Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world’s great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.
I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does. Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed “earlids.” Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts – our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.
For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness — deep listening — changes us.
These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It’s not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one’s irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, anything but this!
I am not certain why this shift occurs, but it might be in part because the inner voice, the commentator in our heads that plays such an outsized role in maintaining our sense of being a separate self, is unable to operate at the same time that we are listening fully. It’s possible to be engaged in a visual activity while the commentator is yammering away, but it is not possible to listen. So when we are listening carefully to the natural world, the sense of being a separate self is necessarily diminished, while the presence of the living world is accentuated.
When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.
When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.
But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.
Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.
I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.
I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.
But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.