The Importance of a Square Inch
This weekend I decided to run off to the Olympic Peninsula, get some kite flying in, and go off the grid by traveling deep into the Hoh Rainforest. There, among the giant trees, the beautiful Hoh River, the dabbling ducks, and the chipmunks, is a very important square inch. Now, this square inch is easy to overlook, all that makes it stand out visually from all of the other square inches next to it is a small red stone. It blends in with the color palette of the forest. Bright neon green moss drips from high large trees that are wearing thick coats of browns, grays, and reds. Giving way to deep earthy brown that sits somewhere on the color wheel between black and brown, and defies description.... but we know that 'earthy dirt' when we see it. It isn't a single color, it is a collective color of both decay and birth.
Bright green leaves of the various undergrowth shrubs are punctuated by tall dark green ferns. The broad Sword Fern stabbing upwards from the soft and spongy ground. Here and there are flashes of orange and red berries. This time of year the last of the salmon berries that haven't been eaten by the birds are rotting and falling off in deep purples, while the bright pinkish red of Red Huckleberries and the deep velvety red of Thimbleberries are making an appearance. At least they are where the herds of hungry elk that call these woods home have not been through
Then, there is this rock. This red painted rock that marks a very important square inch. It is a simple rock on a simple square inch 3 miles from the campground (nearest civilization) and it is a square inch that holds a tremendous power that you didn't know you needed to experience. Once you have tho, it changes how you see your everyday life.
So why is this rock so important?
Well, it marks the quietest place in the lower 48. There are no flight paths nearby, and the Hoh valley is remote enough from general human civilization, that it simply takes a 3 mile hike away from the parking lot to completely erase the potential intrusion of human made sound. By the way, the hike to the actual rock is a bit more complicated and fun than simply hiking the trail. You follow the main trail till you see a particular tree - a Sitka Spruce - and you walk through an opening in the tree. Also, take note, the rock changes, and some times moves around a little bit. People are encouraged to bring a red rock and exchange it. While I suggest using the directions and a sense of wonder to find the square inch, here are the GPD coordinates that will take you directly there: N 48.12885 W 123.68234 300ft Elevation.
The One Square Inch Project was dreamed up by Gordon Hempton, who back in the 1980's began traveling around the country looking for places that met the criteria of 'quiet places'. These are not truly silent places as the natural world is not silent, but, they are void of human made sounds. It is worth remembering that we evolved in a world of 'silence', and it has only been in recent decades that it is the norm to live a lifetime bombarded by noise. In 1984 Gordon identified 21 quiet places in Washington State alone. By the early 90's it was down to 3. In an effort to preserve the last quiet place, he launched the One Square Inch Project and has been striving and working to preserve something that is our natural birthright.
Because one square inch effects one thousand square miles. I know it sounds like an incredible exaggeration, but isn't. I have recorded noise from over 20 miles away. if you do the math, if you really try to protect one square inch, you actually wind up managing a huge area around it, and that is what I am attempting to do here in Olympic National Park
It is a thing of beauty, and you can feel a sense of it permeating the landscape. So much that even the multitude of other visitors respect the feeling. Some of them never knowing why. There are countless studies coming out about how important silence is to our overall well being both physical and mental, but we don't need a study to tell us that. There is something deep in our biology that recognizes it. Thousands of years we have lived with that woven into our DNA in some fashion, and while the first moment feels disorienting as the mind attempts to understand it, there is a deeper part of our brains that feels at peace.
This is part of the reason I love camping, although, more and more these days a night in the campgound is less about the silence one can experience being in nature. I have spent many nights in campgrounds, some magical, others less so. I take it as a given that there are certain expectations when I encounter certain common situations, some of which I have summed up here.
1. Jimmy Buffett Rule: If the sites are well spaced out or have large natural barriers in between them, most campers will be quiet. Inversely, if the spaces are close together, fellow campers are louder. You might think this is simply because you are in closer proximity to one another, but no, that is only a really small part of it. I call this the Jimmy Buffett Rule. If the sites are close and on top of one another, (like at a KOA kampground) it is very likely someone will have a stereo on blasting music. This has been accompanied, on too many occasions, with some variation of 'Margaritaville' at some point through the evening that I can't help but think that poor ole Jimmy is on some camping ten essentials list somewhere.
2. Generating a good time: Campgrounds that can accommodate large RV's means that your earbuds will have to accommodate the sound of a generator running. Hopefully, not running all day/night. Hopefully.
3. Full Hookups = Kitchen Sinkers: If a campground boasts that it has full hook up sites, expect people to bring everything with them, including the kitchen sink. More and more, I am seeing people bring a TV or projector, then sit outside their 'lodging' and watch a movie while sitting in the campground. I call them the kitchen sinkers... because... well... everything with them.
4. Trash hogs: I have stayed in my fair share of national parks, state parks, county parks, private campgrounds, wilderness campgrounds, DNR sites, forest roads, etc.... Some have been absolutely trashed. Litter everywhere, garbage being burned in the firepits, toilet paper flowers adorning the foliage. It is disheartening, and after many conversations with staff at some of these locations, I have found that time and time again it is because of the campers being assholes, not the lack of staff accountability. (except for one occasion... and that was shocking) One bag of food and scraps carelessly sitting on the picnic table next to the sign that says 'we have aggressive crows/coyotes/bears please store all food and scented items in the box provided'; can easily in the matter of seconds be spread across the campground. Taking hours to clean up. Pet peeve of mine.... campground trash cans shouldn't be where you dump your trash if you drove in. (hikers/paddlers/etc I don't hold you to this standard). If you drive it in... drive it out. Take it to a better location, like perhaps your house where the garbage system is better equipped to handle your trash then a campground.
5. Campgrounds are a great social equalizer: It is sometimes hard to tell where someone comes from, what their reason for 'getting away' is, how much money they make, or their personal beliefs when camping. We all come to the same spot, establish our small space in the collective safety of the camp itself, and there is a profound level of trust and respect for other peoples space. Now, out of habit, I make sure my valuable are locked, and that I take certain precautions regarding gear and my self, but, I have on countless occasions gone on a walk and forgot to lock my car. Most people respect the space of others physically, some forget that it also includes the senses. The only group of people I have found to consistently respect others senses (sound, smells, etc..) are solo campers. It has nothing to do with their camping style, income, gender, race, ethnicity, political background.
Those are just a few of my 'rules/observations', and I feel they are worth mentioning because of what I experienced at the Hoh river campground. As I walked around the campground after dinner, I came across a young woman sitting in the middle of the river on a dry bank playing a fiddle. Down the way a young man was silently strumming his acoustic guitar. Couples were talking quietly around the campfire, one family was playing a game of cornhole, and the solo travelers were either reading or 'thinking'. Even with all of the 'activity' things were still quiet. I found myself hitting the record button on my sound recorder to capture the sound around me. There was a profound absence of loud human sounds. Everything was so soft that you could hear the trickle of the water over the river stones (it isn't much at the moment), you could hear a jay that had been startled call out from a few hundred feet away. In the recording you can clearly hear my footsteps, some wind, and my breathing. It simply was quiet.
All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence. ~ Herman Melville
Apparently... that silence... is what my mind and heart needed, and the next morning I really did not want to leave. I wanted to stay there soaking it in. Rejuvenating my soul, shedding the sounds that permeate our everyday lives. Even now sitting at my computer typing this entry from the comfort of our home deep in the woods far from neighbors, I am keenly aware of the sound of the refrigerator in the other room. The clicking of the keys on this 'quiet keystroke keyboard', the sound of a distant car on the road about a mile away. All white noise behind the sound of the chickens scratching at the base of the ferns, the cat purring in my lap, and a light breeze in the treetops. Where we live is perfect and quiet by many standards. When people visit us it is one of the first things they comment on, and typically I agree. Well, that is until now. Now that I have experienced the silence of a square inch. How much noise have I normalized in my daily life?
For more on the Square Inch project go to: https://onesquareinch.org/about/ Also check out this video: