NOTE: The following is a reflection on MVFN’s January 2016 natural history presentation. Join MVFN on February 18th for “Purdon: Unique Wonder of the Natural World” with guest speaker Shannon Gutoskie, as MVFN’s “Naturally Special Places” series continues.
Feature photo is by TK Marsh
By Gretta Bradley
Sit quietly and listen. You may be surprised at what you can learn. Chad Clifford of Wilderness Rhythms, speaking at the monthly MVFN speaker series advocated just that, and because we can, get a little help from technology.
When Chad’s father suggested he read a book by pioneering soundscaper Bernie Krause, as can often happen with books, something shifted. Not wildly. Already deeply interested in enhancing our experience in nature through music, Mr. Clifford slipped seamlessly into soundscaping.
Originally, soundscapers recorded rain and wind and whales from exotic locales, orchestrating beautiful compositions to evoke powerful emotional responses to the sounds of the natural world. Relax, uplift, inspire. Now, research has begun to document the power of nature to heal, and “nature deficit” as having an adverse impact on our well-being. For all our sophistication, there is still a part of us that needs the call of the wild.
How do you get the sound of larvae hatching in the bottom of the pond or sap running in the tree? Capturing the sounds that fall outside our capability to hear, offered Chad a technical challenge. Microphones and dishes are commercially available, but jerry-rigging is often required to adapt the equipment to the requirements of the job. Very appealing to the tinkerers in the crowd.
While sound recording continues to be used to human benefit, it is software that has allowed soundscaping to morph into a research tool in the service of protecting wild spaces. Chad illustrated how audio software can take the “noise” of a busy marsh, separate and record as an audio signature (spectrogram), one chirp, call, howl, bark, or warble from another. Databases can help distinguish and identify, in a cacophony of sound, the spring peepers from the leopard frogs, the feeding chuckle of a mallard, the throaty call of an American bittern and the presence or, more importantly, absence of a species. Each species occupies its own niche on the spectrogram much as they do in the marsh.
Sometimes in a presentation, there is a point when your jaw drops without you even realizing it has happened . . . surprise: the human reaction to learning that something we thought we knew to be true, is wrong. Chad’s story was of one of the most surprising examples of what we can learn about the impact of human intervention on an environment, if we only listen. Lincoln Meadow is in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was at this site in 1988 that a company planned to do selective logging, the “greener” alternative to clear cutting. Bernie Kraus had recorded the meadow in photographs and sound before the logging company moved to take the selected trees. In 1989, he returned to the site to photograph and audio record the meadow following completion of the operation. The result can be described as no less than astounding. The photographs were virtually identical. Anyone would have been hard pressed to find differences in the two. But the sound recordings revealed a dramatically changed landscape. The original recording was filled with bird song, and the spectrogram, the “picture” of the sound, showed abundant birdsong in the higher sound frequencies and a rushing stream in the lower. A year later the silence is deafening. Birdsong is absent. The stream still shows up in the recording, but a lone woodpecker’s tap as it extracts bugs from infested trees is the only bird sound occupying the once crowded recording.
These tools have given rise to whole new lines of research. Acoustics as applied to the study of the natural world is advancing our understanding of volcanoes and fault lines (geophony) and elephants and whales (biophony) and the impact of human sound (androphony) on the natural environment. Recordings give science new insight into the density and diversity, the habits and communication patterns of animals, and establish baselines to determine changes over time: data that can be used to determine findings as diverse as the health of a habitat to the likelihood of a volcanic eruption.
That book, by the way, was entitled “The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places.” Described as simultaneously weird and wonderful, it is a halcyon call. Not surprisingly, natural soundscapes are at risk. Having recorded in 15,000 places over the past 40 years, Bernie Krause estimates that at least half of these soundscapes have been silenced, or thinned or drowned by the intrusion of human din or the loss of species and habitat. Chad stated that only three places in the continental U.S. have to date been identified as being free of the intrusion of human sounds for a span of 15 minutes. In the same way as we recognize the need to protect our sky from light pollution, Chad has called on Canadians to set aside preserves where we can experience untainted, wild soundscapes protected from noise pollution. Places set aside for sitting quietly and listening. As Bernie Kraus famously said, “While a picture is worth a 1,000 words, a sound is worth a 1,000 pictures.”
A vernal pool, Burnt Lands Alvar, June 2015. Photo Pauline Donaldson