The Conservation Of Quiet

I spend much time alone in forests, deserts, prairies, wetlands and other places where you would expect to experience a quiet serenity. Places where only Nature is speaking. Places where one can experience Nature’s “symphony” as I described in my previous post  . Sadly, quiet places like this are very hard to find. Silence in Nature is an endangered species that impacts all creatures including those whose images are displayed in this post.

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton defines real quiet as the presence, not an absence, of sound. Quiet is an absence of noise. In his book “One Square Inch Of Silence: One Man’s Quest To Preserve Quiet” he says:

“Silence is a sound, many, many sounds. I’ve heard more than I can count. Silence is the moonlit song of the coyote signing the air, and the answer of its mate. It is the falling whisper of snow that will later melt with an astonishing reggae rhythm so crisp that you will want to dance to it. It is the sound of pollinating winged insects vibrating soft tunes as they defensively dart in and out of the pine boughs to temporarily escape the breeze, a mix of insect hum and pine sigh that will stick with you all day. Silence is the passing flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, chirping and fluttering, reminding you of your own curiosity.”

Natural soundscapes are the voices of whole ecological systems. Every living organism—from the tiniest to the largest—and every site on earth has its own acoustic signature.

I’ve become resigned to the fact that while I crave the experience of quiet that is described by Hempton, many humans love such places because of the open opportunity for them to exercise their own  ways of making noise. Chain saws, motorcycles, ATVs, dogs, people talking on nature trails, and other sounds of humanity contradict the peace of wind blowing through the trees, or a raven cawing. I’m particularly astonished at bird watcher groups where a quiet countenance is necessary to observe our feathered friends. Yet, some bird folks loudly chatter among themselves then express astonishment that there are no birds to see.

Human noises – deliberate or not deliberate, well meaning or malicious – interrupt or break vital communication links between creatures in Nature. These sonic links serve procreation, mating, warning, defense and other behaviors that are essential to wildlife for daily living and and for survival.  Quiet –  Hempton’s “absence of noise” –  is a vital natural resource. Species, other than human, depend on absence of noise so that their vital communication links can function.

The conservation of quiet is just as important as other  forms of ecological conservation .  I don’t see this important idea being promoted to the public by respected conservation organizations or by our government agencies whose job it is to conserve public lands and the creatures that live there.  If anything, these agencies seem ignorant of the issue. There is a lack of sonic consciousness – a consciousness of the importance of quiet in Nature.

In fairness, the science of “acoustic ecology” is a relatively new field. The work of soundscape ecologists like Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton is not broadly known. But, after making your own comparison of the soundscapes I provided in my last post, I think you will agree that it doesn’t take a scientist to note the profound difference in the health of the ecosystems that I recorded.

Recent research has shown that many creatures can alter their sounds to accommodate the sounds of mankind.  Scientists are beginning to realize the stress of humanity’s widening sonic footprint on natural ecosystems. In 2003, a Dutch team studying a common songbird, the great tit, reported in Nature Magazine that males of the species shifted their calls to a higher frequency in cities, where low-frequency human noise masked their normal song range. Nightingales sing louder in louder environments. Robins — usually diurnal singers — switch to nighttime songs in areas that are chaotic by day. Subjected to constant mechanical whirring, certain primates, bats, whales, squirrels and frogs all change their cries. Many other animals, it seems, lack the physical equipment to adapt, and perish or move away. Not only are Nature’s creatures editing their tunes in real time — as the great tits do — but natural selection is also rewarding louder, higher-frequency singers, redirecting the course of evolution.

Species can fight for airtime in a limited sound bandwidth by changing their volume or frequency, or by rescheduling the timing of their calls. But there’s no way animals can alter their ability to listen — a skill necessary for their very survival. Human noise can conceal, for example, the twig-snap of a prowler or the skittering of prey. In the United States, where more than 80 percent of land is within two-thirds of a mile of a road, the listening area available to most creatures is rapidly shrinking.

Explosive human sounds can have catastrophic impacts, especially underwater, where they travel faster and farther than they do in the air. Researchers believe that porpoises and whales have beached themselves fleeing the high-pitched shrieks of U.S. Navy sonar. They also blame the low-frequency booms ships use to search for oil and gas for fatally ripping through the organs squid use to detect vibrations. Proof is emerging that the droning of freeway traffic and the 24/7 rumbling of natural-gas-pipeline compressors directly harm the ability of birds nesting nearby to reproduce.

Because creature sounds are connecting mechanisms within an ecosystem, the conservation of quiet is the conservation of vital connections in Nature. Acoustic ecologist, Davyd Betchkal,   notes that studies are beginning to suggest that human noise pollution is imperiling habitat “as surely as a bulldozer or oil spill”.

The evidence is growing that man’s noise is not just an irritating pollutant. It breaks connections in Nature.  It produces broken links that destroy ecosystems. With the massive ecological footprint of mankind on a worldwide basis, there is little that creatures within an ecosystem can do but adapt and struggle to survive.

Much of what is needed is a change in worldview – an increase in ecological consciousness.  We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that any of us can improve on the natural world by our presence or by what we manage to create. In the case of our noise, we need to develop a sonic consciousness – sensitivity to how our sounds impact the lives of Earth’s other creatures. The daunting idea of changing modern man’s domineering worldview of Nature has some potentially positive solutions that rest within our education system and with our children. Dr. Scott Sampson, a paleontologist, has written extensively on this subject. In his blog post entitled “A Country Of Naturalists”  he says:

” … my central concern is how we are to go about connecting humanity with nature, with the assumption that we cannot achieve anything approaching sustainability without a mindset that embeds us inside nature…The practice of natural history, experiential education in Nature should form the bedrock of education”.

I strongly recommend that you read Scott Sampson’s “Education And Sustainability” blog post.

The view that positive ecological solutions start with the mindsets of our youth has become an action item with the Nature Conservancy. To its credit, the Nature Conservancy is working with young people to build the next generation of conservationists through their LEAF program.

Perhaps, through our youth and programs of sustainability education, humanity will begin to restore its connection with Nature that it lost a century ago. And through that revived worldview and what we now know about Nature’s soundscapes, a sonic consciousness would be forthcoming.

Your comments are always welcome. To receive a notice whenever I post a new blog, please sign up for my newsletter.

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.

One Response to “The Conservation Of Quiet”

  1. So delighted to stumble across your timely comments. Conservation of the natural soundscape is so important. As an artist and art educator I work with connecting students and adults with their environment, watershed, and natural soundscapes through art.
    I have produced three bilingual interactive workbooks that connect our students with their rivers and watershed.
    In my personal art practice I have a series of paintings titled: Birdsong.

    Thank you for your writings and research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *