful gem of a book reveals, that we find the real blessing of silence." Ken Burns, filmmaker

Well, we were going to write an essay about the backstory of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (Free Press), explaining about our three-year, bi-coastal collaboration. Blame the beers we opened for our long distance toast. Blame yet one more transcript appearing, line by line, on a computer screen. But once mined for meaning and edited for clarity, the January 21, 2009 phone debriefing of our thoroughly modern partnership seemed like the calls of two distant owls. Best left unadorned.

John Grossmann: Do you want to ask the first question? Over the years I've asked so many questions of you. Maybe you'd like to begin?

Gordon Hempton: I've got one. I didn't really want to ask it while we were writing the book. While I was driving across country, those three months and some 10,000 miles, I was practically stream-of-consciousness talking into a Dictaphone. That was the end of it for me until many months later when I saw the transcripts, but of course you were far away in New Jersey, receiving all these narrations of the experience. What was it like for you?

Grossmann: I've got the CDs on a counter in my office. They stand six inches high — untold hours of recordings, and probably double that number of hours of transcribing. It was hard to sit with my butt in the chair for all those hours transcribing your road thoughts and your conversations with the people you met, but I don't think this book would have worked any other way — say, if we'd sent the CDs out to a transcription service. By doing the transcription myself, I was able to get not just your words, but your tone of voice. I could hear your frustration. And your joy. At first, it was like I was sitting beside you in the VW bus. But I listened for so many hours that, at some point during the trip, I was no longer riding shotgun. I felt like I was inside your head. To my mind, that's an important reason our collaboration worked so well. I started thinking like you — which wasn't terribly hard. I believe in many ways we're a lot alike. We're nearly the same age, and your ecological and political goals with One Square Inch fit perfectly with my own beliefs.

But, let me ask you: What was the most difficult part of the process for you? The cross-country trip in your VW bus? Or did it come after you returned home and faced the challenge of turning the experiences of the road into the book?

Hempton: Definitely the trip. It was in reverse order of the direction I've taken my life. I've slowly moved to more and more remote areas — to where I now live in one of the quietest places in the United States. To reverse the last 30 years of my life and head off in the other direction and feel my stress levels increase and miss the quiet for so long was personally very difficult.

Grossmann: I knew it was going to be tough for you, and lonely. At times, your loneliness came through strongly on the recordings. If you remember, and I'm sure you do, you wondered when I would join up with you on the journey. Would it be in Montana or Colorado, or perhaps in Canyonlands? It could have been a lot of places. I remember thinking: does that make sense or not? And decided it did not make sense. It's your story here and it plays out much better on the page as one person's story rather than me getting involved all that much. To join you in Indianapolis seemed appropriate because there was some specific reporting that needed to be done at the earplug factory, and in Washington, D.C., where I rejoined you, there was the obvious reason to do so, beside a second dose of moral support, of having two of us at the table at those meetings with government officials.

What amazes me — is something I only consciously realized the other day: we haven't seen each other since, not since we said goodbye in Washington in July 2007.

Hempton: Really?

Grossmann: We've been in such close email and phone contact ever since that I never once felt the need that one of us would have to hop a plane and sit down beside the other to better facilitate the collaboration. Everything went so smoothly. We couldn't have worked this way 25 years ago when you started your career as The Sound Tracker with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I began my career as a freelance journalist with an electric Smith-Corona typewriter. No Internet. No email. We'd have been licking tons of stamps, considering that we got as high as 17, 18, 20 drafts for some of the chapters, meaning we passed the draft back and forth that many times. Do you have any idea of how many emails we exchanged?

Hempton: I know it's a big number, because on New Year's Day I backed up all my emails — hit select all on Microsoft Outlook emails and dragged it over to a folder so I could have a copy of every 2007 and 2008 email, with the lion's share between us — it took 20 minutes of my three gigahertz processor.

Grossmann: My count between us came to 1,943.

Hempton: To that, add 130 gigabytes of media — sound recordings and photographs and the trip transcripts, which turned into 1,000 single-spaced pages of notes and dialogue.

So I've got a question for you. I live alone. I work alone. I know I cannot always be an easy person to work with, so there had to be some rough points. What was the hardest thing for you about my M.O.?

Grossmann: I think the hardest thing about your M.O. turned out to be, for a time, most facilitating for the book. And it wouldn't have been nearly as helpful if we lived in the same time zone. As you recall, when you went through that nasty bout of sleeplessness, you turned into a real workaholic. You were working 18 hours some days. You'd be up most of the night. But what it meant for me, here on the East Coast, when I sat down at my desk at 7:30 in the morning, you'd still be up — or you'd just be waking up at 4:00 a.m. or so your time — and you'd be on a real high and very productive — and you'd send stuff off to me right when I was raring to go. Had I been living in California or Oregon and had to try to adjust to the wacky hours you were keeping, I might have been gritting my teeth. But as it happened, I did the opposite. Selfishly, I confess, I found myself thinking, "For his health I hope he starts sleeping better, but, hey, in the meantime, the book is really barreling along."

So, what did you enjoy most in the researching and writing of the book?

Hempton: That's easy. What I enjoyed most were the quiet moments, and the real quiet moments came while writing the book when storms here in Joyce caused the power to give out. The first time, by candlelight, with pencil and paper, I wrote the prologue. I also wrote the epilogue the same way, but that time, I hit the power switch, the main switch on the house, to shut everything down, like the gurgling and whining sounds of the refrigerator, to restore the quiet. I learned that anytime I was having trouble putting my feelings into words, it had to happen from a quiet place.

Grossmann: So what was the hardest part of working with me?

Hempton: The most difficult thing of working with you, which was a good thing, was that every... word... mattered. Our conversations weren't always about whether this paragraph or this sentence was important enough to include. It often came down to a single word. If you felt that one word was better than the other, you'd want to talk that one word through.

Grossmann: Guilty as charged. As it happens, I just came across a quotation from Mark Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

Hempton: That recognizes what you and I sensed all along. That this is not just a book that reports on information, that tells about noise effects on wildlife and human health, but also a documentary about what America sounded like in 2007, at what, hopefully, will be the noisiest time in its history.

Grossmann: Hopefully that will be true. Just today, there's a study out noting that recent improvements in air quality are helping people live longer — adding so many extra months to the average life expectancy in a lot of American cities. Public awareness and concern can make a difference.

Hempton: Amen. I've never forgotten for a moment, through all of this, there is one clear goal: to preserve Olympic Park's natural soundscape. One simple piece of legislation, a 20-mile radius no-flight zone around Mt. Dana, the heart of Olympic Park, will save this "Listener's Yosemite" forever.

÷ ÷ ÷

Gordon Hempton is an Emmy-winning acoustic ecologist. He lives in Joyce, Washington.

John Grossmann, a journalist who first interviewed Hempton in 1984 for a magazine article about quiet, lives in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. spacer

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