Another Loss for the Quiet

As anyone who listens often to the natural soundscape knows, airplane noise is becoming almost unavoidable. Even in remote areas. The effect on wildlife who depend on a clear audio channel for communication remains largely unknown. My opinion, shared by almost no one I know, is that the only solution is for us all to fly a lot less, to stay put, and to localize our economies so we are not shipping stuff every which way. Care to join me in that?

Continue reading “Another Loss for the Quiet”

Right Whales in Cape Cod Bay

Large numbers of north Atlantic right whales, more than 60, have been seen in Cape Cod Bay in recent days. They normally appear in large numbers in mid April, so like everything else in New England this spring they are running a couple weeks late. But in this case late is definitely better than never. It’s a sign that the population is probably faring okay despite the lack of food in their traditional summer grounds in the Bay of Fundy, and a sure sign that spring has finally come to New England.

Articles:

http://wellfleet.wickedlocal.com/article/20150502/NEWS/150509592

http://www.capecodtoday.com/article/2015/05/05/224342-Numbers-grow-whales-continue-feast-Cape-Cod-Bay

An almost-real-time map of right whale sightings:

http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/surveys/

Right Whales Return and Disappear Again

It was with a great sense of relief that I read in early August that right whales had returned in large numbers to the Bay of Fundy. During the last week in July, whale watch boats out of Grand Manan counted 50 right whales. Comments ran along the lines of “just like the old days.” Researchers from the New England Aquarium, who have been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy for 34 years, documented 45 whales on Thursday of that week and another 30 or so on Friday.

This was good news, because last year, the NEAq team found five whales in the Bay, the lowest in all the years they have been going there. It was very worrying. The Bay of Fundy normally hosts the largest number of right whales of any place we know. I have seen as many as 75 on a single trip. That’s quite a large number, about 15% of the entire population.

Right whales come to the Bay of Fundy in search of food. Summer is the time when plankton blooms in northern waters and many species of whale come to the Bay of Fundy looking for food. For many of them, this is the only food they will have all year. They survive winter on the fat they store during the summer. So in general, the whales go where the food is, and last year there was no food in the waters of the Bay of Fundy, at least not the kind of food that right whales eat.

Right whales consume a species of copepod, a very tiny, almost microscopic shrimp-like animal, named Calanus finmarchicus. Calanus is a cold water species. Increases in water temperature affect how early in the year they reproduce, how long they remain at the surface (right whales are surface feeders) and ultimately whether they reproduce at all. It is not much of a leap to speculate that the absence of Calanus in the Bay of Fundy in August of 2013 was due to higher-than-normal surface water temperatures.

Looking at data from NOAA weather buoys in the northern Gulf of Maine, near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, I have found that the surface water temperature has been rising over the past decade, with 2012 and 2013 being the warmest on record. That might account for the absence of food and the absence of right whales.

This year is different. The water temperature is closer to what it was a decade ago. At first I thought that might account for the abundance of right whales, for the comment that it feels “like the old days.” Surface water temperature tends to follow air temperature. So with global warming we expect to find warming of ocean surface temperatures as well, with obvious consequences for cold-water species. At first there was reason to celebrate the return of right whales to the Bay of Fundy this year, but there is now reason to remain concerned, because in spite of year-to-year variations that can be quite dramatic, the long-term trend is toward warming. And the right whales have disappeared again. That early optimism has been replaced with concern once again. Surveys in the Bay of Fundy, and in the Roseway Basin off the Coast of Nova Scotia have turned up very few whales. Five or six have been spotted off the coast of Cape Breton, farther north. Given what happened last year, I am not optimistic that the Bay of Fundy will remain a gathering place for right whales.

The question of the moment, at least for me, is what effect two years of poor food resource in the Bay of Fundy is having on the health of the population. It costs a lot of energy to go looking for food, not knowing where it will be found. The energy in the food that is found has to be higher than the energy spent to find it, or it is of no use. If the energy spent looking is higher than the energy in the food found, then right whale health will be decreasing and mortality from starvation could be high.

I have no evidence that right whales are starving to death, but I think it is a concern. What does the second year of absence of whales in the Bay of Fundy mean? Does it mean they got the word and are avoiding the Bay? Or does it mean last year’s lack of food significantly diminished the population? A large number of whales appeared in Cape Cod Bay in April, suggesting that the population is okay, but their food is moving. But a lower-than-normal number of calves was born in the winter, suggesting the population is experiencing some difficulties.

Researchers have depended on the predictability of right whales’ presence in the Bay of Fundy to monitor and study them and estimate their total numbers. They photograph them, count them, identify individuals, collect DNA and poop, and thus have gathered a very complete picture of the size and structure of the right whale population. If right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy, it will take significant human effort to figure out where they are going to find food, in order to continue to monitor their health and well-being.

If they drop off of our radar, we will have little idea how they are faring, except to continue to observe how many females appear off the coast of Florida in the winter to give birth, and perhaps to monitor them more closely in Cape Cod Bay in the winter and spring. Right whales have survived being hunted to near extinction. They have surely survived other changes in their food supply. We can hope and believe they are adaptable enough to survive this one. But it would be nice to know. Whale researchers don’t seem to be very good at remaining dispassionate. It’s not an easy job. You have to care a lot to go out every day in a tiny boat and spend long days searching for and documenting whales. The blog posts from the New England Aquarium convey real concern and a sense of loss.

Seeing the right whales each year is one sign that this precious Earth is still holding things together, despite all the stress it is experiencing at our hands. Not seeing them is very worrying, and for me feels like a sign that we are pushing the Earth beyond its limits and will be facing many more losses in the years to come.

The Great Animal Orchestra

A Book Review

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places
By Bernie Krause
2012
Little, Brown and Company

Bernie Krause is one of the preeminent recorders and collectors of natural sound and one of the pioneers of the field of soundscape ecology. His most recent book, The Great Animal Orchestra, is indispensable reading and listening for anyone interested in natural soundscapes and soundscape recording, but it is even more essential for everyone else, providing an engaging introduction to the vital role that sound plays in our lives and the lives of all animals, and the rapid deterioration of natural soundscapes around the world due to the impacts of resource extraction and ever-present human noise. We might think that the degradation of natural soundscapes is merely an aesthetic loss for those few humans who prefer quiet to noise, but Krause demonstrates very clearly that increasing noise is unravelling the fabric of natural communities. The creatures that live in those communities depend heavily on sound for communication, navigation, and locating sources of food. Understanding soundscapes is therefore essential for fully appreciating what is happening in natural communities, and recording natural soundscapes is a unique and powerful way of monitoring and assessing overall ecosystem health and integrity.

The Great Animal Orchestra was published in a somewhat confusing variety of formats, all with slightly different content. The hardcover print edition, for instance, does not come with a CD, nor are there any links to online sound files, but it does contain all of the sonograms, visual representations of audio recordings, which illustrate many of Krause’s points. It is a shame that the print edition does not include the sounds, because Krause has one of the largest and most diverse private collections of natural sound recordings in the world, and the book is, after all, about sound.

(Note: after writing this review I learned that the paperback print edition will be released March 12, 2013 and will include icons in the text that point to relevant online audio examples.)

According to Krause, the audio book edition includes the largest selection of audio recordings of any of the editions, but of course it lacks the sonograms. Read by the author, the audio book includes many recordings that illustrate the text, but most of these are played under the narration, which means one does not always hear the depth and detail of the recordings. On those few occasions when the recordings stand alone without narration, we get a glimpse into the richness of what Bernie Krause has collected over the past four and a half decades. The audio book would have been rather long if all the recordings had been separated from the narration, but I still would have preferred that.

The other two options are a standard eBook, which like the print version is text without any sound, and an Enhanced eBook which includes the natural sound recordings. Because I do not own a device that will play the Enhanced eBook, I do not know how the text and audio are integrated, nor how the Enhanced eBook audio compares to the audio book, but it appears that the Enhanced eBook is the only way to get both the audio and the sonograms in one format. The other alternative is to purchase both the print edition and the audio book. This was the route I took, and I am glad I did. I like having the print edition for reference, and I really appreciate hearing Bernie read his own words. His passion and his deep concern come through more forcefully in his voice than they can on the page.

Chapter One, Sound as My Mentor, is largely autobiographical, detailing how his career moved almost by accident from studio musician to nature sound recordist and soundscape ecologist. In this chapter Krause also introduces and explains some of the essential parameters of sound waves, such as amplitude and the often misunderstood decibel that measures it; frequency, wavelength and pitch; harmonics; and acoustic envelopes. Every chapter, including this one, is built upon Krause’s personal experiences recording in diverse environments around the world, and these experiences enliven even the most technical explanations of acoustic theory.

Chapter Two, Voices from the Land, opens with one of the most important stories in the book, the moment that Krause discovered viscerally the origins of human music in the voice of the Earth. He learned this through the guidance of a Nez Perce elder named Angus Wilson on the shores of Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon. He goes on in this chapter to describe this most fundamental aspect of natural sound: geophony, literally “speech of the Earth,” the sounds produced by wind, water, ice, ocean and land.

Chapter Three, The Organized Sound of Life Itself, moves from geophony to biophony, the sounds made by all living organisms from viruses to whales. This chapter introduces an important and intriguing concept: soundscape recording as a means of monitoring ecosystem health and integrity. Krause describes his experience performing before and after recordings in an area that was selectively logged at Lincoln Meadow, Yuba Pass, CA. Although visually similar before and after the logging operation, the soundscape recordings demonstrated a deep loss of species diversity and density. It looked much the same, but the animals were gone. There is a very important point here. We humans are visually oriented and sometimes quite oblivious to the soundscape. But most animals are deeply dependent on sound for their survival. In many situations, recording the soundscape is a better indicator of ecosystem health than taking pictures or other measures. Sound reveals so much that is hidden from the eye.

Chapter Three also introduces another fascinating and important concept, which is explored more fully in Chapter Four; Biophony, The Proto-Orchestra. This is Krause’s niche hypothesis. Briefly, the niche hypothesis states that in “in older, healthy habitats” animal vocalizations partition into separate frequency and/or temporal bands. Furthermore, in these healthy habitats, most acoustic niches tend to be filled, with few gaps. In disturbed habitats, those sounds are more likely to overlap in competing frequency or temporal space, and to show large gaps of unoccupied acoustic territory. In other words, in healthy, undisturbed habitats, the animals are not vocalizing over each, they are organized like an orchestra where “some sing low and some sing higher,” in order to leave a clear channel of communication for every organism. This is not just a fascinating concept, it ushers in an entirely new way (at least for us urbanized, industrialized humans) to listen to the natural world, not as separate organisms in sonic competition, but as a whole system, an orchestra, vocalizing in harmony. Listening to the whole, and recording the whole, yields insights into the functioning of ecosystems, and our own role in those systems, that simply do not occur when we are trying to listen to this or that organism in isolation from its context.

In recent years the highly controversial “Gaia Hypothesis” – the notion that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organism – has found some mainstream credibility as the more prosaic “earth systems science.” Krause’s niche hypothesis is also controversial, but he makes a strong case for it. It should not be hard to confirm, except that it is getting increasingly difficult to find undisturbed habitat. My own recordings made here in rural Vermont show this acoustic partitioning most clearly in my recordings of late summer insects. Until I looked at the sonograms and could see the distinct frequency bands for each different type of grasshopper or cricket, I never realized how much insect diversity we had living in our back yard.

Chapter Five, First Notes, moves from biophony to anthrophony. It describes how humans learned our music from the combination of geophony and biophony. Although we have strayed rather far from our origins, our music is not something that arrived fully formed in modern humans. We learned it from the Earth, and many of our fellow creatures are great musicians. This perhaps explains why music is so deeply moving for us. It speaks to our origins and our connection to the Earth like nothing else. In my experience, that is most clearly obvious from listening to humpback whales and gray seals and of course the songbirds. My own discovery of the deep similarity between human vocalization and bird song came thirty years ago when I wrote a college term paper comparing the development of speech in humans and the development of song in songbirds. The similarities were so striking that it changed how I viewed human origins and human exceptionalism. What once seemed a unique human achievement found its place in the larger symphony (literally “sounding or speaking together”) of life on Earth. That is Krause’s aim here, to point the way to the origins of human music in the geo-biophony. I would have loved more detail in this chapter. The range of melodic voices of the Earth goes well beyond what is described here, as do the musics of cultures that have not lost their connection to the land. Here we find a tantalizing glimpse that perhaps will lead us to explore further the fascinating world of animal vocalization and human music that is closely tied to the geo-biosphere.

Chapter Six, Different Croaks for Different Folks, explores the ways in which human music has become divorced from the larger matrix of natural sound that gave birth to it. Of most interest to me here is the portrayal of early Christian attitudes toward all things “natural.” Krause argues that “those who wished to live in harmony with the natural world were considered primitive, unenlightened, wicked, pagan, or all of the above… Different types of music were banned outright.” Those bans extended to indigenous people being “converted” by Christian missionaries. We almost lost many of the clearest examples of human music that is deeply embedded in the natural sonic world. And now we are losing the soundscapes.

Chapter Seven, The Fog of Noise, is about what you would expect: a detailed discussion of all the ways that humans create noise, which is sound without meaning. Chapter Eight, Noise and Biophony/ Oil and Water, extends that discussion into the many ways that human noise is diminishing and destroying natural soundscapes. Krause concludes this chapter by writing, “biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challenged planet.” We drown out these sensitive biophonies every day with our airplanes, our internal combustion engines, and our ubiquitous presence in nearly every corner of the Earth. We do so to our own peril, and the even greater peril of the natural world we can now barely hear.

The final chapter, The Coda of Hope, is somewhat strangely named. There is hope, but it is muted at best. The hope springs from the fact that, with plenty of time, severely disturbed habitats can recover, if we leave them utterly alone. Human noise is destructive to the fabric of life in ways most of us have never imagined. The only good thing about noise pollution is that, in most cases, once it stops, there is no lingering effect, unlike, for instance, pumping carbon into the atmosphere or toxic substances into the ocean. In those cases, even if we stop today, the effects will linger for centuries at least. But as soon as we stop the noise, the damage can start to repair itself. Krause tells the story of how wildlife, and a vibrant soundscape, returned to the Chernobyl exclusion zone within three years of that catastrophic accident. The Earth can heal. It is amazingly resilient. But it needs a break from us in order to do its healing work. He concludes the book with these words:

“I am invariably asked what we can do to help preserve our remaining natural environments. It’s easy: leave them alone and stop the inveterate consumption of useless products that none of us need.”

“Inveterate” means “habit that is long established and unlikely to change.” Another word for that might be “addiction,” and nobody ever said that breaking an addiction is easy. It’s possible, it’s necessary, but it’s never easy.

This is a rich and intricate book. The themes, the sounds, the information and the personal reflections weave in and out of each other throughout, not unlike the natural symphony that is the book’s subject. There were many points where I felt that there were layers to the story I was comprehending only because I have been exploring these themes in my own life for more than thirty years. And there were layers I definitely missed on first reading, and more that I probably still missed on listening to the audio book. I shall return for more.

There is a kind of magic to listening in the natural world. There are feelings and sensations in that act that are impossible to describe. They reach back deep into our animal origins. They reach even deeper into the mystery of our conscious present as members of a living, singing planet. Past and present; human, animal and Earth weave a symphony that is the truth of our life together. Bernie Krause weaves his own symphony into that larger one and communicates much more than the words convey, at least to this reader/listener.

For me the coda of hope is that even as we drown out the Earth’s symphony with our own meaningless noise, and begin to unravel the integrity of the life system, we are, after all, voices in that same orchestra. The discord can’t go on forever. Somehow, somewhen, the natural harmony of the great animal orchestra will reassert itself, probably without us, but possibly with us, if, and only if, we take the time to listen.

Just Stop

I’ve been thinking about the end of the world. The world that had a stable climate, vast intact terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, silent places, and an abundance of complex life forms is ending. A new world of climate chaos, disintegrating ecosystems and mass extinctions is taking its place.

And then there is the world that needs to end because it is so destructive and is making every one and everything so miserable: the world of buying and burning and drilling and fracking and blowing up and otherwise destroying and exploiting and acquiring and hoarding without any consideration of consequences. That world needs to end, in which we believe we are separate from Earth and are therefore immune from whatever we do to it.

Reverend Billy (Billy Talen) put it like this in his new book The End of the World (2012, OR Books):

“To save our own life we have to save the tree’s life. That means: we must remember that this tree is a life. Then we might get back on track saving our own lives.”

We must remember that this tree is a life. It is a life and it has a life. It has a reason for being. It feels the air moving through its leaves or needles. It communicates continuously with the other trees around it. And, if we feel a need to justify it in human terms, it is another part of our lungs. It is just as much a part of our body as the tissue in our chests. And we are part of it.

Because the car is my greatest contribution to the destruction of Earth, I am trying to leave it parked at home as much as possible. Which means there is a lot of entertainment that I do not take part in. There are a lot of experiences I am missing that require travel.

Instead I lie on the bench I have placed in the back yard under a huge old pine tree. I love gazing into the upper branches of the tree and listening to the whisper of the thousands of needles in the wind, and feeling the slow swaying of the trunk, and maybe even the subtle lifting and relaxing of the ground beneath me, or am I just imagining that? It’s a magnificent tree. I lie there exchanging the gifts of oxygen and carbon dioxide with it. I could not live without something like it and it could not live without something like me. Does it know this? Does it feel my presence like I feel its presence? Does it feel the additional weight on its roots? Can it acknowledge the gift of CO2 and be grateful for it? I think it can. Tree consciousness is not like animal consciousness, but it must have its own ways of experiencing the world.

The realization of non-separation re-enchants the world. Earth is full of ways of seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling and touching and other senses that we do not have and for which we have no words. The human is but one of the many ways Earth knows itself. What could be more delightful?

Earth has been doing interesting things for a lot longer than humans have been adding to the repertoire, and Earth will go on doing interesting things long after we humans have disappeared into the deep night. So for me the delights of the non-human world, the dancing of trees for instance, are more deeply satisfying than anything humans can create. Earth experience is everywhere, in everything. One need not go anywhere to find it.

But one must be willing to lose something. One must be willing to die at least a little before physical death comes to force the issue. Every one of us will face physical death. All of our plans and hopes and dreams and projects and relationships, all the ways we have defined ourselves, will come to an end, ready or not. We will be called upon to leave the projects unfinished, say goodbye to all the possessions and all the loved ones, lose everything, let the world carry on without us, transition into emptiness.

One must be willing to give up some of those projects, give up a sense of finding fulfillment in doing more, or having more or being more, in order to slow down enough to listen, to look, to experience what we already are, without need for improvement or amendment. To discover what Earth is now, without need for augmentation. To discover the magic that life is now, already, without anything being added to it, without even adding a thought.

Earth is alive. It’s a miracle. Our most clever invention is not any more amazing than Earth’s invention of the plant-animal-atmosphere-ocean-soil respiration system. Nothing we can do can make it more miraculous than it already is.

But we can make it less. I’m afraid that many of our plans and projects reduce its possibilities, can even annihilate the whole gorgeous thing. We must be willing to die at least a little to the mind-made sense of self, die to separation, to prevent annihilation.

It seems to me that this is the reality of our situation: we must come to terms with death before we die, which means we are required to do and to be less than what we had hoped and dreamed. We must accept the physical limits to our Earthly existence. Mother Earth is telling us “No!” and we are throwing several tantrums because we do not like to be told “No.” We think our freedom and our essence is to be found in satisfaction of infinite desires. Our sense of self is bound up with “more.” Getting comfortable with “No!” requires a more mature sense of self, one that does not require constant expansion and gratification. One that is content with what is.

Can a species like ours grow up fast enough? I doubt it. But there is this tantalizing possibility: stopping takes no time at all. Doing takes time. Progress takes time. If there is much more we have to do, we are doomed, because we have run out of time.

Lacking time, all that is left to us is to stop everything. Just stop, inwardly and outwardly, mentally and physically. Not forever, but long enough to be unmade. Then to rediscover the abundance of Earth, the beauty and wonder of the non-human, the unfathomable depths of silence.

The crazy rush to the cliff can stop in an instant. It is possible. Just stop.