Gordon Hempton is the type of person who gets into something and doesn’t let it go. As an acoustic ecologist, most of his obsessions are sounds. Specifically, natural ones.
Hempton’s been on a crusade for years to highlight the sonic beauty of the natural world, and draw attention to the fact that we’re slowly letting that beauty disappear in a sea of noise pollution. Along the way, he picked up a mentor who has helped inspire him and open his ears to nature: naturalist Jon Muir. Though he’s been dead for more than 103 years, Muir has helped guide Hempton, who has walked in his steps literally and figuratively.
Muir was central to getting Yosemite set aside as the second national park, and defining our relationship with nature through his prolific writings. But Muir also left behind an under-appreciated legacy of writings about the sonic beauty of nature. His most famous quote, “the mountains are calling and I must go” hints at his love for sound.
“I regard him as the first nature sound recorder, Hempton told Earther. “He used his available technology to compose sound recording: a pen and paper. He wrote words about sound because he found irreplaceable value in it aside from lived experience itself.”
Hempton traced Muir’s route from San Francisco to Yosemite on foot in the early 90s, sleeping under the stars and the occasional railroad bridge. He’s recorded sounds in Yosemite many times since, as well as in Olympic National Park, which he lives outside of today.
The sonic landscape has certainly changed over time, with Yosemite today featuring bustling trails in the summer, traffic jams, and commercial jets regularly flying overhead. By going to remote places and using sensitive recording equipment, Hempton has managed to isolate snippets of the natural world described in Muir’s writings.
Snow Melting Into Music
Muir once wrote in his journal that he heard “snow melting into music.” The turn of phrase immediately piqued Hempton’s interest. Sure, snow may make little drips here and there, and runoff in the spring can tinkle through mountain meadows, but melting into music is an otherworldly description.
Hempton was searching for a snow symphony while walking in the Olympic Mountains when he happened upon a cavity in the snow roughly the size of a human head. He stuck his recorder in and what he heard shocked him. A rhythm and cadence that you can nod your head to materialized out of seemingly random noise.
Tuolumne Meadows is near the crest of the Sierras, dotted with granite domes and criss-crossed by streams and rivers. Soda Springs burbles up just north of the Tuolumne River. Today, it’s enclosed by a fence, but it was unobstructed in 1889 when Muir set up camp during a formative trip to the Sierras.
On that trip, he was convinced to join the fight to have Yosemite designated as a national park. Hempton wanted to know what convinced Muir to take time away from his ranch and outdoor adventures he loved. So, he made a trip to Soda Springs on a winter night decades ago.
“I’m staring at the mountains and the frosty ground and the moon,” Hempton recalled. “I wasn’t hearing anything but soft wind against the conifers. Then I thought Muir didn’t sleep standing up.”
Hempton lowered his recorder to the ground near the spring, and that’s when he felt he understood what inspired Muir to fight for Yosemite National Park.
“What’s so bad about politics compared to beauty of that?” Hempton said. “It’s a small hardship to endure for a concert like that.”
The Water Ouzel
Muir also led Hempton to his favorite bird. The water ouzel, or American dipper, is common across the West. It hangs out in streams and hunts aquatic insects. It’s also quite skittish and doesn’t let people or potential predators get too close.
Muir devoted an entire chapter on the bird in his writings. In it, he spends paragraphs describing its song in incredible detail that indicate he was able to get close and hear it over the roaring bodies of water that can muffle its call.
Here’s a sample from The Mountains of California, published in 1894:
“The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools.”
Here’s the Audubon Society:
A loud, bubbling song that carries over the noise of rapids. Call is a sharp zeet.
Hempton knew some rocks on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park frequented by the bird. Take a listen and judge for yourself whose description is more accurate.
Song of the Merced
Muir called the Merced River one of “the most songful streams in the world.” It drops from the high Sierras over Vernal and Nevada falls and into the Yosemite Valley. Along the way, it sings different tunes that each have a story to tell.
Hempton commemorated Muir’s mellifluous river in a piece called Song of the Merced that seamlessly tracks the river’s changing voice and character.
For Hempton, listening to these sounds offers a reminder of why we set aside parks in the first place. His Muir recordings are just the tip of a huge body of work on natural sounds around the world, and his quest to ensure they don’t disappear in a wash of white noise that’s increasingly polluting our daily lives.
“If we’re going to say John Muir is the father of the national parks, then we owe it to ourselves to look deeply into the life of this man and understand natural beauty in all its forms and sense,” Hempton said. “There’s this need to listen as John Muir listens to nature, this need to keep our parks clean of noise pollution.”