Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes

Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes

by Bernie Krause


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300206319
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Series: The Future Series
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 1,200,544
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.10(h) x 2.90(d)

About the Author

Bernie Krause is a soundscape ecologist, musician, and writer. He and the English composer Richard Blackford collaborated on The Great Animal Orchestra: Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes, which premiered in the UK in 2014 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He lives in Glen Ellen, CA.

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Voices of the Wild

Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes

By Bernie Krause


Copyright © 2015 Bernie Krause
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21644-8


The Birth of the Soundscape

Surrounding our home in rural northern California, the sounds my wife, Katherine, and I have come to know consist of year-round aural traceries of birds, squirrels, amphibians, and insects in the mid-field, the personal conversations we share or the pleading voices of our cats, Barnacle and Seaweed, to be fed or released from indoor bondage to the wider world, the chatter of the TV or the whispered hum of the refrigerator compressor heard from the near field, and the sometimes irritating intrusion of commercial and light aircraft flying overhead combined with the far-off hushed drone of vehicular traffic from two miles (about three kilometers) away in the far field. The daily and seasonal sounds that define Wild Sanctuary, our home, convey a unique sense of place, one we've come to know as much by listening as by seeing.

The phenomenon of the soundscape usually consists of signals arriving from all directions on the horizontal plane and vertically from the sources overhead — a dome of 3-D sound and combinations of any or all of the three main sources mentioned earlier. Whether we're conscious of them or not, we're completely surrounded by acoustic elements coming at us from all directions. Active signals generally consist of biophonies and anthropophonies. Passive elements, such as wind and other weather-related signals, make up the rest. The impact of these sounds can be quite pervasive, depending on the environment. Sound, pressure waves transmitted through the air from a source to some type of receiver, can define the boundaries and structural properties of a room, a particular landscape. Of course, acoustic signals are also transmitted through marine environments and other media like wood and metal. The soundscape not only reveals the presence of vocal organisms that inhabit wild biomes, but defines the acoustic detail of floral and geographical features — think of the effects of wind in the trees or grasses, or water flowing in streams and by the lake or seashore. Soundscapes also expose the imbalance sometimes caused by changes in the landscape due to human endeavor or natural causes such as invasive organisms, weather, or movement of the land. One of my lifelong interests has been to find new ways to read, comprehend, and express these sources of information.

In 1939, a German ecologist named Carl Troll proposed using aerial photography as a measurement tool to determine relationships between ecosystems. Landscape ecologists, practitioners of the interdisciplinary field that evolved from his work, study landscape structures and systems. Several decades later, in the late 1970s, R. Murray Schafer, with his colleagues Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp, from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, first defined the soundscape in ways that opened a window on an entirely new field of inquiry, and researchers have subsequently added to this prescient exposition. Schafer's idea of the soundscape defines events as all the audio signals that reach our ears at any given time. The same goes for the acoustic receptors of non-human creatures. With the introduction of new descriptive language, such as geophony, biophony, and anthropophony, I was able to flesh out in greater detail the basic sources of sound. We have now cleared a path for a range of understanding in both science and culture that leads to fresh ways of experiencing and understanding the living world.

Even before the appearance of rangeomorphs, thought to be the world's first living marine organisms that evolved off what is now the coast of Newfoundland some 550 million years ago, there was still sound. But there was nothing living that was capable of receiving or responding to it. The wind still whistled and water still trickled along meandering paths. There was also the complex sound of volcanoes shaking the earth and filling the skies with ash. Then the sound of lava flows, landslides, glacial ice cracking and calving, ice in rivers and lakes breaking up in the spring, mudpots, and geysers. The extremes of weather-related conditions produced other acoustic dynamics, adding texture to the still unheard soundscape.

When organisms that could produce and receive sound first appeared, each type evolved to establish a clear bandwidth in the geoacoustic spectrum for its vocal behavior to be functional — these organisms needed sound-free channels in order to exchange vital information. At first, the sounds they produced were probably impulse-like signatures, more or less like static or short pops and cracks meant to be loud enough in amplitude that they could be sent and received above the levels produced by the surrounding geophonic ambience. Although tiny insect-like marine organisms have developed to generate some of the loudest sounds on the planet (relative to their size), researchers do not generally think that the earliest vocal organisms could communicate beyond a range of a few centimeters. As organisms grew more sophisticated, numerous, land-based, and complex, their sound-producing and receiving capacities also became more efficient. Unique species created unique acoustic expressions, acoustic signatures. Crickets stridulate by rubbing their wings together — one with a kind of file-type apparatus and another with a scraper. Fish resonate their air bladders, crunch at coral, or oscillate their caudal fins at rates that generate underwater signals. Crabs snap exoskeleton claws. Ants either strike branches with their bodies to transmit sound signals throughout a tree or they stridulate by rubbing their legs on their abdomens. Barnacles twist in tiny shells, birds push air through syrinx-like organs, snakes expel air quickly to hiss, dolphins project highly focused signals through melon-shaped organs, kittens and lions vibrate muscles in their throats to purr and roar. But when living organisms became more numerous and began to fill acoustic niches in their respective habitats, their voices necessarily had to adapt through partitioning, so that each one could transmit and receive signals unimpeded in the specific time or range necessary for their survival. Efficient uses and conservation of energy were paramount.

Some of these observations can lead to astounding correlations. For example, thunderstorms that occur with great frequency in the equatorial regions of the planet give off electrical signals that are then transmitted through the earth's magnetic field to the north and south poles. Low-frequency radio receivers such as those used by NASA can detect and record these signals. When played back, they sound like long, extended ascending and descending glissandos produced in early analog synthesizer performances of the mid-1960s. There is nothing particularly unusual about those phenomena. What is curious are the remarkably similar vocalizations produced, in turn, by Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in the Antarctic, and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) some 12,000 miles to the north, in the Arctic. Their respective vocalizations not only closely replicate the signals detected by the NASA radio receivers, but they're similar to each other even though the two species have never met.

Though such claims still need substantiation, some animal physiologists, like the late Frank Awbrey, a marine biologist from San Diego State University, have suggested that a small amount of magnetite in the heads of both species may give them the capacity to receive these electronic signals and imitate them, much like the anecdotal stories of people picking up faint radio signals through the silver (amalgam) fillings in their teeth.

During the Pleistocene, when humans first populated African habitats, we added our range of voices to the biophonic mix. As skillful mimics, we first learned to emulate the complex roars, grunts, rhythms, melodies, and harmonies that we experienced in our respective habitats. The mimicry helped us to play it safe; there was little room for error in our attunement with life around us. It was the closest we came to actual biophonic expression during the course of our evolution. As a small fraction of the larger biological community, we owed tribute and calculated the benefits of deference. The soundscapes of the forests and plains signaled where food was (or wasn't). They provided a necessary voice of the divine that, in turn, delivered answers to ontological questions we otherwise had little capacity to solve. They inspired us to organize sound into complex patterns, reflecting those heard in natural settings, which culminated in the first expressions of music and dance, and probably even language. They nurtured us with pulses and cycles of reassuring sonic textures that calmed and centered us — that confirmed our place in the living world. And the biophonies also served as an aural GPS, signals that guided us to remote locations under the cover of total darkness and through the densest foliage with extraordinary precision.

Stumbling through the forest on a nighttime hunt with the Jivaro — a group living in the Amazon Basin in a large area that encompasses eastern Ecuador and part of Peru — I was awestruck by the accuracy with which sound guided hunters along their routes. It was not the beam of a flashlight, the glow of a torch, or the faint light, obscured by the forest canopy, of our moon or distant constellations overhead that guided the Jivaro, but amoeba-shaped grids of biophony through which they walked. The acoustic partitioning of a wide variety of insects and amphibians constantly updated the hunters with salient information about their respective location at any moment, the potential objects of their hunt, and the direction their game headed even when they were unable to see any trace of it several hundred meters from the group.

Until such experiences in the early 1980s, I had pretty much dismissed wild soundscapes. But what I learned from this and many subsequent encounters was that careful listening gives us extremely valuable tools with which to unlock edifying codes, ones extending way beyond the narrow limits we have typically extracted from human-produced acoustic media. Wild soundscapes, the voices of the natural world, provide exceptionally instructive perspectives through which to connect with the living planet. They are nothing less than markers that direct us to places of refuge and narratives that can point us to avenues of healthy survival. To ignore them is to deracinate from our lives the numinous thrum of our very existence.

My archive of environmental sound, collected over nearly half a century, represents many heterogeneous soundscapes of both marine and land-based environments. It exceeds five thousand hours of holistic habitat recordings, and in excess of fifteen thousand species. That is not a lot of data by today's standards. As I will describe, with current digital technologies and arrays of multiple recorders, researchers can easily capture many times more data in just a single week or month from one location. What is notable is that much of that collection before the mid-1980s was, of necessity, recorded in analog formats. Keep in mind that these recordings were made with heavy, cumbersome field recorders that used seven-inch reels of quarter-inch wide (.635 centimeter) audiotape. In the early 1980s, Sony introduced the first digital recording system, the F-1 format, which recorded data onto a VHS (Video Home System) cartridge-like package. And in 1987, with the introduction of a transitional medium called DAT (digital audiotape), the large F-1 cartridge evolved into a much smaller unit. Because these formats were electromechanical and had moving parts, they sometimes encountered operational problems caused by humidity, temperature, or rough handling. In addition, the limits of the digital audiotape medium itself constrained the amount of continuous time we could collect sound in the field unless we had the capacity to carry large quantities of batteries, tape, and backup recorders.

A bit late responding to the technological change, I converted to purely digital media, hard drives and compact flash, in 2004. By then, I was beginning to slow a bit physically and missed some of the great new wave of recorders and microphone systems, as well as the opportunities to use them, a hesitant but calculated retreat. As of this writing, digital field recording technologies can store up to eight tracks on professional-quality devices roughly the size of a paperback book. It is not unlikely that we will soon see many more microphone or line inputs added in the future along with smaller-scale recorders.

As field recording systems have become priced and designed to be more accessible, easy to use, and functional in the face of climate extremes in the field (devices are now suited for the range of humidity and temperature conditions present in arctic, equatorial, or desert regions of the world), I expect that an increasing number of individuals and groups would aim to record in ever more wild habitats, with the caveat that those sites are visited lightly and no damage or residual evidence of our presence remains.

In spite of the vast quantities of data we can now collect in a short time, the most significant aspect of the archive stored at the Wild Sanctuary is the heartbreaking fact that more than 50 percent of the material recorded over nearly five decades comes from sites so badly compromised by various forms of human intervention that the habitats are either altogether silent or the soundscapes can no longer be heard in any of their original forms, otherwise revealing dysphonia — a word that in medical terms means an inability to speak. It's one that translates well to this field. By itself, this baseline collection is so rare, especially the recordings made in North America, that it might be considered on the same level of importance as other national treasures. From a global assessment, dysphonic wild habitat trends clearly point to an increasing and alarming rate of loss of the voice of the natural world.

Two examples from my own experience point to some of the unanticipated effects of human endeavor. The first of these took place at Lincoln Meadow, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive east-northeast of San Francisco at roughly 6,500 feet in the Sierra Nevada. I had recorded there for many years, and in 1988 a timber company tried to convince local residents that there would be no environmental impact from "selective logging" — harvesting only a few trees from a site instead of clear-cutting. Operating on a hunch and with permission granted to record before and after the event, I captured representative samples of what the soundscape was like prior to the operation. I could clearly hear and see (by examining a visualization of the frequencies present, called a spectrogram) a stream running through the meadow and many diverse bird signatures (fig. 1).

A year later, after the logging operation, I returned and, using the same protocols, captured more examples. Listening this time, the stream sounds were still there, but the rich biophony, present in all previous years, was now practically silent (fig. 2).

I've returned to that site fifteen times in the past quarter century, but the density and diversity of the biophony has not yet recovered. To the human eye and to a camera, the landscape looks unchanged and would have supported the logging company's sustainability contention. But the soundscapes tell a very different story.

In Costa Rica, where I had recorded in the Osa Peninsula beginning in the late 1980s, I encountered the effects of clear-cutting. At one location, in 1989, I recorded at a site that consisted of many thousands of acres of old-growth forest (fig. 3).

When I returned seven years later, in 1996, that whole section of forest was covered with a grid of logging roads and many sections had been clear-cut, especially the site where I had recorded in 1989 (fig. 4).


Excerpted from Voices of the Wild by Bernie Krause. Copyright © 2015 Bernie Krause. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction, 1,
1 The Birth of the Soundscape, 15,
2 The Challenges, 44,
3 Technological Progress, 60,
4 The World Through Soundscapes, 79,
5 The Future of the Soundscape, 99,
Notes, 153,
Further Exploration, 163,
Index, 167,

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