Matt Mikkelsen is a documentary film maker, sound recordist and environmental activist in an unusual cause: the preservation of “natural silence”—soundscapes undisturbed by the noise of human activity. He works with Gordon Hempton on the One Square Inch of Silence project, symbolised by a small red stone placed in the centre of the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, Washington State, the so-called “quietest place in America.”
Matt, along with cinematographer Palmer Morse, is the creator of the award-winning short film Being Hear, which documents Gordon’s work and philosophy. It is a lyrical and visually exquisite film, layering Gordon’s poetic words over footage of the pristine wilderness of the Olympic National Park. Its message is not only about the importance of preserving places of natural silence, but also about the value of deep listening in a society drowning in noise. I spoke to Matt via Skype to find out more.
18 October, 2018
PIERZ NEWTON-JOHN: I had a look at your film and I absolutely loved it. It reminds me of haiku or something. It’s very simple and poetic and spacious. And beautiful obviously, both sonically and visually.
MATT MIKKELSEN: Oh well thank you so much. I appreciate it. It was one of these artistic endeavours that you do in life where you’re really unsure of how it’s going to turn out, but it feels really good to make it. And it ended up being loved by a lot of people. So thanks for your kind words.
I wanted to start by asking a little bit about your relationship with wilderness. I’d love to hear about what your experience has been in the wild.
When I was a kid both my parents really enjoyed being outside. Many people aren’t lucky enough to be able to spend time outside as they’re growing up. So I can’t stress enough how lucky I feel that both my parents took me outside. They took me hiking, camping, I went canoeing with my father and my mum would take me on white water kayaking trips every once in a while. So I really got to spend a lot of time outside as a kid.
It’s a great way to grow up isn’t it? With that type of experience.
Yeah so I was really lucky not only that my parents made a point of taking me outside, but also that I lived in a place where it was very accessible. Right outside of my door were some really nice woods in a rural area. So I was lucky enough to be able to experience those things growing up. I think that kind of stuck with me. Through high school I would do some small backpacking trips with friends and just spend a lot of time outside. And then when I was in college I started taking classes in both environmental science and then also things like wilderness survival skills, natural medicine, different kind of classes along those lines.
It just really stuck with me that being outside and enjoying the outdoors but also protecting the outdoors was something that I wanted to do more of and keep in my life.
So what are the wild places that you love most? Where are the places that you gravitate back to?
Oh man. It’s so hard. I mean I really do have a very special place in my heart for the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state which is where Gordon lives and where I really learned to listen to nature. And specifically one of our national parks called Olympic National Park. In the United States, I don’t know if you’ve ever been here before, but we have, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on. But we have some amazing nature.
Just really, really beautiful places. Very diverse places.
The footage in the film of that area is just spectacular isn’t it? Stunning.
Yeah it really is. And the really special thing about Olympic National Park is that it’s like three or four parks in one. Because it has these very distinct ecosystems. So you have wilderness beaches, these very long stretches, hundreds of miles of totally untouched coastline that’s very rugged and rocky with haystack-like rocks out in the ocean. Then you can head up into the valleys and you have these coniferous rainforests like you saw in the film which are these very lush, moss-covered ancient rainforests which have never been logged, no trees have ever been cut down and the trees are six to eight hundred years old. And just massive. And then you also have these very high alpine zones. You have mountains that are over six thousand feet. So you have these high alpine mountains with these rainforests in the valleys. And all surrounded by wilderness beach. It’s really such a special place to visit. I’ve been going now for six years and I find new places every time I’m there. I’m always exploring the same places but finding different things.
So can you talk a little bit about his notion of silence? Because it’s not just an absence of sound, is it, that he’s talking about?
Yeah. Absolutely. It’s a really important clarification. So when Gordon and I are talking about silence, we try and call it “natural silence.” It’s essentially the absence of any human-made noises. So you know when you’re in a natural place you can hear the birds and the wind blowing through the leaves and rivers and streams. That doesn’t count as silence. But if there’s no human noise it can be a naturally silent place. And what Gordon found once he started doing this was that there are so few naturally silent places in the world. Not just in the United States but in the world. That it’s something that we were losing. Mostly from air traffic. Because even in the most remote wilderness areas you have planes flying over.
So his quest was to try and find a wilderness area that was remote enough that you didn’t have any road noise or any sort of industrial noise from resource extraction and things like that. As well as very little air traffic. And Olympic National Park fits that bill perfectly.
Right. So that’s why he’s chosen that for his “One Square Inch of Silence” project.
Right. This whole idea of conserving auditory environments is probably quite novel for a lot of people. So can you talk about what that means to you and why that’s important?
Yeah absolutely. And you’re totally right. I get asked a lot, why protect the soundscape of an environment? What is it about the soundscape that’s actually important? Why not protect it from other types of pollution that are more apparent like water pollution or air pollution? And my answer, and Gordon’s answer, is that by protecting an area from noise pollution and protecting its sonic environment you are in turn protecting it from all of these other types of pollution. So if you have a soundscape that’s completely naturally intact, you don’t have mining going on. You don’t have roadways. You don’t have air traffic. All these other forms of pollutants. So by protecting these soundscapes we’re protecting them from all sorts of other things. And the second thing is that the sound of an area is an excellent indicator of its overall health. When you go to a place like Central Park in New York City, yes you hear birds, but the soundscape of that compared to the soundscape of Olympic National Park—you can tell which environment is healthier. It’s a really great indicator without doing a bunch of soil tests and air quality tests and water tests of the overall health of an environment.
I remember hiking in the Himalayas myself and stopping at one point to rest and just listening to the immense silence of the place and it’s just extraordinary. And it has this quality of peace about it. So it makes a lot of sense to me that that’s where Buddhist monks choose to spend their years meditating.
Yeah. And it’s interesting, many people in the world will have never had the chance to experience true natural silence. Like the complete lack of man-made noise. But anyone who has experienced that can recall the exact moment. And everything along with it like you just said. You know, the first time that you actually sat and heard nothing but the sounds of nature. And there’s something that I think Gordon says it best: silence isn’t the lack of anything but it’s the presence of everything because you feel so connected to the world that you’re in.
I love Gordon’s quote in the film too about recording sound being just what he needs to do in order to listen better. What does listening mean to you? In this context?
It’s a great question. I think really for me listening is about being present. And there’s something about listening that is very special because with your eyes you have a certain angle that you can see. But your ears can hear not only behind you where your eyes can’t see but also miles and miles away. So in a quiet place being able to hear faint sounds that are happening ten, fifteen miles away from you, I think it kind of puts everything into perspective. And I think that we as humans have to walk a fine line—that we have obviously made a huge mark on the places that we live in. But at the same time we are very, very small. And I think maintaining that balance is what gives me hope in a way. That we can do all the things that we need to do to care for our planet and care for the people on the planet. So listening is a lot more than, for me, about hearing a beautiful bird even though I love listening to the birds. It’s this thing that really grounds me and reminds me what it means to be a human, to be a mammal on this planet.
I read a really fascinating book, I don’t know whether you have come across it, it’s called The Third Ear: On Listening to the World. One of the things that I found fascinating was it talked about how in cultures which focus on the ear rather than the eye as the predominant organ for gathering information about the world, those societies tend to be more peaceful and compassionate. And I find that quite fascinating because we’re a very visually oriented society. But the auditory is a very different way of apprehending the world isn’t it?
Absolutely. And I think also that listening is a physical act. If I told you to listen to something I’m asking you to do something physical with your body. But at the same time listening is also very metaphorical in my opinion, it’s that you can take those same ideas and apply them to your interpersonal relationships and apply them to just meeting people. Really listening means to be present. And I think that’s one of the most important things that we can try and do in the world is be present and be grounded in where we are.
Right. It’s like meditation isn’t it?
It has a lot of similar characteristics. In most religions, there are sects or people within that religion who are silent. Or spend their time listening and not speaking. We have these rituals that involve silence like when someone passes or when there’s a tragic event, we hold moments of silence. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a really great film as well revolving around this topic called In Pursuit of Silence which was put out the same year as Being Hear and it goes into the cultural significance of silence around the world. Not just in America but in Asia and in Africa and all these other places. And it’s really incredible because every culture does hold silence in a special place. Even if we don’t actively think about it in that way.
Yes. And we live in such a noisy society don’t we? You’re talking about listening at those metaphorical levels. But there’s noise at many different levels. In the visual and the information sense as well as the auditory sense. And it makes that kind of being present, that kind of attentive listening difficult to cultivate. Because it’s a society that’s constantly shouting for your attention. So much of modern living is about selective attention, which is exactly the opposite of what you’re talking about really.
Oh totally. You hit the nail right on the head. And I think that’s why protecting natural spaces and becoming a better listener is important. It’s because we are constantly bombarded with all this information, visually and auditorally, in our lives. We’re constantly being bombarded with all of these things. And when we can take moments away from that I think it’s very special. And I’m one of the people who, like, I love having a smart phone because all the answers to any of my questions is in my pocket. And I think that is an incredible privilege. But at the same time I think moderation is key. So when you’re constantly being bombarded by information and advertisements and all these things, to be able to take time to not have that and appreciate that for what it is and just be where you are and be who you are, those are the moments that I think are really most important.
I think having that presence of the ubiquitous device has made it more difficult for us to just be with ourselves. You see people standing in line at the supermarket and they can’t just be. They have to get their device out and do something.
Yeah. Or they can’t, like, talk to the person behind them.
Right, right. They’re not present in that immediate environment.
Right. I think we’ve lost some of that. It’s okay to talk to another human that you don’t know.
I do a lot of hiking myself with my son who’s very, very passionate about the wilderness. And for me a lot of what attracts me about going out into the wild is what you were talking about before about connecting with something greater than myself. Gordon talks in the film about how cities make him aware of himself. Because everything is geared towards the human. But when you get out into the wilderness it’s not about you and there’s something incredibly relieving about not being the centre of the universe.
Yeah. And I think it can be hard to believe that the world would turn if humans ceased to exist. Or if you ceased to exist. When I’m in these places a lot of the times my thoughts are just about how that world works. Like when I’m in the Hoh Rain Forest and I’m sitting there next to a stream and I’m hearing the birds and seeing the animals that world is something that exists by itself with no help from the outside. And, you know, first of all I’m applauding you for taking your son out. It’s really important.
Well to be honest he’s often the one that’s taking me out these days! [Laughs].
Well that’s great!
He has just been passionate about it his whole life really. As soon as I took him into the mountains I remember him literally shaking with awe. It’s a wonderful thing. But yeah, it’s led to a whole journey of discovery for myself.
I love going to the city. I was raised of outside of New York City by an hour or two. And going into the city is something that I enjoy. Because culturally it’s amazing to see. Especially a city like New York where you have all these different cultures and religions blending together and the art and the music and the food and the everything. But I find myself needing to remove myself from cities after a few days because, just like Gordon said, I become too consumed in myself. And I don’t think for me that that’s very healthy. Other people can live their whole lives that way and that’s fine but for me I think I do my best work when I’m not thinking about myself. Being in a city I think it’s hard not to think about yourself because you’re constantly hyper-aware of everything that’s going on. Whereas in nature I really feel like
I take that breath in a wilderness area and when I exhale it’s like everything falls away and it doesn’t matter who I am, what I’ve done. What kind of stressful things I have going on in my life. I’m just there and appreciating the beauty that’s in front of me. Or behind me if I’m hearing it.
And that’s why it’s such a salve isn’t it? For modern life.
One of the things about the majority of populations starting to live in cities is that you have these very small places that you call home. Your apartment or your house. And even a regular sized house is a relatively small space to feel comfortable in. So I found the more I spend time outside the more comfortable I am there. Most people go to their living room and sit on the couch to relax. And while I can enjoy that as well I can get the same feeling from going and taking a hike in the woods because it has a similar feel to me.
You feel at home there.
Exactly. And if you believe in evolution, it is our home. I’m a firm believer that genetically these are our places. And when we shut ourselves off from these places. I just don’t think it’s healthy. We need to get back out into these places and remember that that’s what feels good. And it feels good for a reason.
There was some interesting research recently about people looking at images of cities and looking at images of nature and how the brain responds with a certain level of agitation to cityscapes but that it doesn’t respond to nature in the same way. It’s just hard for us to process that type of environment. Which we didn’t evolve to deal with.
And I think to really exist in a city is to shut off parts of your brain or parts of your senses. You can’t listen to every sound. You can’t look at everything because you have to be directed in what you’re doing most of the time. We call it “masking” in the audio world. And your ears are very good at masking sounds. So people who travel on the subway every day, that sound doesn’t become annoying to them because their brains are doing work for them and helping them out. Whereas I know when I am out in the woods for a week or two and then go travel on a train, I can’t believe that people do this every day and deal with this sound. It’s crazy. So again getting back to why I love nature, it’s that you don’t have to mask anything. Everything is okay. And observing all things is kind of what you’re there to do and it’s easy to do when you’re in a natural place.
I work with computers a lot. And I’m often working in a state of agitation and irritation because of all of the frustrations. I think a lot of modern life is like that. Like all this stuff is there for our supposed convenience but it’s also constantly frustrating us. And I notice that whenever I go out hiking that frustration just all evaporates.
I get to spend more time outside than most people do for their profession. But I also spend all the other time looking at a computer. Because I’m a filmmaker and I also do a lot of technical audio work. Sound design and sound editing. And I do feel the same way. It’s hard to be there behind a computer screen when you know all this other stuff is going on. And there are lots of days that I’ll be working with Gordon and he and I will be sitting staring at a computer in his office and we just kind of look at each other and go “No, we need to get outside. Time to go outside.” And even a fifteen-minute walk or something like that, taking a moment to listen and become grounded, I can go back to the computer then and spend another three to five hours no issue. It’s amazing how much that can help.
I think a lot of people have a bad relationship with silence in the sense that there are people who always need to fill the environment with sound all of the time. Even if it’s turning on a television.
Yes. I always try to be like an understanding person. I try not to judge people too much. But it really pisses me off when people are walking through the woods and blasting music. You know? It’s like, what’s the point! But I think on a real level it speaks to how people are uncomfortable without some sort of input. And same thing in the woods. I think from a survival standpoint it’s important because if you’re blasting music you can’t hear the limb that cracks above you and then all of the sudden there’s a tree that’s fallen on you. But also just from a mindfulness standpoint. Being aware of what’s happening around you I think is really cool. Like when I am in Olympic National Park and I hear elk bugling, and they could be five miles away and I can hear them bugle, it still gives me information that is meaningful to me. Even though it’s not a threat to me or something like that, it’s still really valuable information that makes me happy. Or informs my thought process.
It’s interesting, I remember hearing about the relationship between sound and safety and how there are blind animals that can get by with being blind, but you can’t really survive without being tuned into the auditory environment.
Even when you go down to very microscopic levels of like insects. How insects go about the world is through vibration. And vibration is sound. Sound is vibration, they’re the same things. It’s mechanical, it’s a wave. It’s a physical wave. And so very similarly to when you drop a stone in a pond and you can see the waves move, that’s how sound moves about our environment and it travels through surfaces. Even through rock and metal. So it’s really interesting that even very small seemingly insignificant things like insects use sound to navigate.
And the sound wave is really just a single line isn’t it, when you record it? It’s amazing how much information can be carried in that.
Essentially humans can hear around twenty thousand different frequencies. And within each of those frequencies is lots of information, information happens across very wide frequency spectrums. But one of the things that we point to as a weird ecological indicator that we’re meant to be listening to nature that you’d think that we’d be most sensitive to listening to other humans. You would think that that’s the most crucial part of our communication. When in reality our ears are tuned to hear birdsong. The frequencies in which birdsong lies are the frequencies we’re most sensitive to. Which is really interesting and I think it brings up a lot of questions about why we have ears in the first place.
In terms of perhaps, where there are birds is information about where there’s water or environments that are suitable for sustaining us.
Precisely. And I know when I’m out in the desert the sound is just as interesting but I don’t feel as safe in it because I don’t think that there’s water and I don’t think that there’s food. Whereas if you’re in the forest and you hear the trickling of water and you hear the animals and the birds you know that there are resources there that sustain life.
I also learned recently that the way that trees roots will find water is actually effectively through hearing. It’s through vibration that they can hear the sound of the water with the very fine hairs on the roots, and they will steer towards it.
Really? I had never had heard that! That’s incredible.
It’s fascinating. So you’re a musician. Has the wilderness work affected the way you listen to or make music? What’s the relationship there for you?
I think it’s made me a much better listener. And a very accurate listener. So, I think spending so much time listening to nature, you learn to pick up on very fine details.
And one of the exercises that I try and do with people when I’m helping them to learn to listen, is to get them to listen to the closest sound and the loudest sound, the most prominent sound that you can hear in whatever environment you’re in. And then slowly work your way back. What’s the second loudest sound you can hear? What’s the third? And then after doing that for a little while, what’s the faintest sound you can possibly hear? Often times if you try and just listen to the quietest thing you can hear, you won’t be able to. It’s too far back. But there have been times where I was in the desert of Nevada which is very desolate. I was, you know, really out in the middle of nowhere. The closest thing we might have here to a “bush.” In your words. And I went there and for the first about hour I was there I was convinced that this was a naturally silent place and that Gordon and I had just found a new naturally silent place. And I started doing this exercise that I just told you about. And about 15 minutes later I realised that I was hearing some sort of low, very faint rumbling. And I took out my maps and I realised that there was a freight train track that was about fifteen miles away and down the other side of the mountain pass and I was hearing that freight train. But it was fifteen miles away. So when you get into that level of detail, think of all the things that you’re hearing in between here and fifteen miles away. That was a really mind opening moment, you know, just realising like wow I’m listening to a sound that’s fifteen miles away from me right now. And I’ve listened to everything in between here and there.
So it’s like really differentiating the sonic state that you’re existing in.
Yeah. And I think all of a sudden when you listen enough, I’ve helped Gordon edit a lot of his recordings. And he has tens of thousands of recordings from all over the world. And I can now listen to one of his recordings and tell whether or not I’m in a valley. Am I on the side of a hill? Are we in a flat area? Because each of those places sounds distinctly different. But it’s only if we give ourselves the chance to appreciate that that we can actually start making those distinctions.
So what projects are coming up for you next Matt?
So Gordon and I are continuing work on One Square Inch of Silence. There is an issue right now that I could talk for hours about, and I won’t, but essentially what’s happened is that there’s a nearby military base nearby to Olympic National Park and they’ve started doing fighter jet exercises.
Oh God. Oh no.
Like right over the park. Which is essentially like worst case scenario for us and for One Square Inch. So I, with my filmmaking partner, made a documentary about this issue. And I’ve been going around and on behalf of One Square Inch and as a filmmaker and a listener talking about the importance of preserving these places. And, you know I’m not anti-military by any means. But they shouldn’t be training over a national park. So that’s kind of a big project that I’ve been working on for a while now, trying to figure out what we’re going to do and the course of action for trying to get this training moved to a new area. And then separately I’m doing a lot of sound recording for sound effects libraries that Gordon and I produce. So I have just purchased a microphone that is specifically designed to record in a 3D format. And I’ll be one of the only people in the country to have it. So I’ll really be kind of recording everything, everywhere, from nature and cities, you know. Crowds. Really anything you can think of. I’ll be recording in this new format that really hasn’t been recorded in before which is really exciting.
Syndicated with permission from Dumbo Feather, a magazine about extraordinary people and there mission is to inspire a community of creative, courageous and conscious individuals. Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and founding faculty member of The School Of Life Melbourne. His short story collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.