Monday, August 24, 2015

VOICES OF THE WILD :: Bernie Krause

When I saw the cover of Voices of the Wild and read its subtitle, Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes, my inner science and nature nerd antennae starting pinging spastically. We all know how our fragile ecosystems can be knocked out of balance, and species are physically counted to determine their overall health. What if, instead of counting, we could measure the stability of an ecosystem and determine species populations just by listening?

Turns out, we can. Bernie Krause is an ecologist and the founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to recording and archiving natural "soundscapes." Krause has a Ph.D. in bioacoustics (the study of the sounds living organisms produce) and has been recording natural sounds since the 1960s, originally for use as orchestration on a music album.

He found that soundscape applications are quite varied and include the assessment of environmental quality of parks, medicine, urban planning, mental health, and long-term monitoring of climate change, to name just a few. The collective and structured sound whole groups of living organisms generate can be used to measure status and the impact of change at a much higher level than visual perspectives, providing a 360-degree hemisphere of data.

For example, Krause has been recording at Lincoln Meadow in the Sierra Nevada for decades. In 1988, a timber company convinced local residents there would be no environmental impact from "selective logging," harvesting only a few trees rather than clear-cutting.

Krause's post-logging soundscape recordings tell a very different story. A year after the logging, stream sounds were still present, but sounds from living organisms were practically silent. He has returned to the site fifteen times over the past 25 years and the density and diversity of the area have never recovered.

Visually, the landscape remained virtually unchanged, but the soundscape told a story of a tragic impact. Reporting on these changes is one thing. Krause has gone a step further and made his recordings available on the Yale Press website. I loved this feature. It increased my understanding and fascination (and horror, frankly) to be able to hear exactly what he was writing about.

More than losing ecosystems, Krause believes we risk losing culture, since sounds are the basis for so much of our artistic expression:

They helped shape music, and if we lose the sounds of the wild, then we will also lose an important inspiration and resource for the arts. When you hear a chimp drumming in the woods against a buttress, that is the origin of drums. When you hear the melody of a bird, that is the origin of our own melodies. If they are gone, our own music will wither.

As a believer in Blue Mind, the mental and physical benefits to humans of being in, on, and around water (you can read more about that in my review of Blue Mind, by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols; a fascinating book), I was especially interested in discussions about the effectiveness of soundscapes at reducing stress indicators like high blood pressure. Studies have found soundscapes even more effective than music at reducing stress.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but according to Krause music sometimes failed to reduce stress, or increased it, due to cultural biases or physical reactions. Soundscapes, which are "culture neutral," did not have this effect. Soundscapes have also been used to help reduce PTSD in military dogs returning from Afghanistan, to identify the negative impact of man-made noise on the learning ability of students in schools adjacent to airports and highways, and to reduce recovery times and the need for pain medication in hospital settings.

For anyone interested in a primer on soundscapes, their history, importance, use, and impact, this is a great place to start. Krause is first and foremost an ecologist. You're not going to find lyrical prose here, but (fairly) plainly and well-stated information and theory.

It seems a no-brainer that there is a "growing distraction of extraneous noise in our environments, partly because natural soundscapes are disappearing, but also because of an increased human focus on visual events." Voices of the Wild is a compelling look at the use of sound to measure the impact of our own noise and "progress" on the world around us.

STREET SENSE: A fascinating, if somewhat scientific, look at the beginnings, growth, uses and impact of soundscapes. Highly recommended for readers interested in environmental and ecosystem issues, as well as the impact of sound, good and bad, on humans and nature alike.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: From my experience, it appears as if we find ourselves stuck midway between a past and a future where chance intimate encounters with what remains wild actually underscores our inability to escape the present. Our history confirms that we have the limited capacity to postulate and imagine aspects of the days ahead of us. In order to do that with some degree of confidence, though, we will need to more fully understand what exists. Natural sounds that define the field of soundscape ecology are the voices we need to heed closely. For they are balanced somewhere between creation and destruction -- and we silence them at our own peril.

COVER NERD SAYS: Clean, beautiful, and effective. I took one look and signed up to read Voices of the Wild. I really didn't even need the subtitle, I was hooked upon seeing the image, and think it serves the content well.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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