December 29, 2016

Sitka Spruce on Rialto Beach

In Olympic National Park is Rialto Beach. Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton takes us on a dynamic exploration of surf plucking the inner hollows of a piece of driftwood to make them vibrate like the strings of a violin. Be sure to listen with a pair of headphones or earbuds. You’ll discover quieting sounds you might miss without them. Promise. Download the MP3 and share it with your friends!

Rialto Beach_2010-06-29_001
Rialto Beach (photo by Chet Williams)

Stones of all sizes eventually make their way to the park's wilderness beach, where incredible music can also be heard. The stones arrange themselves in tonal bands, the result having been swept and stroked by countless fingers of winter's storm waves. Many huge driftwood logs still bear enormous root cavities, big enough to walk into, like caves. Sitka spruce is the wood of choice for many of the finest guitars and violins and the soundboards of Steinway pianos because of its anisotropy, or elasticity. Compared to other woods, its uniform fibers vibrate easily. I have often recorded inside what I call "ears of wood," old-growth Sitka spruce logs, uncarved violins, if you will, that vibrate not with the touch of a bow, but with the crash of each ocean wave, and then by its more nuanced backflow as it retreats across the surf-smoothed stones.

Big Driftwood
Sitka spruce driftwood (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee)

Whenever I am asked to name one of my favorite sounds, this sound from these ears of wood comes readily to mind. I shared these ears of wood with my students at Olympic Park Institute, where I taught nature sound portraiture in the mid-1990s, but I would guess that fewer than 100 people have heard this incredible surf symphony in the wild. You have to poke your head inside the driftwood log to hear it. To my knowledge, not a single park ranger working at Olympic Park has heard it, which may explain why many of the finest musical logs were moved from Rialto Beach during the repair of a rock jetty in the late 1990s.

From the book "One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet" by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman.

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is founder and vice president of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, based in Joyce, Washington. His books include One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet, co-authored with John Grossmann, and Earth Is A Solar Powered Jukebox: A Complete Guide to Listening, Recording, and Sound Designing with Nature. He's also produced more than 60 albums of vanishing natural soundscapes.