“The planet itself teems with a vigorous resonance that is as complete and expansive as it is delicately balanced. Every place, with its vast populations of plants and animals, becomes a concert hall, and everywhere a unique orchestra performs an unmatched symphony, with each species’ sound fitting into a specific part of the score. It is a highly evolved, naturally wrought masterpiece. ” Bernie Krause – The Great Animal Orchestra
Just like we humans have a need to communicate with each other, animal and bird sounds are the communicating systems by which connectivity between creatures is achieved in Nature. These communications are vital to mating, territory establishment and protection, capturing food, individual and group defense, play, and social contact.
I invite you to try your very own personal experiment in Nature. Some bright morning, find a quiet spot in a forest, a desert, a seashore, or any other place where you cannot see people. Sit or lay down. Acquire a comfortable and relaxed attitude. For about 15 minutes, do nothing but listen and focus on the sounds that you hear. Other than separating human sounds from Nature’s sounds, don’t put a name to the sounds. But, do become conscious of the level and complexity of sound.
In doing this little experiment, you may discover a “soundscape” created by Nature. You may find that, as Nature’s creatures get comfortable with you, their chorus of sounds will get more diverse, louder, and more organized. You may also discover the polluting effect of human noise and how it interferes with Nature’s communication system. More often than not, human created noise is an adverse link breaking mechanism in a natural soundscape.
When we think about patterns in Nature, we usually think about the visual world. We visualize natural objects like trees, spiral sheep horns, or ocean waves. We might also be thinking about patterns in behavior such as human society, bird migrations, or feeding habits. If we think of a natural sound as a pattern, we typically think of a bird chirping or an insect buzzing. Rarely do we think of Nature’s sounds as does Bernie Krause:
“…the sonic fabric of our environments where each soundscape uniquely represents a place and time through the combination of its special blend of voices…”.
Indeed, Nature’s environment also includes a symphony of sounds. These sounds are the signature of a specific place and an indicator of environmental health.
It may surprise you to know that the disruption of an environment’s soundscape by human noise can have the same destructive effect as if an entire ecosystem were wiped out by human land use. That is why Bernie Krause wrote his book, “The Great Animal Orchestra” and why I’m writing this essay. I urge you to buy and read his book!!
I hope that, by reading this blog post and Bernie’s book, you will gain an appreciation for why ATVs, jet plane noise, dogs on a nature trail, and other human induced noises can adversely alter or destroy an ecosystem. I also hope you will become convinced that Nature’s soundscapes are tightly interconnected and necessary communication systems that need to be respected by we human beings.
It is important to understand that each environment has its own unique acoustic signature. That signature is composed of the sounds of creatures who are communicating with each other. Bernie Krause notes:
“Whatever the objective of a signal—whether it’s mating, protecting territory, capturing food, group defense, play, or social contact—it must be audible and free from interference if it is to function successfully.”
“In biomes rich with density and diversity of creature voices, organisms evolve to acoustically structure their signals in special relationships to one another—cooperative or competitive—much like an orchestral ensemble. That is, over time, unlike the vocalizations that occur in stressed or compromised habitats, the animal voices that occur in many undisturbed regions do appear ‘organized’ “.
“The combined biological sounds in many habitats do not happen arbitrarily: each resident species acquires its own preferred sonic bandwidth—to blend or contrast—much in the way that violins, woodwinds, trumpets, and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral arrangement.”
Unlike a healthy environment, an unhealthy biome produces a disorganized soundscape. This results in creatures being unable to communicate with members of their species. For example, ATV noise may prevent a rabbit from communicating a warning to a mate when a hawk is detected nearby.
Bernie Krause provides an example where a selected cut of a forest was permitted by government authorities who were told by a so-called expert that there would be no environmental impact. Sound recordings were captured before the cut and a year after the cut. Bernie Krause notes his findings:
“Gone was the thriving density and diversity of birds. Gone, too, was the overall richness that had been present the year before. The only prominent sounds were the stream and the hammering of a Williamson’s sapsucker. I walked a few hundred feet back into the forest from the meadow’s edge, and it became quite apparent that the lumber company had wrought incredible devastation”
This summer, as I camped in national forests in the United States, I recorded soundscapes of their environments. Here, I provide you with two examples that will give you an opportunity to make your own comparisons and draw your own conclusions. To play the soundscapes, simply use your mouse to press the little triangle.
The first soundscape was recorded at Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota on the edge of a thick stand of pines that stood next to a very healthy meadow with long, green grass. There had been no recent logging and the road into this meadow had not been used in a long time. Listen carefully and you will notice how each creature’s voice fits into its own time slot. Rarely do you hear creature voices overlapping. They are able to synchronize with each other.
Compare this soundscape with one that I recorded just 5 miles away from the environment mentioned in the previous paragraph. Here, I also recorded on the edge of a forest but one that was heavily thinned by logging and next to a heavily grazed (by cows ) meadow with cow pies all over the place. The bird sounds are noticeably less frequent and the predominant sound in this recording is the buzzing of bugs as they feast on cow pies. The background noise is a light breeze.
I leave the comparison up to you and invite you to draw your own conclusions about how both benign and active human activity has impacted the connections in Nature within these two environments.
I might add that the beautiful stream shown at the top of this post was devoid of bird sounds because there was ATV traffic and barking dogs nearby.
I’ve emphasized the ecological importance of soundscapes in Nature and how the impact of human activity and noise can alter or destroy an environment. But, knowledge about Nature’s soundscapes also emphasizes the theme of this blog site. The idea that everything is interconnected in Nature. Natural sound is one of the mechanisms by which connectivity is achieved. We need to respect that vitally import idea. We must be aware that our noise breaks important links between our fellow creatures.
When we visit Nature, we need to go quietly and leave things as we find them. We need to enter the forest with reverence — leaving behind our noisy dogs, ATVs, and cell phones. We need to avoid chatter with our friends – instead listening to Nature as it speaks.
A ray of hope that there is resilience in Nature comes from a wonderful soundscape recording by sound ecologist John Cousack. The sounds you will hear are from Nature at Chernobyl, Ukraine some 25 years after that nuclear disaster. There are still no people at Chernobyl, but Nature abounds.
The following is from the Chernobyl soundscape project notes”
“Since the nuclear catastrophe of April 26 1986, and in complete contrast to human life, nature at Chernobyl is thriving. The evacuation of people has created an undisturbed haven and wildlife has taken full advantage. Animals and birds absent for many decades – wolves, moose, black storks – have moved back and the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now one of Europe’s prime wildlife sites. Radiation seems to have had a negligible effect. The increase in wildlife numbers and variety means that the natural sounds of springtime are particularly impressive. For me the passionate species rich dawn chorus became Chernobyl’s definitive sound. Chernobyl is also famous for its frogs and nightingales. Nighttime concerts were equally spectacular.”
In the spirit of actively trying to restore a consciousness for Nature within fellow humans, I’m going to try to offer at least one positive suggestion with each of my blog posts. This suggestion concerns the effects of forest thinning and cattle grazing that are noted with the soundscapes you just listened to . When you are out and about in Nature, visit a ranger station, a BLM office, or a park visitor center. With a warm smile on your face, ask about that organization’s policies toward grazing and logging. Ask how they administer and control these activities. Ask who makes logging and grazing decisions. Don’t get into an argument, just ask. I tried it this summer with US Park Service people and I got back some friendly and candid answers. Some of these folks do agree with the ideas discussed in this blog and will offer amazingly frank answers. If you get a good discussion going, ask the good folks to bring up this blog post and play back the soundscapes. It may surprise you to know that many of them are unaware of what a soundscape is.
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.