When you walk into an intact eco-system, the sounds you hear have a dense richness to them, much of which has evolved over thousands of years. We almost get to listen backwards in time, back before the impact of industrialization on the natural world.
Below my studio, a small remnant old growth forest is being clear cut. I have made hundreds of visits into this forest, most often; I would just sit on the trunk of a fallen Hemlock and listen to the soundscape. The sounds in a place like this have a unique cathedral like quality. A mature forest contains an intricate woven web of life made up of thousands of species living in a multi layered ecosystem, all part of a living dying, recycling, breathing, oxygen producing biotic community that is truly sustaining in every way.
The renowned nature recordist and writer, Dr. Bernie Krause coined a new word for the natural sounds of the Earth. That word is biophony, bio meaning life and phon meaning sound. Biophony is a new way of understanding the relationship of sound to a living ecosystem. In his book, The Great Animal Orchestra, Krause explains the niche hypothesis in which he argues that each individual species has evolved to maintain its own acoustic bandwidth inside the frequency spectrum.
If we look at the photo above, what you are seeing is a spectrogram of an old growth forest soundscape; this is a visual look at the recording I made from The Soundscape Part 2. In this example we see a 20.5 second ‘snap shot’. We can see that each species seems to take up a unique part of the frequency spectrum, there appears to be an intricate timing between each song as if all the species have their ‘space’. Human sound pollution that enters into a soundscape can usually be found in the lower frequencies, this being in the form of an engine of some sort.
Let’s take a listen to some of the oldest forest eco-systems on earth, The Sequoia forests of California’s, Sierra Nevada, where you can hear a 2000 year old soundscape, likely unchanged. Andrew Skeoch from Listening Earth has recorded in these forests and we can hear a part of Listening Earth’s Sequoia album here. Can you hear that cathedral like sound quality these old forests produce? The sound is being reflected back into the space between these giant trees, some of which are over 250 ft high. It is an incredible treat when we listen with headphones.
It is generally believed that some logging can take place in forest eco-systems without significant disruption in the species density, but as Bernie Krause points out in an article from The Guardian, areas that were selectively logged in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1980’s did alter the richness of the soundscape. Bernie returned year after year but he says, “The overall richness of sound was gone, as was the thriving density and diversity of birds.” This was a selectively logged forest, one in which from a distance you could likely not tell it had been touched. From his recordings he could tell the negative impact of logging was significant.
To lose a pristine soundscape is to also lose the richness and diversity of these places and the resulting negative impacts on species indigenous to these forests. Throw in encroaching human sounds and natural quiet is quickly becoming endangered.
In another example, nature sound recordist and quiet activist, Gordon Hempton in his project, One Square Inch, calls on us to protect the silence of a place in Olympic National Park on the West Coast of the USA. He feels if we can protect just this one square inch from all human noise, then the surrounding forest is also protected. Gordon’s project and passion is a wonderful example of how the soundscape can be used to not only raise awareness but to also fight encroaching noise pollution into the natural world.
There is something about natural quiet that, if we are aware of it, reaches in and touches us somewhere. We become calmer and we feel ourselves slowing down into the present moment, giving our lives a sense of space and richness of awareness seldom experienced because most of us don’t really pay attention to natural sound.
One of my earliest memories is remembering when my mother would vacuum the living room, I would crawl underneath a chair to sleep, to think that these ‘womb’ sounds bought such comfort is an indication of the profound affect of sound, not only on humans but all living things, sound is one of the mediums of which causes life to flourish, it is information both sent and received, without which the Earth would be a completely different place. The question is, are we listening?