Loss of Natural Soundscape: Global Implications of Its Effect on Humans and Other Creatures

23 agosto 2006

Loss of Natural Soundscape: Global Implications of Its Effect on Humans and Other Creatures

[Reproduced with author’s permission]

(Speech Presented to the San Francisco World Affairs Council, 31 January 2001 -revised 16 August 2006-)

By Bernie Krause

Wild Sanctuary, Inc.
P. O. Box 536
Glen Ellen, CA 95442

For those unfamiliar with my work, I have spent more than half of my 67+ years recording the sounds of living organisms and natural habitats. To me, this represents the most beautiful type of sound 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 and to capture those precious moments on tape. I use these recordings for research related to the ways in which human mechanical noise and habitat degredation affects this symphony of creature voices and thus the human experience of the natural wild. Furthermore, this work embraces the continuing study of biophony, a word I devised to describe the ways in which creatures in given habitats vocalize in special relationships to one another. To support this effort, I create finished soundscapes for CDs, large, interactive sound sculpure installations for museums, aquaria and other public spaces, and provide commissioned soundscape evaluation studies for government agencies. As time has passed, however, this effort has become much more difficult for me. In 1968, when I first began my odyssey, I could record for about 15 hours and capture about one hour of useable sound; 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; the anthrophony – which tends to mask the subtle aural textures of the remaining acoustic 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.

My work as a bioacoustician has taken me all over the world, from pole to pole and many sites in between. It has always been an exciting adventure – especially working at the research sites of such notables as Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), the late Dian Fossey in Africa (mountain gorillas), Birute Galdikas in Borneo (orang-utans), and many other dedicated biologists and naturalists in the tropical and temperate regions and the oceans of the world. In the short time I’ve plied my craft, I have seen radical changes in the biophony nearly everywhere on the planet. 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.

One of the single most important resources of the natural world is its voice – or natural soundscape. Soundscape refers to any acoustic environment whether natural, urban, or rural and is made up of three components: (1) the biophony, non-human biological sounds in a given environment, (2) the geophony – non-biological non-human sound like the effect of wind, water, and weather, and (3) anthrophony – human-induced noise from whatever source. 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. At the same time, humans are denied an experience of the wild natural essential to an interaction between themselves and their organically resonant surroundings. In addition, with unwanted noise almost always present, humans are often at a loss to communicate by sound even between themselves. The effects on the political, economic, and social landscapes of our culture have been and continue to be significant.

In Nature & Madness (Sierra Club Books, 1982), one of the first books to address the human dimensions of ecology, the late Dr. Paul Shepard described how certain signs of pathological human behavior originating in Western culture are directly related to the loss of wild habitat and our connection to the natural world. The further we draw away from the natural world, he asserts, the more pathological we become as a culture. He understood, early on, that creature voices were our window to the wild natural because they are the fundamental acoustic textures of our language, our songs and dances. He lamented both our 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 ecology, wrote a book on the subject in the late 70s titled Tuning of the World. In this and later works, 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 the shaking of the earth, itself. As James Watt, former Secretary of the Interior under U.S. President, 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. For example, on any given Sunday during late spring and early summer, my wife, Katherine, and I hear the sounds of drag-racing from a race track 18 miles (29km) southwest of our home located in Northern California. The engine noise does not travel in a straight line. The sound of the engines must traverse several ranges of coastal hills, valleys, protected wetlands, and a state park before it reaches us at measurable and troubling levels. That’s how loud the noise is. Yet nothing has been done to mitigate the problem. Within the past two years an award was given for the loudest sound system ever produced for the interior of an automobile environment. It was reported that the system produces a sound pressure level of 174dB – nearly a factor of 2 louder than a .357 magnum pistol being shot off at your ear and a factor of 7 louder than standing on the runway 10 meters from a Boeing 747 at full take-off power – all this inside a car.

Historically, from my perspective, and beyond the original Aramaic biblical mandates to conquer and fill the earth, the exponential acceleration of this process began during the early 17th Century when European economic and political philosophy completely 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. Across the English Channel, one of our cultural heroes, Sir Francis Bacon, declared in the 1620s: «We must torture mother nature for her secrets.» This modern mechanistic idea, expanded to the extremes we have taken it, is primarily responsible for the breakdown of loving attention with regard to the natural world. The Industrial Revolution was characterized by power over nature with ultimate control over its resources. In the 19th Century, even the American author, Thoreau – the author of Walden, wrote, “I love the wild no less than the good” – later, in the same chapter, he writes: “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.”

In 1989, on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the corporate world finally exceeded the bounds of sanity with its conceit. According to Western historical mythology, we were sold on the idea that freedom had finally, if not symbolically, been achieved. Frieheidt , indeed. However, it was not Communism that failed. Communism as it came to be implemented, was moribund anyway. It was capitalism as we once knew it – a form of economic Democracy perceived by us as an ethically and morally superior covenant – that died the moment the Wall was breached. Communism was essential to the 20th Century form of capitalism we naively accepted because, we were told, there was no greater enemy to define us. Certainly, there was no place within the natural world in which we would find greater comfort than capitalism. Thus, the form of democratic capitalism with which my generation grew up, has, since the destruction of the Wall, been replaced by a completely amoral version called Plutocracy – a virulent form of economic imperialism with no other mandate than the exercise of power by wealth. This current economic principle under which we all now suffer disenables us to an extent the bounds of which we haven’t even begun to fathom. Most important, it produces a climate of assault on the resources of the natural world, and, in particular, natural soundscape, that has been and continues to be nothing short of insidious.

That human noise affects those of the natural world couldn’t be more clearly expressed than through an article that appeared a few years ago 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.” The airport in western England, is used mostly for corporate jets, helicopters and private planes, and is very close to the British Royal estates.

Through my field work, I discovered that in undisturbed natural environments, creatures vocalize in relationship to one another very much 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. For instance, 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 for the acoustic real estate. 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 process occurs within marine environments. The biophony serves as a vital gauge of a habitat’s health. But it also valuable information about its age, its level of stress, and can provide us with an abundance of other valuable new data such as why and how creatures in both the human and non-human worlds have learned to dance and sing. Yet, this miraculous concerto of the natural world is now under serious threat of complete 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 exacerbated by the effect of the GATT and NAFTA treaties. And last, we seem consumed by a boundless need to conquer aspects of the natural world rather than to find a way to abide in consonance with it.

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 38 years later. Please note that the major portion of that percentage was leveled in the last decade since the Berlin Wall event. While this phenomenon is less true with European countries (their natural habitats were compromised long ago), 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 dangerous effects.

Evidence of the damage from these noise factors has only recently come to light. With the advent of the new field of bio-acoustics, patterns are beginning to emerge, through the use of new field research techniques, that confirm the loss those of us particularly sensitive to the natural world have instinctively been feeling for some time. The following examples demonstrate the point:

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 procure a meal. While recording the rare spade foot toads (Spea intermontanus) above the north shore of Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras only a few miles from Yosemite National Park one spring, a similar event actually occurred. After the sound of the passing military jet disappeared, forty-five minutes passed before the toads were able to reestablish their protective chorus. In the fading evening light we observed 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.

Once, while doing acoustic research in the Amazon Basin, a multi-engine jet flying low over the jungle interrupted the dawn chorus of birds and insects at a particular site where we were recording. When we returned to our lab and examined the effect of the jet noise on the natural soundscape, we found that the disruption caused by the jet induced many creatures to stop vocalizing while others altered their patterns significantly. The momentary break in the integrity of the biophony created by the jet left open the strong possibility that many creatures would become victim to opportunistic predators such as hawks or resident mammals. Certainly, their behavior was altered measurably.

Because of the noise introduced into their environment by cruise boats traveling in Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska, humpback whales have been observed swimming away and hiding behind spits of land or large ice formations that had broken off glaciers apparently in an effort to get into quieter «shadow» zones. Where once there were many, in recent years, fewer and fewer whales have been seen in the Bay. Along with other factors such as the special manner in which certain vessel noise may be amplified by the geological features of the Bay contour, it is believed by some biologists that human-induced noise is a major contributing ingredient to the falling numbers.

Lincoln Meadow, a few kilometers east of Yuba Pass on the Sierra Nevada mountain ridge line 3 and a half hours drive from San Francisco, used to be a pristine edge habitat replete with a wide variety of spring birds, insects and amphibians. I recorded there late in the spring of 1988. A year after our first recording, the forest around Lincoln Meadow was selectively logged although what was left standing appeared to the human eye to be healthy and vibrant as there was none of the destruction evident from what would have otherwise been a clear-cut. However, the stream coursing through the alpine meadow after deforestation ran cloudy and trout no longer hid in the deep clear holes along the stream’s edge. More striking than all the deceptive visual cues was the loss of the biophony, still resonant and palpable 18 years later. There is no significant bird density. No insects. Only an occasional spring frog.

The introduction of noise into natural soundscapes enhances the sense of loss because noise diminishes human experience of the wild. Creature behavior is altered as a direct result of increased stress. Keeping in mind that human and non-human species respond differently to types, loudness, or combinations of mechanical noises, we are just now beginning to understand that many of these sounds introduce affliction in both worlds even though the victims may not seem conscious of the effect or know how to react. An experiment done on humans in France invited subjects to adapt to sleeping in the laboratory. After an initial few nights of quiet, the participants were then subjected – while asleep – to fifteen nights worth of recorded traffic noise. The sleeping subjects were wired to instruments used to measure stress. «Heart rate, finger-pulse amplitude, and pulse-wave velocity were measured throughout the night, and each sleeper filled out a questionnaire upon waking.» Two to seven nights later, the subjects reported that they were no longer disturbed by the noise (e. g. the subjects had become habituated to it). However, the stress effects – heart rate, etc. «measured the fifteenth night were identical to those logged the first.» (Science News, 121, June 5, 1982. 380)

In 2001, Scott Creel, a biologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, along with a number of his colleagues, reported on a study that tied glucocorticoid enzyme stress levels in elk and wolves to the proximity of snowmobiles and the noise they create in relation to the wild populations in Yellowstone and Voyageurs Parks. With the wolves in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), over the period of time that snowmobile traffic increased 25%, stress enzyme levels increased by 28%. Conversely, within Voyageurs Park (Michigan), a 37% decline in snowmobile traffic between 1998 and 2000 correlated to an exact drop of the same percentage in stress enzyme levels over the same period. These figures are found to be comparable in elk.

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 a nearly 40% loss of viable North American biophonies collected in my library over the course of 38 years. Keep in mind that these are habitats no one will ever be able to 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 the fabric of life is sadly compromised. That is why the U. S. National Park Service implemented a strong educational and administrative model to protect natural soundscapes as a valued resource. The soundscape within U. S. parks 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, as of the time of this talk (2001), snowmobiles were being phased out of Yellowstone Park although that enlightened policy has since been reversed by the Bush Administration. Tourist overflights over Rocky Mountain National Park have been eliminated altogether. Over Grand Canyon they have been severely restricted although, given the current political mindset in the United States, we remain quite uncertain as to the manner in which these policies will be implemented. However, if the NPS succeeds in its effort to convince the visiting public of the importance of this noise-free model, the idea will certainly spread and we will have come a long way toward our goal of delivering on our objective of responsive stewardship of the wild natural.

As Paul Shepard says toward the end of Nature & Madness, “Adults weaned to the wrong music, cut short from their own potential, are not the best of mentors. The problem may be more difficult to understand than to solve. Beneath the veneer of civilization…lies the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich nonhuman environment, play at being animals, the discipline of natural history…the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product. There is a secret person undamaged in every individual…sensitive to the right moments in our lives. All of them are assimilated in perverted forms in modern society: our profound love of animals twisted into pets, zoos, decorations, and entertainment; our search for poetic wholeness subverted by the model of the machine instead of the body: the moment of pubescent idealism shunted into nationalism or ethereal otherworldly religion instead of an ecosophical cosmology….The task is not to start by recapturing the theme of a reconciliation with the earth in all of its metaphysical subtlety, but with something much more direct and simple that will yield its own healing metaphysics.”

In the end – before the forest echoes die – we may want to listen carefully to the natural soundscapes that still abide. When we do we’ll discover that we aren’t separate, but a vital part of one fragile biological place. How many of us will hear the message from Eden’s garden in time? The whisper of every leaf and creature implores us to cherish the natural sources of our lives, which – indeed – may hold secrets of love for all living things, especially our own humanity. This divine music is fast growing dim; the time approaches when we may have to bear witness as the creature spirits return for one final hunt.


- Berendt, Joachim-Ernst, The Third Ear, Owl Books, Henry Holt & Co., 1992.

- Carson, Rachael, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962

- Krause, B. L., Notes from the Wild, Ellipsis Arts, 1996 (with CD).

- Krause, B. L., Into a Wild Sanctuary, Heyday Books, 1998

- Lyon, Thomas, Noise and the Sacred, Utah Wilderness Association Review, May/June 1995.

- Mathieu, W. A., The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music. Shambala Press, 1991

- Sarno, Louis, The Extraordinary Music of the Babenzélé Pygmies, (book & CD), Ellipsis Arts, 1996.

- Schafer, R. Murray, Tuning of the World, (in the United States under the title: Soundscape), Destiny Books 1977

- Schafer, R. Murray, Voices of Tyranny: Temples of Silence, Arcana Editions, 1993
- Schafer, R. Murray, The Book of Noise, Arcana Editions, 1998

- Shepard, Paul, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. Island Press, 1996

- Shepard, Paul, Nature & Madness, Sierra Club Books, 1982

- Turner, Jack, The Abstract Wild. Univ. of Arizona Press, 1996.