Creature Choirs Dangerously Disappearing Biophonies of the Natural

Bernie Krause's autobiography, Into a Wild Sanctuary, A Life in Music and Natural Sound, is a fascinating account of his musical life, his precocious attraction to bird song and insect voices, his family's love of classical music, and his ability at age 3 to play a violin melody, to his mastery of the guitar, adventures in the pop music world, and creation of synthesizer sound tracks from more than 100 films, including Apocalypse Now.

Now he is devoting himself to "recording the sounds of living organisms and natural habitats." He writes: "To me, this is the most beautiful music on the planet. It is also its collective voice. Armed with various types of sound recorders, a pair of earphones, and microphones, I search out rare undisturbed sites, set up my equipment, and sit quietly and patiently for hours waiting for this symphony of the natural world to unfold before me, all to capture those precious moments on tape." 

On January 31, 2001 he made a speech to the San Francisco World Affairs Council entitled "Loss of National Soundscape: Global Implication of Its Effect on Humans and Other Creatures," excerpts from which appear below: "

In 1968, when I first began my odyssey, I could record for about 15 hours and capture about one hour of usable sound on my equipment. A ratio of about 15:1. Now it takes nearly 2000 hours to record 1 hour. Why the change? There are several reasons. The most serious, of course, is the unimaginable loss of representative habitats. The second is the increase of human mechanical noise which tends to mask the subtle aural textures of the remaining environments. And the third—as a direct result of the first two issues—is the decrease in certain key vocal creatures, both large and small, that make up typical natural soundscapes. 

"In the short time I've plied my craft, I have seen the radical changes nearly everywhere, but most notably in North America. This evening, I will discuss in general terms, from the perspective of bio-acoustics, what I believe has contributed to the loss of our forsaken habitats and the precious voices I refer to as biophonies. I will address what this loss augurs for our future if significant shifts are not made at every level of our culture very soon to help preserve what little remains. 

"In its pure state, where no human noise is present, natural soundscapes are glorious symphonies. However, the combination of shrinking habitat coupled with an increase of human clamor has produced conditions where non-human communication necessary to creature survival at all levels is in the process of being stilled altogether. 

"In Nature & Madness (Sierra Club Books, 1982), one of the first books to address the human dimension of ecology, the late Dr. Paul Shepard described how certain signs of pathological human behavior originating in Euro-American culture are directly related to the loss of wild habitat and our connection to the natural world. He understood that creature voices were our window to the wild natural because they are the root music of our language, our songs and dances. He lamented both our lack of oversight of natural soundscape as being important to our lives, and also the significant loss of creature voices over the course of his 20th Century lifetime. Canadian composer/author R. Murray Schafer, father of the word, soundscape and the concept of acoustic energy, wrote a book titled Turning of the World. He observed that human-induced noise is both a contributing factor to soundscape loss in the wild and, at the same time, particularly emblematic of Western models of power. The louder the sounds we can produce, the more virile we are supposed to feel absent anything else of consequence that provides us with a sense of self or spiritual worth. Schafer sees these symbols as attempts to overwhelm and supersede voices evident in the natural world. Those include organisms of all sizes, thunder, wind, leaves quaking in the branches of aspens, ocean waves in a storm, and shaking of the earth, itself. As James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, once observed: 'To most people noise and power go hand in hand.' It was a doctrine Watt obsessively promoted. Like Watt, we have learned to numb the emptiness within us with ever-louder noise at the expense of those voices which actually do have the power to affect our lives in more productive ways. 

"The exponential acceleration of this process began during the early 17th Century when European economic and political philosophy undermined the aesthetic value of the wild natural. For instance, René Descartes abhorred the natural world and seemed quite terrified of it. After elevating humans to rational omnipotence, he asserted that non-human animals felt no pain, were incapable of rational thought, and had no spiritual life. 

"That human noises affect those of the natural world couldn't be more clearly expressed than through an article that appeared last year in the Los Angeles Times. It reported that Rock star Tina Turner's voice was found to be the most effective means of scaring birds from the runways of England's Gloucestershire Airport. Airport staff previously used recordings of avian distress calls to frighten birds away from landing strips, with only limited success. However, when they switched to recordings of the famed rock singer, there was an immediate and dramatic effect. Airport chief fire officer Ron Johnson said, '…what the birds really hate is Tina Turner.' 

"I discovered that in an undisturbed natural environment, creatures vocalize in relationship to one another like instruments in an orchestra. On land, in particular, this delicate acoustic fabric is almost as well-defined as the notes on a page of music when examined graphically in the form of what we sometimes call voice prints. In healthy habitats, certain insects occupy one sonic zone of the creature bandwidth, while birds, mammals, and amphibians occupy others not yet taken and where there is no competition. This system has evolved in a manner so that each voice can be heard distinctly and each creature can thrive as much through its iteration as any other aspect of its being. The same type of event also generally occurs within marine environments. This biophony, or creature choir, serves as a vital gauge of habitat's health. But it also conveys data about its age, its level of stress, and can provide us with an abundance of other valuable new information such as why and how creatures in both the human and non-human worlds have learned to dance and sing. Yet, this miraculous biophony—this concerto of natural world—is now under threat of annihilation. Not only are we moving toward a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well. 

"The fragile weave of sound just described is being torn apart mainly by three factors: One is the incredible amount of noise we humans make. The second, by our undiminished lust for precious natural resources further exaggerated by the effect of the GATT and NAFTA treaties. And last, by our seemingly boundless need to conquer aspects of the natural world rather than to find a way to abide in consonance with them. I mentioned earlier that it now takes nearly two thousand hours to capture one hour of pure natural soundscape. Compare that to 45 percent of our undisturbed North American forests still standing in 1968 where now less than 2 percent are left only 32 years later. Please note that the major portion of that percentage was leveled in the last decade. This staggering circumstance, combined with the noise of chain saws, leaf blowers, snowmobiles, ATVs, ORVs, trail bikes, jet skis, deep-throated boat engines propelling ever faster water craft around otherwise pristine lakes, has created a recipe for tragedy. That is unless the heavily industrialized countries of the world—and North America, in particular, are willing to take the lead and make an immediate shift in their use policies of these mechanical toys and their virulent effects. 

"Many types of frogs and insects vocalize together in a given habitat so that no one individual stands out among the many. This chorus creates a protectively expansive audio performance inhibiting predators from locating any single place from which sound emanates. The synchronized frog voices originate from so many places at once that they appear to be coming from everywhere. However, when the coherent patterns are upset by the sound of a jet plane as it flies within range of the pond, the special frog biophony is broken. In an attempt to reestablish the unified rhythm and chorus, individual frogs momentarily stand out giving predators like coyotes or owls perfect opportunities to snag a meal. While recording the rare spade foot toads (Scaphiopus hammondi) about the north shore of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras one spring, a similar event actually occurred. After the military jet disappeared, forty-five minutes passed before the toads were able to reestablish their protective chorus. In the dusk light we saw two coyotes and a great horned owl feeding by the side the small pond. Because of the unique manner by which we record and measure sound, we have discovered that the relatively intense sound produced by a low-flying jet aircraft can cause changes in the biophony that induce certain creatures to lose the life-saving protection of their vocal choruses. 

"Because of the noise introduced into their environment by cruise boats traveling in Glacier Bay, humpback whales have been observed trying to swim away and hide from the noise, ducking behind spits of land or large blocks of ice that had broken off glaciers apparently in an effort to get into quieter 'shadow' zones. In recent years, fewer and fewer whales have been seen in the Bay. 

"There are many important reasons to reconsider the value of unimpeded natural soundscape as a resource. For one thing, it is clear that natural soundscape cannot be replaced as evidenced by the 25% loss of viable North American biophonies collected in my library. These are habitats no one will ever hear again. They are forever silenced, fully extinct, or hopelessly altered. Yet, there are rays of hope. We are beginning to understand late in the game that pristine natural soundscapes are reserves and resources critical to our enjoyment, understanding, and awareness of the natural wild as well as our own history and culture. Without these links, a fundamental piece of fabric of life is sadly compromised. That is why the National Park Service implemented a strong educational and administrative model to protect natural soundscapes as a valued resource. Soundscape is now treated as a component of great value worth preserving for visitors and creatures, alike. Visitor reaction to the noise in the national parks convinced the National Park Service that it is important to attempt to hear and treat soundscapes differently—as important to our well-being and health as the preservation of pure fresh water, clean air, and non-polluted soil. Indeed, snowmobiles are being phased out of Yellowstone Park. Tourist overflights over Rocky Mountain National Park have been eliminated altogether. Over Grand Canyon they have been severely restricted although, given the current political 'Wise Use' mindset, we remain uncertain as to the manner in which these policies will be implemented. If the Park Service succeeds in its effort to convince the visiting public of the importance of this noise-free model, the idea will spread and we will have come a long way toward our goal of responsive stewardship of the wild natural."


Into a Wild Sanctuary
By Bernie Krause198 pages, 
Heyday Books
Berkeley, California, $14.95