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Natural Sound

Sites for sore ears

male black headed grosbeak sitting on a branch, image
Photo caption
The male black-headed grosbeak whistles a sweet song. Both the males and females sing.

Out in the cold dark before dawn, we sat among the oaks on a brown hillside doing absolutely nothing, just waiting for nature to proceed at its own quiet pace. A pace, that is, far less frantic than the clamorous world I usually inhabit, with its wailing sirens and beeping car alarms. We just listened, naturalist Bernie Krause and I, for maybe 10 minutes. And then, as the first light broke, a lone sparrow chirped. It was a pedestrian sound, the sort that runs past my ears all the time. But there, in the damp brush of Northern California's Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, it carried a certain distilled splendor. And soon there was more birdsong: a black-headed grosbeak singing out. The meandering whistle of a robin above a creek swelled by recent rains. More sounds came all at once, at varying pitches and with the harmony of a symphony, and Krause told me we were hearing a biophony, a word he'd coined himself for the complex music of nature. "As in a symphony," he said, "every animal is playing in its own sonic niche and . . ." Krause suddenly went silent. Holding his palm flat—a signal that I too should be quiet—he stared into the brush, where he'd placed a small digital recorder, and up into a tall tree nearby. "Wait," he whispered. "Now, listen."

Krause, 68, is the world's foremost recorder of natural sounds. For nearly four decades he's traveled the world making tapes and CDs—of songbirds in Borneo, Bayaka singers and drummers in central Africa—in hopes of inspiring distracted Westerners to tune in. "For most industrialized people," he says, "hearing has become a blur. We have become tone-deaf to those elements that might beguile and nurture or stimulate and soothe us."

By now, Krause has recorded some 3,500 hours of natural sounds. He has sold more than 2 million CDs through nature and science shops and his own label, Wild Sanctuary. At times he has also gotten political. Last spring he journeyed to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to record soundscapes he fears will vanish if oil drilling proceeds in the area. In 2002, when Congress asked him to weigh in on a proposal to expand snowmobile access to Yellowstone National Park, he treated a dozen members to a 95-decibel recording of the machines racing through the park and then another recording, of Yellowstone's wolves, ravens, and winter wrens. "I won't say a word about my position," Krause said to the congressional team, "but which do you prefer?"

Although Krause has a doctorate in bioacoustics, he began his career as a musician. In the mid-1960s he replaced Pete Seeger in the legendary folk group the Weavers. A producer suggested that Krause—an avowed indoorsman from Detroit—add natural sounds to an album, and the musician forayed out with a massive tape recorder. Then in 1970 he and Paul Beaver released In a Wild Sanctuary, a recording with monkey, sea lion, and gull voices set against eerie, floating Moog synthesizer strains. He was so thrilled with what he calls "the musicality of nature" that he felt outclassed. "Everything done by humans," he says, "fails by comparison in terms of melody and richness and harmony."

Since then the sounds of our continent's wilds have been increasingly drowned out by aircraft and traffic. Meanwhile, the sound level at movie theaters has been rising along with speaker quality and power. The standard theater decibel level is now between 70 and 90, and some action films roar at 120—jackhammer volume known to cause hearing loss.

Car and home audio systems are likewise louder, and the popularity of iPods and personal stereos is troubling. Some can play at 120 decibels for 20 hours without a recharge. More than 30 million Americans now suffer irreversible hearing loss, and experts say noise is to blame for 10 million of those cases. Some researchers also maintain that excessive noise contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Krause is not alone in saying we need to escape the din. There are currently 1,130 members of a Yahoo newsgroup for nature recordists, and in 2005 one of them, Gordon Hempton, ceremoniously placed a small red stone to mark "one square inch of silence" amid the fern-shrouded evergreens in Washington's Olympic National Park. "The logic is simple," Hempton says. "If a loud noise, such as the passing of an aircraft, can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100 percent noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles around it."

Notably, the National Park Service has begun employing similar rhetoric. In 2000, it launched a natural sounds program to limit intrusive noise—"so you can hear sounds as the parks' founders intended." The program doesn't have legal teeth; it didn't stop the Yellowstone snowmobiles. But it has convinced the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict flights over Arizona's Grand Canyon, and now it's advising other parks' managers on how to protect more quiet places around the country.

Natural sounds are of course scattered everywhere. Travelers hear elk bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park and wolves howling in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. Waves crash all along the Pacific Coast. And deep in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah unsullied silence is punctuated by the high, primal yip and wail of coyotes.

At Sugarloaf the songs were subtler. Juncos and yellow warblers twittered as the sun rose, and then we heard an acorn woodpecker rat-a-tat-tatting high up in a tree. In time we noticed a lull in the birdsong, as is usual after first light, and Krause began to reminisce. He talked about the Jivaro, a people of the Amazon rain forest. "Every place they go," he said, "the vegetation is different, the terrain is different—so the animals have different inflections in their voices. The Jivaro know all the variations so well that they can use the soundscape as we use a map. They can tell where they are just by listening."

We heard a dull roar in the distance and Krause looked up. "I think that's an outbound flight to Portland," he said offhandedly. The sound was as normal to him as the low hum of the swimming pool filter at his wine country home, and I knew, listening, that we could never attain anything like the Jivaro's union with the rain forest.

Still, I listened closely, zeroing in on a single male towhee off in the brush. He claimed his little patch of turf with one of the numerous California towhee calls—a short buzz followed by a long, sweeping whistle: buzz, whistle, silence . . . buzz, whistle, silence.

It was like hearing a new language—Tahitian, say, or Tibetan—and I was aware, albeit hazily, that the song held codes and nuances and depth that eluded me. If I can just listen long enough, I thought, a whole enchanting world will reveal itself.

Beyond the hiss of freeways and the rumble of overhead flights are sweet spots around the West where you can immerse yourself completely in the sounds of nature—from thundering waterfalls to animal cries to near-total silence.

GLACIER POINT, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIF. Hike up or take a bus from the visitor center to hear the valley-filling roar as Yosemite Creek drops 2,425 feet over Yosemite Falls.

KINTLA AND BOWMAN LAKES, GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONT. Deep in the park's northwestern forest on a summer evening you can hear wolves wailing.

LAMOILLE CANYON ROAD, HUMBOLDT-TOIYABE NATIONAL FOREST, NEAR ELKO, NEV. Coyotes whine after sundown along this 6.5-mile road lined with crags and wildflowers.

LOOKOUT POINT, HART MOUNTAIN NATIONAL ANTELOPE REFUGE, NEAR PLUSH, ORE. Park off Blue Sky Road or Frenchglen Road and listen as herds of pronghorn antelope charge by at more than 45 miles an hour.

MAIN TRAIL, MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT, NEAR SAN FRANCISCO In spring, water roars past the redwoods along this leafy trail, while tree limbs creak in the wind. Listen, too, for the winter wren's song.

MOUNT TOM CREEK MEADOWS, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASH. Commercial flights steer miles away from a declared "square inch of silence" three miles by foot from the visitor center.

NORTH SHORE, MONO LAKE, LEE VINING, CALIF. In the spring, spadefoot toads croak in vernal pools near this saltwater lake while flocks of red-winged blackbirds flutter and cry overhead.

PARK ROAD, DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA. An abiding quiet—broken only by whistling wind, burbling streams, and calls from pine grosbeaks and ptarmigan—prevails along the park's main road between October and April.

PEBBLE CREEK, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO. Elk bugle in the fall over the open meadows near the Pebble Creek Campground.

TRAIL CREEK SUMMIT, SALMON-CHALLIS NATIONAL FOREST, NEAR SUN VALLEY, IDAHO Pull off Trail Creek Road onto Copper Basin Road and listen to aspen leaves rustling in the wind.

Photography courtesy Alan Vernon/Wikipedia

This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.