The conversation of people appealing in the great outdoors should be music to my ears, but this time, it’s the most frustrating sound in the world.
I roll my eyes at university students loudly conversing the role of epiphytes in the forest ecology, and stare at kids running along a forest path, my inner soul pleading them to return to their computer and mobile screens and leave landscape in charge of peace-loving grown-ups.
I’m in Washington State’s Hoh Rain Forest, a primitive pleasant rainforest in the World Heritage-listed Olympic National Park, a 5hr long drive west of Seattle. In 2005, a minute area of this beautiful Game of Thrones-esque tangle of lichen-shrouded big leaf maples and Sitka spruce was acknowledged by sound environmentalist Gordon Hempton as the quietest place in America, almost untouched by the aural interferences of humans.
The One Square Inch of Peace, marked by a red rock just off the Hoh River Trail five kilometers from the tourist center, is one of just a dozen places lesser in the 48 states that Hempton found to be lacking noise pollution, such as car and jet engines, for at least 15-minute pauses through daylight hours. To Australians familiar to the wilderness that might not seem like a big ask but in the compactly populated United States and Europe, places undamaged by man-made sounds are rarer. Hempton’s goal in pinpointing quiet places is to push for protective legislation, along the outlines of Dark Sky designation which distinguishes places free from light pollution.
Sadly, in the 14 years since Hempton first located the marker on an isolated mossy log in “the Hoh”, as it’s lovingly known, air traffic over the Olympic Peninsula has amplified. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is one of the nation’s busiest hubs, while Growler jets from a neighbouring navy base fly training assignments overhead, echoing in the stratosphere.
As I stroll the most open trails in the park, I’m painfully mindful of each distant plane, as well as car horns, my snapping camera, the crunch of my shoes on stones. It’s a rare sunny day in this infamously humid part of the world (the Hoh gets around four metres of rainfall a year) and every sound is enlarged in the clear surroundings.
Then, of course, there are those families adoring the pleasant weather, their loud children treating the forest like their private play area. Attitude check time! This is a play area, a fairy garden drenched with moss and lichen, luxurious heaven showing the cycle of life and death, with decaying nurse logs playing host to fungi, new shoots and air-feeding epiphytes.
In the suitably named Hall of Mosses, I gaze in wonder at monumental bigleaf maples soaked with wispy spike moss, rays filtering through the canopy revealing bright green ferns and twisted undergrowth kept in check by grazing Roosevelt elk. It’s incredibly beautiful and in spite of my initial irritation, I can’t help but smile at some little girls smiling and singing in this storybook grove.
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But it’s on the 28-kilometre Hoh River Trail, en-route to the One Square Inch of Peace, that I appreciate this living cathedral. As the mobs diminish and the car park clatter subsides, so I stop to listen. I hear nobody. No planes, no cars, no conversation – just the hum of the forest; the chirp of birds, a crunch in the ferns, the fizzy of the nearby stream. The silence is loud.