Meet the Soundtracker

Meet the Soundtracker
He says he hears a special sweet music that frees him and opens his senses to an infinite possibility.

And so whenever he can, he goes into the woods to visit the dark, cool dawn of the Hoh Valley, where the world is vividly, impossibly green. His journey begins there, traipsing through the trees, tromping through the rain forest ... and listening.

His name is Gordon Hempton, and he looks around him like it's the first time he's ever been there.

"I need three days to listen to a place," he says. "In other words, I need three days to forget all the things I came with that are bouncing around in my head so I can actually be where I am."

Sometimes on his journey, he thinks back to different sounds, back a quarter of a century, when he was a Seattle bike messenger, surrounded by the frenetic din of city life.

There used to be a show on KOMO-TV called Frontrunners, and many years ago they did a profile on the young Gordon Hempton. In it, there he was, wearing purple tights in the rain, slipping through traffic on his bike, navigating his way through the noisy rat race he would eventually come to despise.

In the Hoh Valley, as he continues his trek, he is a different kind of messenger, and seen through the trees, flickering, fluttering, are golden glints ... streams of sunlight , diffused and deflected through the dark, dank, mossy, matted canopies of one man's church in the woods.

He looks up. "It's places like this, up the Hoh Valley where there's these giant trees that you just feel should be impossible, but they aren't, right? It just brings so much faith in all things possible," he says.

As gorgeous as his surroundings are, his life's work, the stuff that really moves him, isn't the beauty that is seen, it's the stuff that is heard. He started listening, REALLY listening, 35 years ago, and he's been listening ever since. And recording.

He has made a life of capturing for all of us, for all time, nature's symphony.

"Nature," he says, "is worth listening to just as it occurs. Just take the time and listen to it."

He says it as though he is hearing the sounds around him for the first time. There is wonder in his voice, true appreciation. The truth is he's heard it all thousands of times.

We come to a beautiful, crackling clear freshwater stream, with a moss-covered wooden footbridge going over it. As we cross he says, almost to himself, "The most important thing I like to do when I come to a place like this is simply be. Listening is not actually about sound. It's about place. So don't actually listen for the sound, listen to the place."

A walk in the woods with Gordon Hempton takes on a certain Zen quality, which is to say, the natural almost slips into the mystical. And he keeps talking.

"I am the Sound Tracker," he says. "That's the quickest way of saying it. I know it. I know that better than I know that I'm Gordon Hempton."

It's a nickname he gave to himself long ago, and it has come to be more than a nickname. It's an identity. He's traveled the world recording the music, and the sounds of the symphony are layered in his mind.

The crickets ... And coyotes ... The loons ... The glorious cacophany of the natural world.

He is almost there, and as we follow an old elf trail in the woods, with mosquitoes buzzing around us, he pauses for a moment.

"The rules are, this is the last time we're going to be talking," he says.

He's serious.

We arrive at a spot in the woods, his symbolic sacred place. He walks to the spot as though he were walking into a cathedral. He calls it "One Square Inch of Silence."

He sets up his equipment to record the Pacific Wren and a dizzying cast of birds and frogs and insects. When there are no other sounds to intrude, when you are able to isolate them in your mind, you realize that they really are beautiful.

I write a message on a page of my reporter's notebook.

"What do you feel like when you are here?"

He smiles and jots down, "At peace."

But there is one uninvited sound here. The sound of a jet flying high overhead. He cocks his head and looks up, microphone in hand, headphones on his ears, and frowns as if to say, "See?"

Gordon is, as it turns out, involved in two desperate fights. This is the epicenter of his one-man war against noise pollution.

"Today we only have no flight zones for military and home security reasons," he says. "Why can't we have them for us too?"

That is one fight. The other is where the journey gets rough.

We are in his office at his home, near Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula. Gordon says, "I was laying in bed and it was a spring morning and I saw that it was light out. And I knew the birds should be singing. but I couldn't hear any singing.."

The other fight, you see, is against time.

He continues, "I asked Kate sitting next to me, 'Do you hear birds?' and... she said, 'Yes.'"

He explains that he is almost completely deaf in his left ear, and that it's getting worse every day. With the end of his finger he taps his ear. "When I do this I can barely make out any tapping." He says his right ear isn't much better. 75 percent of the hearing gone in it as well.

So he hires people to be his ears, because he no longer trusts his own. Cayenne is his assistant. She wears headphones and describes the sounds she hears as Gordon plays them on his computer.

At one point she raises her eyebrows. "Oh! What was that?""

Gordon laughs. "You're in the middle of the amazon! It could be anything, right?"

He is racing now, to get his life's work condensed into a collection called "Quiet Planet". He'll sell his recordings for movies, documentaries and classrooms. And he'll pay for treatment for his hearing.

He clicks the mouse again and says, "There should be insects and frogs and all sorts of night creatures going on."

Cayenne is deep in the jungle now, her eyes closed, pressing the headphones closer against her ears.

I ask a question that needs to be asked, and Gordon doesn't flinch. "Ahhhh...do i fear silence? No, I do not fear silence. What I fear is having no alternative but silence. What I fear and I miss even now... is the loss of awareness."

We walk a couple hundred yards to a beach, and the Soundtracker paused to listen and consider just how it is that he's been dropped into this cruelest of all races to finish his masterpiece, before the special sweet music slips away forever.

He looks out across the water.

"I really want my old life back, " he says, "I really do. There is so much that I have heard. But still, I've only heard the beginning."

There is good news though. In the time that has passed since our interviews with Gordon Hempton, he has learned a lot about his hearing loss. On a trip to Hawaii, he noticed that the hearing felt like it was slowly coming back. That led him to believe there were some kind of allergies at play, and he was right.

Doctors have determined that there has been inflammation in his ears, caused by allergies to mold and pollen and ten other things that are found here, floating around in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the hearing has come back through a new therapy program that involves taking antigens. He's been told that he could regain all of his hearing in the next two years.

Great news for Gordon Hempton, and great news for a whole vast world of sounds out there, loons and wrens and dragonflies and babbling brooks, all waiting to be heard. Waiting for The Soundtracker.