The Loss of Natural Soundscapes

'The divine music is growing dim'


Wild Sanctuary

For the past quarter century, Bernie Krause has traveled the world capturing sounds of creatures and environments large and small. Since replacing Pete Seeger in The Weavers in 1963, Krause went on to contribute synthesizer performances to over 135 major feature films including “Apocalypse Now.” His company, Wild Sanctuary [] has produced 50 environmental record albums and created environmental sound sculptures for museums, zoos, aquaria and other public spaces. His book, Into a Wild Sanctuary (Heyday Press, 1998) charts the discovery of biophony. Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World, a book in CD–ROM form will be available in May [Wilderness Press, Berkeley, (800) 443–7227,]. This article is based on a speech delivered at the San Francisco World Affairs Council on January 31, 2001. © 2001 Wild Sanctuary, Inc.

For those unfamiliar with my work, I have spent more than half of my 62 years recording the sounds of living organisms and natural habitats. To me, this is the most beautiful music on the planet. It is also its collective voice. Armed with various types of sound recorders, a pair of earphones and various microphones, I search out rare undisturbed sites, set up my equipment, and sit quietly and patiently for hours waiting for this symphony of the natural world to unfold before me, all to capture those precious moments on tape.

I use these recordings to research the ways in which human mechanical noise affects this symphony of creature voices and thus the human experience of the natural wild. I am also involved in the continuing study of “biophony,” a word I devised to describe the ways that creatures in given habitats vocalize in a special relationship to one another.

To support these efforts, I create finished soundscapes for CDs and large, interactive media installations for museums and other public spaces. As time has passed, however, these activities have become increasingly difficult.

In 1968, when I first began my odyssey, I could record for about 15 hours and capture about one hour of useable sound – a ratio of about 15 to 1. Now it takes nearly 2,000 hours to obtain one hour of untainted natural sound. Why the change? The main cause is the unimaginable loss of representative habitats. The second reason is the increase of human mechanical noise that tends to mask the subtle aural textures of the remaining environments. And the third problem – a direct result of the first two issues – is the decrease in certain key vocal creatures, both large and small, that make up typical natural soundscapes.

My work as a bioacoustician has taken me all over the world, from pole to pole and to many sites in between. It has always been an exciting adventure – especially recording the vocalizations of the great apes at the research sites of such notables as Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey in Africa, Birute Galdikas in Borneo and working with many other dedicated biologists and naturalists in the tropical and temperate Americas and the oceans of the world.

One of the single most important resources of the natural world is its voice – or natural soundscape. “Soundscape” refers to any acoustic environment whether natural, urban or rural. In its pure state, where no human noise is present, natural soundscapes are glorious symphonies. However, the combination of shrinking habitat and increasing human clamor has produced conditions where the non–human communication necessary for creature survival is in the process of being stilled all together at all levels.

At the same time, humans are denied an experience of the wild natural essential to an interaction between themselves and their organically resonant surroundings. And in addition to that, with unwanted noise almost always present, humans are often at a loss to communicate by sound even between themselves. The effects on the political, economic and social aspects of our culture have been and continue to be significant.

In Nature & Madness (Sierra Club Books, 1982), one of the first books to address the human dimensions of ecology, the late Dr. Paul Shepard described how certain signs of pathological human behavior originating in Euro–American culture are directly related to the loss of wild habitat and our connection to the natural world. He understood early on that creature voices were our window to the wild natural because they are the root music of our language, our songs and dances. And he lamented both our oversight of the natural soundscape as being important to our lives, and also the significant loss of creature voices over the course of his 20th–century lifetime.

Canadian composer/author R. Murray Schafer, father of the word “soundscape” and the concept of acoustic ecology, wrote a book on the subject in the late ’70s entitled Tuning of the World. In this and later works, he observed that human–induced noise is both a contributing factor to soundscape loss in the wild and, at the same time, particularly emblematic of Western models of power. The louder the sounds we can produce, the more virile we are supposed to feel absent anything else of consequence that provides us with a sense of self– or spiritual worth.

Schafer sees these symbols as attempts to overwhelm and supersede voices evident in the natural world. Those include organisms of all sizes, thunder, wind, leaves quaking in the branches of aspens, ocean waves in a storm and the shaking of the earth, itself.

As James Watt, former secretary of the interior under Ronald Reagan, once observed: “To most people noise and power go hand in hand.” It was a doctrine Watt obsessively promoted.

Like Watt, we have learned to numb the emptiness within us with ever–louder noise at the expense of those voices that actually do have the power to affect our lives in more productive ways. For example, on any given Sunday during late spring and early summer, my wife, Katherine, and I hear the sounds of drag–racing from Sears Point. This is a famous NASCAR event site. Problem is that the raceway is fully 18 miles southwest of our home. And the engine noise does not travel in a straight line. The sound of the engines must traverse several ranges of coastal hills, valleys, protected wetlands and a state park before it reaches us at measurable and troubling levels. That’s how loud the noise is. Yet nothing has been done to mitigate the problem.

In November, 2000, an award was given for the loudest sound system ever produced for the interior of an automobile environment. It was reported that the system produces a sound pressure level of 174dB – nearly a factor of two louder than a .357–caliber magnum pistol being shot off at your ear and a factor of seven louder than standing on the runway 10 yards from a Boeing 747 at full take–off power – all this inside a car.

Historically, the exponential acceleration of this process began during the early 17th century when European economic and political philosophy completely undermined the aesthetic value of the wild natural. For instance, René Descartes abhorred the natural world and seemed quite terrified of it. After elevating humans to rational omnipotence, he asserted that non–human animals felt no pain, were incapable of rational thought and had no spiritual life.

Across the English Channel, one of America’s cultural heroes, Sir Francis Bacon, declared in the 1620s: “We must torture mother nature for her secrets.” This modern mechanistic view of the universe, expanded to the extremes we have taken it, is primarily responsible for the breakdown of loving attention with regard for the natural world.

The Industrial Revolution was characterized by power over nature and control over its resources. In the 19th century, even Thoreau – the man who wrote in Walden Pond, “I love the wild no less than the good” – later wrote: “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.”

And in 1989, on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the corporate world finally exceeded the bounds of sanity with its conceit. According to Western historical mythology, we were sold on the idea that freedom had finally been achieved. However, it was not Communism that failed. Communism, as it came to be implemented, was moribund anyway. It was capitalism as we once knew it – a form of economic democracy perceived by us as an ethically and morally superior covenant – that died the moment the Berlin Wall was breached.

The form of democratic capitalism that my generation grew up with has now been replaced by a completely amoral version and virulent form of economics with no other mandate than the exercise of power by wealth – a plutocracy.

This current economic principle disenables us in ways that we haven’t even begun to fathom. It produces a climate of assault on the resources of the natural world. The assault on natural soundscapes, in particular, continues to be nothing short of insidious.

The effect of human noises on the natural world was clearly expressed through an article in the Los Angeles Times. Officials at England’s Gloucestershire Airport had been using recordings of avian distress calls to frighten birds away from landing strips, with only limited success. However, when they switched to recordings of rock star Tina Turner’s voice, there was an immediate and dramatic effect. “What the birds really hate is Tina Turner,” said Airport Chief Fire Officer Ron Johnson.

Nature’s Symphony
Through my field work, I discovered that in undisturbed natural environments, creatures vocalize in relationship to one another very much like instruments in an orchestra. On land, in particular, this delicate acoustic fabric is almost as well defined as the notes on a page of music when represented graphically in the form of “voice prints.”

For instance, in healthy habitats, certain insects occupy one sonic zone of the creature “bandwidth,” while birds, mammals and amphibians occupy others where there is no competition. The same type of event also generally occurs within marine environments. This system has evolved so that each voice can be heard distinctly and each creature can thrive as much through its iterations as any other aspect of its being.

This biophony, or creature choir, serves as a vital gauge of a habitat’s health. But it also conveys data about its age, its level of stress, and can provide us with an abundance of other valuable new information, such as why and how creatures in both the human and non–human worlds have learned to dance and sing. Yet, this miraculous biophony – this concerto of the natural world – is now under serious threat of complete annihilation. Not only are we moving toward a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well.

Nature’s fragile weave of sound is being torn apart mainly by three factors: The incredible amount of noise we humans make; our undiminished lust for precious natural resources (further exaggerated by the effect of the GATT and NAFTA treaties); and by our seemingly boundless need to conquer aspects of the natural world rather than to find a way to abide in consonance with them.

In 1968, 45 percent of our undisturbed North American forests were still standing. Now, only 32 years later, less than 2 percent of those untouched forests remain. The major portion of that percentage was leveled in the decade since the Berlin Wall toppled.

This staggering loss, combined with the noise of chainsaws, leaf blowers, snowmobiles, ATVs, ORVs, trail bikes, jet skis and deep–throated boat engines propelling ever faster water craft around otherwise pristine lakes, has created a recipe for tragedy.

Evidence of the damage from these noise factors has only recently come to light. Bio–acoustic field research techniques have revealed patterns that confirm the loss that those of us particularly sensitive to the natural world have instinctively been feeling for some time. The following examples demonstrate the point.

Many types of frogs and insects vocalize together in a given habitat so that no one individual stands out among the many. This chorus creates a protectively expansive audio performance inhibiting predators from locating any single place from which sound emanates. The synchronized frog voices originate from so many places at once that they appear to be coming from everywhere.

However, when the coherent patterns are upset by the sound of a jet plane as it flies within range of a pond, the frog biophony is broken. In an attempt to reestablish the unified rhythm and chorus, individual frogs momentarily stand out, giving predators like coyotes or owls perfect opportunities to snag a meal.

Because of the unique manner by which we record and measure sound, we have discovered that the relatively intense noise produced by low–flying jets can cause changes in the biophony that induce certain creatures to lose the life–saving protection of their vocal choruses. While recording the rare spade foot toads (Scaphiopus hammondi) above the north shore of Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras one spring, a military jet streaked overhead and disappeared. Nearly 45 minutes passed before the toads were able to reestablish their protective chorus. In the dusk light, we saw two coyotes and a great horned owl feeding by the side the small pond.

Once, while we were doing acoustic research in the Amazon Basin, a multi–engine jet flying low over the jungle interrupted the dawn chorus of birds and insects where we were recording. When we returned to our lab and examined the effect of the jet noise on the natural soundscape, we found that the disruption induced many creatures to stop vocalizing while others altered their patterns significantly. The momentary break in the integrity of the biophony created by the jet left open the strong possibility that many creatures would become victim to opportunistic predators such as hawks or resident mammals.

Because of the noise introduced into their environment by cruise boats traveling in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, humpback whales have been observed trying to swim away and hide from the noise, ducking behind spits of land or large blocks of glacier ice apparently in an effort to get into quieter “shadow” zones. Where once there were many, in recent years, fewer and fewer whales have been seen in the bay. Some biologists believe that human–induced noise is a major contributing to the falling numbers of humpbacks in these waters.

The introduction of noise into natural soundscapes enhances the sense of loss because noise diminishes human experience of the wild. Creature behavior is altered as a direct result of increased stress. Human and non–human species respond differently to types, loudness or combinations of mechanical noises. We are just now beginning to understand that many of these sounds create stress in both worlds, even though the victims may not seem conscious of the effect.

Science News reported on an experiment done on humans in France in the 1980s that exposed sleeping subjects to 15 nights’ worth of recorded traffic noise. A variety of instruments were used to measure stress. After two to seven nights, the subjects reported that they were no longer disturbed by the noise – i.e., they claimed that had become “used to it.” However, when scientists checked their readings, they found that their subjects’ stress levels “were identical to those logged the first [night].”

Montana State University Biologist Scott Creel and his colleagues have published a paper linking enzyme stress levels in elk and wolves in Yellowstone and Voyageurs Parks to the proximity and noise of snowmobiles. Over the period of time that snowmobile traffic increased 25 percent, stress enzyme levels in wolves rose by 28 percent. Conversely, within Voyageurs Park, a 37 percent decline in snowmobile traffic between 1998 and 2000 correlated to an exact drop of the same percentage in stress enzyme levels over the same period. These figures were comparable in elk.

There are many important reasons to reconsider the value of unimpeded natural soundscape as a resource. For one thing, it is clear that natural soundscapes cannot be replaced, as evidenced by the 25 percent loss of viable North American biophonies collected in my library.

These are habitats no one will ever be able to hear again. They are forever silenced, fully extinct, or hopelessly altered. Yet, there are rays of hope.

We are beginning to understand late in the game that pristine natural soundscapes are reserves and resources critical to our enjoyment, understanding and awareness of the natural wild as well as our own history and culture.

Without these links, a fundamental piece of the fabric of life is sadly compromised. That is why the National Park Service (NPS) implemented a strong educational and administrative model to protect natural soundscapes as valued resources. Soundscapes are now treated as components of great value worth preserving for visitors and creatures alike.

Visitor reaction to the noise levels in national parks convinced the NPS that it is important to treat soundscapes as being just as significant to our well–being and health as the preservation of pure fresh water, clean air and clean soil. As a result, snowmobiles are being phased out of Yellowstone Park, tourist overflights have been eliminated altogether at Rocky Mountain National Park and severely restricted over the Grand Canyon. (Although, given the Bush administration’s Wise Use mindset, it is uncertain whether these policies will be implemented.)

If the NPS succeeds in its effort to convince the public of the importance of this noise–free–habitat model, we will have come a long way toward our goal of becoming responsive stewards of “the wild natural.”

As Paul Shepard says toward the end of Nature & Madness, “Adults weaned to the wrong music, cut short from their own potential, are not the best of mentors…. Beneath the veneer of civilization… lies the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich non–human environment, play at being animals, the discipline of natural history… the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product.

“There is a secret person undamaged in every individual… sensitive to the right moments in our lives. All of them are assimilated in perverted forms in modern society: our profound love of animals twisted into pets, zoos, decorations and entertainment; our search for poetic wholeness subverted by the model of the machine instead of the body: the moment of pubescent idealism shunted into nationalism or ethereal otherworldly religion instead of an ecosophical cosmology.”

In the end – before the forest echoes die – we may want to listen carefully to the natural soundscapes that still abide. When we do, we’ll discover that we aren’t separate, but a vital part of one fragile biological place.

How many of us will hear the message from Eden’s garden in time? This divine music is fast growing dim. The whisper of every leaf and creature implores us to cherish the natural sources of our lives, which may hold secrets of love for all living things, especially our own humanity.

Listening to the Sounds of Silence
Lincoln Meadow, a couple of miles east of Yuba Pass on California’s Sierra Nevada crest, used to be a pristine edge habitat replete with a wide variety of spring birds, insects and amphibians. I recorded there late in the spring of 1988. A year after this recording was made, the forest around Lincoln Meadow was clearcut.

What was left of the stream coursing through the alpine meadow now ran cloudy and trout no longer hid in the deep clear holes along the water’s edge. The sky was no longer framed by the lovely natural architecture of the surrounding forest. More striking than all the visual cues, however, was the loss of the biophony, still resonant and palpable in my mind from the year before.

I revisited the site in June, 2001, and found that much of the meadow and the stream had recovered its visual beauty. However, aside from the effects of the wind and the gentle stream, the dawn chorus of birdsong was surprisingly light and not as vital as the one I recorded when the habitat was healthier and wildlife more abundant.

To hear the difference for yourself, log onto the Wild Sanctuary website []. – BK

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