A Summer of Soundscapes

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The first real job I ever had was picking flowers and listening to birds. The flowers were a nasty invasive known as “Stinky Bob” (Geranium robertainum for anyone not on a first name basis), and the birds were any of the many species found in North Cascades National Park.

The park had hired me that summer to work on the Natural Sounds Program, an effort to record natural and cultural sounds throughout a number of national parks in the U.S. When I wasn’t yanking up the pungent Stinky Bob and stuffing it into garbage bags, I was hiking to various locations in the park with microphones, recording equipment, and the 20 pound batteries that would power our equipment for thirty days in the field. I learned a little that summer about how to work, and a lot about how to listen.

My coworker’s name was William Clark. He and I practiced setting up our recording equipment with the help of a technician from the Natural Sounds Program.

“The batteries and recording devices stay in waterproof Pelican cases,” the technician explained to us. “You’ll put the microphone on a tripod and run the cable into the case.” She showed us how to set up the microphone and cover it with a spiky metal device that would keep birds from perching on it. We also covered it with a black foam windscreen to prevent buffeting wind noises. “These windscreens work great except that bears seem to like chewing on them,” the technician chuckled. “It must be something about the texture.”

William Clark and I were not going to be leaving the equipment completely unattended. During each thirty day session, we’d return several times to check our equipment and take our own notes about the soundscape. We’d find seats a safe distance from the microphone (so it wouldn’t pick up sounds of our scribbling or sniffling) and begin noting each sound we heard, and for how long we heard it. Wind. Airplane. Birds. Is the airplane gone? Nope, still a faint rumble in the distance. We would sit this way for an hour at a time.

It’s an interesting exercise, listening like this. You could try it right now, just for thirty seconds. Name everything you can hear. Your clothing. The plumbing. Traffic.

Sitting like this made me realize that listening and hearing are different things. To “hear” something is to pick it out of the background, to catch it before it fades away. “Did you hear that?” we ask. But when we listen, we’re taking in everything. Listening requires us to use our attention differently than we usually do. Rather than focusing our attention like a laser beam, listening requires us to spread our attention like sunlight over as much as we can. Listening and hearing feel different.

William and I settled in for our first listening session in a spacious stand of conifers, a good distance from each other and from our recording equipment. The sunshine, the light breeze, and my unfocused attention had a powerful calming effect. After several minutes in this idle state, I heard a small creak. I glanced to my right, William glanced to his left, and we sat frozen as a large conifer came crashing to the ground directly between us. Seconds later, the forest was still again. William and I stared at each other, speechless. How many years had that tree stood, slowly weakening, before finally reaching the tipping point on a calm, clear day—the day that we just happened to be sitting right next to it?

A falling tree gets our attention. But there are other tipping points we’re not noticing. The Natural Sounds program was started when it became clear that natural soundscapes are an endangered resource. Soundscape archivist Bernie Krause, who has been recording natural soundscapes since 1968, believes that over half of the soundscapes he has recorded no longer exist. Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has spent the last 30 years searching for places in the U.S. with a noise-free interval longer than fifteen minutes—so far he’s found twelve. Man-made sounds are popping up in soundscapes like billboards appearing on a landscape, changing our perceptions in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. A variety of research is being done on how such anthropogenic sounds affect wild animals, especially those that rely on sound for navigation or communication. But my summer as a soundscape collector taught me that sounds can have strong emotional affects on us humans, too. And it was a wild animal that proved it to me.

One day near the end of the summer, William and I returned to a recording site to disassemble it. As the site came into view, we could see that our tripod had been knocked over. The foam windscreen had been ripped into pieces, and some still lay scattered in the grass. We photographed the mess, packed it all up, and hiked it back to headquarters to see if our recordings could explain what had happened.

Back in the office, we began uploading our audio files. Hours and hours of wind and rain, birds and bugs, airplanes and thunderstorms began appearing on the screen as spiky sound graphs. And then, the graphs flat-lined. The equipment had stopped recording. We scrolled to the last few minutes of recorded audio and began playing it back over our speakers.

It made my heart pound just listening to it. What we were hearing was a terrifyingly accurate recording of what it sounds like to be eaten by a bear. That was, after all, what had happened to the microphone cover. First we heard heavy breathing that brought to mind an enormous, curious dog. The breathing got louder, closer—the bear was panting right into the microphone, right into the listener’s ear—then its mouth closed over the microphone. It was hard not to imagine the hot, wet breath as we briefly heard what it sounded like inside the bear’s mouth. There was some audio interference, a crunch, and then…silence.

The recording site, pre-bear encounter.

To hear what we heard, click here.

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