A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal creatures, both large and small.
This striking image of a spreading silence as the auditory expression of global ecological change kept re-emerging in my thinking and writing. The quote came from John Vidal’s Guardian article about the work of Bernie Krause and his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra which recounts his lifelong experience with recording wild habitats across the globe. I got hold of a copy of the book and read it front to back in a couple of days. It is a fascinating story of both Krause’s astounding work and the ways in which we humans relate to the world through sound.
Krause is a musician, writer, and sound recordist who began recording wild habitats in the late ’60s when he got interested in using natural sounds in the electronic music he was producing with Paul Beaver as part of the duo Beaver & Krause. He went on to record and create a vast archive of natural sounds, including both marine and terrestrial habitats as well as more than 15,000 individual species (he has also recorded the sound of snowflakes, viruses, and trees ‘drinking’). In the process he studied and received a PhD in the field of bioacoustics and is one of the founding fathers of the field of soundscape ecology. He has also done pioneering work on understanding the impact of human development on natural habitats through the resulting changes in the structure of local soundscapes.
As he developed his understanding of natural soundscapes, Krause recognised three different sources of sound in natural habitats: the geophony (nonbiological natural sounds that occur in the wild), the biophony (the collective, nonhuman biological sounds that occur at given times and places in wild biomes) and the anthrophony (human-generated sounds). Through extensive listening, recording and reflection he formulated his ‘niche hypothesis of natural soundscapes’, explaining how animals have evolved together to occupy distinct frequencies and temporal bandwidths within the aural spectrum to allow them their own undisturbed acoustic territory for communicating. This shows how natural selection has caused animal voices to sound organised – like an orchestral structure – and opens up questions about the importance of bioacoustics in evolution. Krause has also made groundbreaking studies into the role of the acoustic features of landscapes in how animals interact within and populate different habitats.
The Great Animal Orchestra is an intriguing exploration of biophonies as a wellspring of human culture and a potential source for redefining our relationship with the natural world. Krause believes that ‘biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challenged planet’, and that listening to what is going on in habitats across the planet can help us map out a viable course into an uncertain future. And I think he might be right. As I read the book I looked up some of the references to both human and natural soundscapes (such as the Mbuti pygmies, coral reefs, woodland biophonies and eco-acoustic electronic music) and found myself immersed in aural universes I don’t even have the perceptive skills or vocabulary to describe. There is clearly a whole world of sound, a central and original narrative of our time, that we are currently deaf to. Listening to these stories may be one of the most immediate ways to understand and imagine global ecological change because they speak to us viscerally and ignite the imagination.
But I didn’t find the quote from Vidal’s article in Krause’s book and I couldn’t track down another source for it (it appears all over the internet but they all point back to the Guardian article). Instead of finding its origins, the search led me to Bernie Krause himself, who agreed to speak with me about some of the questions that had surfaced after reading The Great Animal Orchestra. In the book he describes soundscapes as ‘manifold narratives’ and in a time when we’re urgently in need of new stories that challenge the meta-narratives of development and progress – a key insight of the Dark Mountain Project – I was interested in hearing more about how we can learn to hear the narratives that wild soundscapes are telling us.
And then there are other subtle changes like those in precipitation and the paths of the jet stream and ocean currents that occur so slowly in human time that we hardly notice. My strong impression is that all of these transformations are having serious effects upon the biophony. And, talking about meta-narratives and stories, the biophony is a narrative that we need to look at more closely to really grasp the signals conveyed within its complex structure, including and especially climate change. It’s the one indicator that hasn’t yet been brought into the greater discussion related to most climate change work. But it is the voice of the natural world – one that is screaming to be heard. We’re a bit tone deaf to the realm of natural sound because almost every indicator that has served as our referential eco-guide has been visual. But we can learn so much more from what the ear tells us. And to the extent that soundscape ecology data is factored into the larger dialogue about climate change, it will make the thesis much more durable.
It also occurs to me that the loss isn’t happening in a time frame that we’ve learned to accept. It unfurls way too slowly for us to get it. And we’re challenged when it comes to a sense of overview – seeing the whole picture – sometimes referred to as seeing the forest for the trees. You know, in the common media we are dealing with four frame cuts – the minimum instant in which most of us are capable of getting any information from sonic or visual cues. The problem is further exacerbated because we’re distracted by so many other things. So these cultures, languages, soundscapes disappear before our eyes but our minds can’t comprehend the staggering loss because we’re asynchronous with the timing of life itself. We’re further impeded because we live in such a state of disbelief and denial. Therein lies the core of our illiteracy.
Here in America the state of rationalisation that exists now – and I don’t quite know how to express this yet – where any premise is allowed to serve as the basis of a logical construct almost without question, has become a major dilemma. This also serves as a deflective means of defensive response to difficult issues. Because we’ve become so historically and culturally illiterate, these are the models we’ve come to rely on. It no longer matters that the premise is false. As long as someone constructs a syllogism that appears to be logical or sustained by logical process, the premise can be false and the conclusion can be anything we want it to be. Because there is so little well-framed push-back, that muddled format is sufficient to sustain an argument of any subject. Religion or environment or culture or whatever it is. We seem to go on in this way without any kind of moral or emotional compass or anything that really helps guide us to useful information that we can then synthesise and act upon.
Because this disparity has such a powerful effect on the ways in which we have come to understand the value of life, it has had a serious impact on my work. Luckily, soundscape ecology has operated ‘under the radar’ in most of the media and for over a decade. It seems to be more of a curiosity – something to promote as a ‘filler’ or odd amusement. The media have no idea just how powerful and revealing this stuff really is.
You know, soundscapes are completely unbiased. I will give you an example: we’ve been thinking about doing a study in the field of medicine weighing the analgesic effects of natural soundscapes in relation to music. What we had discovered initially was that music has a tendency to raise stress levels rather than mitigate them. But natural soundscapes – simply because they are not weighted by cultural baggage – tend to deliver a different result. This is largely anecdotal, of course. But we’re betting that the human mind has buried deep within it these ancient atavistic attractions to natural soundscapes. In normal terms, they would be defined as the ambient sounds of waves at the ocean or lakeshore, water flowing in a stream, birds in a forest, all of which have no particular cultural bias. For reasons that remain somewhat obscure, it appears that most people respond to different types of natural soundscapes; some prefer the desert biophonies while others choose water or mountain forest sounds. It’s just that people seem to respond to natural soundscapes more positively. It’s not a rational thing; it’s the operational limbic brain subconsciously choosing a healthful path. That said, it seems to make a big difference in people’s lives when they experience these acoustic phenomena. It certainly has for me.
When we think about going on holiday what are the first things that come to mind? The need-to-relax portion of our brains imagines going to the ocean shore, or the mountains, or the desert. We generally have an initial knee-jerk reaction to the thought of getting away which more often than not envisions (aurally) those kinds of settings. And part of that equation is the quietude or solitude that those habitats ensure. That’s the illusion part – we often end up tethered to music on our iPods or iPhones, or music piped into a restaurant or even transmitted over loudspeakers to the beach, all of which masks the very soundscape that could otherwise have that necessary therapeutic effect. It ain’t the music that does the healing, it is the natural soundscape. And it accomplishes that end in much the same way that we find many of our medicinal resources: from the abundance found in the tropical rainforests of the world.
There is a huge narrative structure inherent in the acoustic data that we got from the forest. At one point in our distant past we correctly heard all of that information because our lives depended on that knowledge. And, of course, from those soundscapes we recognised that all-important acoustic structure from which we derived music and likely our language.
And I’m speaking, here, about cycles. You have to suspend disbelief a little in order to completely embrace this idea. The timeline is determined by where we all live. In my area, Northern California, the new year for the insects would usually begin at the end of August (this year, however, at the end of July). The insects remain vocal until the wet season in mid-November, when they begin to fade out and the amphibians begin to sound. The frogs will vocalise all the way through January and late February when the birds migrate through Glen Ellen establishing their territories with songs and calls. Last but not least, the coyotes and foxes begin to vocalise in April. This acoustic evolutionary expression occurs in every healthy biome on the planet, sometimes daily, sometimes in sync with the seasons, and in other climates, like ours, annually.
For example, in a tropical rainforest the bioacoustic cycle doesn’t unfold like it does in a temperate area over a period of months; it happens in a period of hours. In areas like the Amazon, insects begin to sound in force at one or two in the morning and then, little by little, the frogs enter the biophony establishing their sonic territory. Then, at sunrise, the birds become present with great density, diversity and richness. Finally, the mammals start to vocalise. So it happens in a much shorter time period there but the cycles are still the same no matter where you are on the planet.
It’s kind of an E = mc2 moment when you think about how time is defined bioacoustically across the planet. At the equator the day is always 12 hours long. The length of day only changes north or south of the equator and, of course, all critter life responds to that. Part of the natural soundscape narrative is relevant to cycles of time. We used to be completely linked to that. There was a synaptic relationship to our awareness of dawn and evening choruses at certain times of year. That doesn’t exist so much anymore because we have all this technology to call our attention elsewhere. We live comfortably with air conditioning when it is hot, we have heating when it is cold, and we have all these things that ‘protect’ us from the scourge of ‘nature’ while at the same time, we’ve transformed all too many of our lives into a practical and suffocating monoculture.
I am thinking and writing about loss, how we understand it and how we can physically and psychologically begin to comprehend it. And I think the image you evoke with your book that if we take the last ice age as a baseline where we have the full glory of all the various biophonies in a healthy state and compare that to the present, where it’s very difficult to get to places where there are no human noises, this is a tangible way for us to begin to understand the scale of what is going on. If we look at that change it’s one of those ‘wow!’ moments where we find a real insight underneath our disbelief.
But this is the conundrum: where can we go and still live as humans in connection with this wildlife and be respectful of it, conscious of it, and aware of the fact that it’s a fundamental part of life that’s really important? The question is not ‘how can we get to these remote places now?’ Because the last thing you want is millions of people going to the last wildlife refuges that thankfully feature no roads, no trails, no cars and no game wardens telling you where the next river crossing or gift shop is. There are rare places where you are completely on your own. The last thing you want is a lot of people out there ruining what little is left. I’m not even sure that I should be there. But we have to find ways to accommodate how we live and who we are now.
That for me is a major issue and something that I’m concentrating on. One solution, if we want to engage with and still preserve these sites, is to have video and 3D acoustic monitoring gear installed so that we can stream both images and sound into our living – or class – rooms and observe wildlife behaviour without generating some kind of impact. I’ve often thought that we could replace zoos and aquaria that way, too. The kinds of animal behaviour one sees in those urban venues – like large cats, whose normal territory would be hundreds of kilometres in range, stuck in 50 square metre cages doing compulsive figure-eights – is pathological and disgusting, to me. But I digress…
Incorporating whole soundscapes into our music repertoire is really an important step. The first time I tried that was in an album I did in 1968 with my late music partner, Paul Beaver. Called In a Wild Sanctuary, it was the first to integrate entire urban and natural soundscapes into a composition. And, also the first, I must say, on the theme of ecology. Until that point, ‘nature sound recordists’ had exclusively travelled around the world capturing the sound of individual species with these large, cumbersome parabolic dishes, in the process abstracting, deconstructing, and fragmenting the sounds of the natural world, reducing them to individual parts. To me, this was a little like trying to understand the magnificence of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony by abstracting the voice of a single violinist and hearing only that one part completely out of context. What’s remarkable is that several of the major collections that feature this type of distortion – those that continue to be funded, in part, by public money – are housed at institutions like Cornell’s Macaulay Library of Natural Sound and the British Library of Wildlife Sounds. They are very late in recognising the full value of biophonic data.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union came apart, the patina of moralism fell away along with it. The corporations no longer had to concern themselves about unions and about people’s welfare. They no longer had to be concerned about what kind of forests they were cutting or what kind of resources they were extracting because there was no moral basis needed for this kind of unrestrained or unaccountable pillage. Capitalism, after all, had supposedly won the game. As a result, the whole economic and social structure has been completely torn apart since 1989 and what I’ve seen is that an extraordinary and ever-increasing amount of the remaining old growth forests, from Asia to Africa, have been felled since that time with no accountability and no thought of the consequences. Mining and the resultant pollution of contiguous river systems is another such open secret. Yet the birds, frogs, mammals, insects and riverine critters are crying out for us to stop… mostly through what remains of their muted voices.
When I started in 1968 I was told by David Brower that 45% of our old-growth forests in North America were still standing. Just before he died we had another conversation, it was in the late 1990s I think, and he said, ‘guess how much is left now?’ It had gone from 45% to only 2% left of old-growth forests. This whole thing has accelerated. I have never been able to verify his source so I use this extreme only as a metaphor.
I’ve got to tell you, while I’m hopeful because I talk to a lot of young kids and there’s a lot of positive energy out there, I’m not terribly optimistic.
What’s particularly fascinating is this: my archive signifies that whole progression. When I began to record in ’68, ’69 and the early ’70s my recording samples were maybe a minute or two long. I was always scratching and shuffling my feet nervously, or otherwise fussing around and making noise. I just couldn’t sit still. But little by little I was able to stretch that to three minutes, then five minutes, and then later a whole reel of tape, which lasted 22 minutes, on a regular analog tape recorder. When transitional digital audio tape (DAT) recorders came out in the 1980s, I learned to be quiet long enough to record as much as 90 minutes. I was definitely on my way to recovery… or at least a sense of having stabilised the problem. Finally, with the advent of hard drives and flashcards in the early 2000s, I’ve found myself able to sit quietly and peacefully for very long periods without making any noise at all.
So this thing, finding a way to listen to the world, has really changed my life. And sometimes I’m not as physically able to revisit these places because I’m 75 years old and it has become a bit difficult (although not impossible) to get in and out of tents and my reaction time isn’t quite what it used to be. But whenever I replay these gorgeous biophonies, they still have that calming and centring effect. I can sit quietly now and listen to these wild recordings and say ‘yeah, my god, that was really what was there?!’ I relive those joyous moments over and over. And these soundscapes could become a source of everyone’s delight. That is my hope.
Bernie Krause is the author of The Great Animal Orchestra. Since 1968 he has recorded and researched wild habitats across the globe. You can find out more about his work at www.wildsanctuary.com or by watching his recent TED talk.