Tag Archive | Nature

The world as soundscape

My computer has been disabled-again-this time for nearly five days–but while the digital universe was silent, there was music, and especially last Friday night at a Warebrook concert where a flautist graced the stratosphere; a tenor declared love in German—and when the German is Richard Strauss speaking of love, it is most definitely about love; and the tenor returned to reinterpret life according to Vachel Lindsay, William Butler Yeats and local composer, Sara Doncaster. This is not to discount the delightful Irish tunes arranged by John Corigliano and rendered by the flautist and a perfect soprano. As they say, and with truth, you had to be there!

Sounds, especially organized sounds, make life so worth living.

Which brings me to the review by Jeremy Denk of “The Great Animal Orchestra, Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause.
We’ve all heard how nature sounds, some of us from walking in a meadow or sitting quietly in the woods, listening. Others of us from playing one of those audio tranquilizers for the sleepless. But Bernie Krause has been listening for decades, making recordings and archiving wild soundscapes:

Krause offers endless odes to sonic nuances: the timbres of waves crashing on the world’s beaches, the echo effects brought on by dew, the acoustics of night and day, the dry, hot rattles of deserts, the way baboons bounce their voices off granite outcropping, to send them deep into the forest.

He’s examined the many uses of sound in nature—from mating and hunting to self-defense and the marking of territory—all those and more. He’s listened to a wooded landscape before it was logged (selectively), and after, and while its devastation was difficult to see, it wasn’t hard to hear. He’s come to a fascinating conclusion: that “the healthier the habitat, the more ‘musical’ the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.”

Often, sound is social. For example, he describes spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators about the location of any one individual. A jet soars overhead and the toads get out of sync. Their auditory shelter is temporarily lost and hawks swoop down, able now to locate individual singers.

Suddenly music, sound, has a deeper dimension and one more intimate to our earth and vital to its survival. Friday night’s concert was far more than it seemed. I already knew the lyrics contained birds and moonlight. I could hear that.  But the music and all of the earth’s soundings are kin. Listening is a far more delicate and ambitious task than I’d thought.


Black vultures on the Bemi River, Rurrenabque, Bolivia. 2008. Photo by Arthur Chapman. Under a Creative Commons license.

We were walking towards Fort Ross, admiring its battlements and the distinctive topping of the Russian church at one corner. It was a bright day, full of light from the sky and the sea. Somewhere between us and the Fort was a rectangular collection of dark pointed boards and perched atop them were perfect silhouettes of vultures. How odd, I thought, that I don’t remember this religious monument from the last time I was here—some 19th century woodcarver’s dream of doom perhaps. I stood still to admire it, and something moved—a wing ruffled by a sea breeze, one perfectly designed foot making a gesture,  a whole bird shifting in the light. And then another spread its wings to the day, and the birds all came to life because they had always been so.

That’s what struck me at first, that they seemed to be mere silhouettes, and were suddenly alive. But what struck me next was perhaps more important, and that was the terrible otherness of them. How there seemed to be no intersection of our worlds: human being, vulture. They were utterly indifferent to us.

They weren’t the birds at my feeder.

The next day we were near the village where Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, was set. Bad movie, but scary. In that movie too the birds seemed to belong to a different reality—until they attacked. Black silhouettes on telephone wires. Utterly still. And then….

Pelagic Cormorant, Morro Bay Harbor, California. Photo by Mike Baird. Under a Creative Commons license.

We were at Bodega Head, where high cliffs plunge down to an ocean that relentlessly tosses, froths, hums, roars, lifts seaweed up in its silvery arms and lets it fall, splashes light all over the rocky ledge and shapes the stone to its own purposes. And there, on the face of a mountain of stone opposite us, were cormorants. Dark silhouettes of  long-necked birds, clinging to the sandstone face of the thing, facing away from us. They seemed in touch only with the rock and the sky, and the torrential water below. Sometimes, one flew off to fish; but mostly they just stayed, facing the rock. I theorized that they were looking for insects in the sandstone, but truth to tell, I never believed it. It was just that indifference again, that incredible otherness.

Great Cormorant drying its wings. Photo by Slawomir Staszczuk under GNU Free Documentation License.


There we were, we humans, hoping to catch sight of whales in migration, hoping to bridge the gap between us and them. And there they were, in another reality we couldn’t hope to enter.

We presume so much in our nature shorts and our horror movies. Sometimes, I think, it would be better to honor the terrible separation between us.

Have you given any thought to ants lately?

E.O. Wilson. October 16, 2007. Photo by ragesoss. Creative Commons license.

I never thought I’d have a reason to write about ants on this blog, but thanks to entomologist Edward O. Wilson, I finally do. Wilson was on the Charlie Rose show the other night, discussing his first novel, Anthill, just published at the age of 80. Of course, he’s no stranger to writing, having published 20 plus books, all of them until now non-fiction on scientific subjects. He’s won two Pulitzers and at least a dozen other awards for his essays and books. Not an artist, exactly, but his writing is often very elegant.

I guess I’ve always liked Wilson, despite some of his opinions – there was a time when I agreed with the woman who poured a pitcher of water on his head during a conference on racism – because of his love for the natural world and especially ants. When I was a kid I was fascinated by them, and thought briefly about becoming an entomologist myself. I worried, however, that most of the jobs in that particular field of science would be about killing the little crawly things, when I just wanted to understand them. I still have a yellowed copy of a high school essay I wrote in the first person of an ant many centuries from now, explaining how he and his kind survived and humankind disappeared, an idea that was poorly expressed but might hold me in good stead with Wilson. Until he found out, truth be told, that I also gave up the idea of entomology because the creepy crawlies sometimes gave me the heebie jeebies.

Ant in Bali. Photo by NeilsPhotography.

Wilson explained on Charlie Rose that he wrote his novel because it was another way of trying to get a point across. Somehow, he felt, he and other scientists concerned about the environment “weren’t making the kind of progress we want to make….” and that fiction might be a more powerful persuader. The book, particularly the parts about human beings, has received mixed reviews, but its center piece, a fictional tale from the ants’ point of view, has received raves. That’s unfortunate since a major reason for the book is to bring us together under the single rubric of Nature. Dr. Wilson writes of his main human character, a scientist based on himself, that

In time he understood that Nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it.

Human society and the world of ants have been compared many times before, of course. Busy workers all of us, and most of that work done in a social setting. A less frequent comparison is another one that came up on Charlie Rose, and that is the incessant war-making present in both kinds of society. But one of Wilson’s most telling statements, all of it said with the same ironic smile:

If we took away all the ants from the ecosystem, a large part of the rest of the world would collapse. If we took away ourselves, the rest of life on earth would flourish.

Charlie didn’t ask why our absence would be helpful to “the rest of life on earth” – most of us have no trouble thinking of reasons – but he did ask about ants. Why are they so important? “They’re among the little things that run the world, turn the soil, renew the nutrients….,” Wilson replied.

Now, I’m certain that most of us don’t think much about “the little things,” that part of the ecosphere that’s only present to us when it’s menacing our kitchens or making unsightly hills in our lawns. But Wilson gave me reason to think and think again. First, I wondered how anyone could live with the consciousness of  “the little things”- that is, in a world where they were present and contextual all the time, from day-to-day and every minute. I mean, even as a kid, they made my skin crawl. Our worlds are generally made up of other people and people-made things. They’re growing wider-two centuries ago our points of view were mostly confined to our neighborhood, our community, sometimes our country. Today, many people live in a context that’s worldwide. Wilson is asking that we take that much, much further and realize that we are creatures living alongside other creatures, all of us part of a complex ecosystem and that, of course, only a grain of sand or less than that. We are part of nature.

Even if the notices were mixed, I plan to read this old man’s book, a scientist who, at the age of 80, is trying to tell us something important about the world as he knows it in a language where we may at last be able to hear it.