You flicker from tree to tree, splaying your rump feathers, curling your toes around a maple branch, flushing green and flexible after rainfall. Even deep in the forest, shaggy curtains of elm bowing down to the ground, the dawn penetrates, a gilt river of crown shyness between the pines, the fir trees, and the cottonwoods. Violets blink like purple stars in the undergrowth. Spring has arrived and it is time to call for your mate. A year’s worth of liquid flight, moonlight that pierced your tiny eyes and accumulated, pooled yellow with desire in your syrinx, begins to rise, to find it’s spiraling syntax. Finally, exuberantly, you snap your beak open and vibrate into song. Nothing sounds. You sing so hard you lose your footing and catch your fall with open wings, alighting on a lower branch. Again, you strain, and then squint into the forest air, and see that it is molecular with moisture and pollen and thick with… something else. Something like a shadow that hovers and flows, running right in front of your tiny, feathered head. Water-like it seems to melt into the void, filling every empty nook. When you try to sing, the substance subsumes your voice, blocks its melody from travelling the forest, and reaching your lover. You struggle and shift pitch, shift rhythm. What if you made your song a sharpened point and like a mosquito stings through skin, you pierced the dull air. Nothing works. You will not mate. Your longing for love is mute. Your song flattens back into your breast.
This is my creative imagining of what a Swainson Thrush might feel like, as it tries to sing for a mate, in the midst of anthropogenic (manmade) noise: logging, highway traffic, construction, or the roar of jet planes overhead. Sound, although you cannot hold it or weigh it, takes up space. Ecological space. The term Soundscape was first coined by Canadian naturalist and composer R. Murray Schafer and was expanded into the term Soundscape Ecology by musician and ecologist Bernie Krause to describe the acoustic relationship between beings in a shared ecosystem. Field recording next to a Kenyan waterhole at night, in the seventies, Krause realized that the combined effect of all the different animal noises was similar to the music of an orchestra. He translated the sound data into a visual graph called a spectrogram and was shocked to see that, in fact, it resembled a musical score. The frogs were flutes. The hyenas were the oboes. Completing thousands of field recordings, often in the same place year after year, Krause developed the Acoustic Niche Hypothesis. An ecosystem is a space and every song inhabits a different part of that space. Every animal, in a shared ecosystem, evolves sounds in different pitches and rhythms so that they leave “room” for each other. They identify the clearest channel through their landscape: their acoustic niche.
When you go outside at night and hear the heartbeat pulse of peeper song below the sonorous whooping of a barred owl, the streaking cackle of coyotes on the hunt somehow gliding in and out of the rush of the mountains stream, you are hearing the product of melodic, evolutionary cooperation. How can everyone sing at once without ever interrupting each other? Each being conscientiously braids through another’s sonic domain, finding the cleanest, most energy efficient way to produce their song. The end product is indeed like an orchestra. The name for this collection of vocalizations is called Biophony. Geophony refers to the elemental, non-biological layer that also informs the “orchestrated” sounds: the velveteen whisper of a brook, the rattle and whine of an old pine, flexing against the wind. But then a rumble. A guttural whine. There are cars in the distance, beyond the tree line.
Human noise is called anthrophony. And, as it exists now, it does not cooperate. Instead, it disregards the fine-tuned synchronized songscapes of Biophonic ecosystems. It takes up all the space. Noise pollution doesn’t just disturb animal populations. It can actually destroy them. Krause demonstrated how the roar of jet planes desynchronizes the song of spadefoot toads. Their synchronized song is a defense mechanism against predators, and Krause watched as, when they fell into disharmony, coyotes and great horned owls descended on the toads. The population was quickly decimated. Similarly it causes life-threatening stress to frogs and blocks the song niches of birds trying to mate. While they shift their register and try to adapt to new soundscapes, the attempts usually fail. Bird populations that cannot mate, quickly fall extinct. It has been well-documented how sound pollution disturbs coral reefs and disorients whales.
Krause has studied thousands of soundscape ecologies, and according to a recent interview, he estimates that at least half no longer exist due to noise pollution and human development. His theory has allowed for researchers like Nick Friedman to do “quick” assessments of the biodiversity of ecosystems. Recordings can be run through programs to assess the variety of different sounds, analyzing how many different species are present. While this technology is exciting, its results are often extremely disheartening. In his own long-duration study of Sugarloaf Ridge State park, recording on April 15th of every year, Bernie Krause demonstrated the striking loss of birdsong, the susurrus of trees, and the murmur of streams. Drought and noise pollution took over the soundscape. I want to offer that as biological beings, we developed inside soundscapes. We, too, once had an acoustic niche. Maybe it was the plush pad of our footfall. Personally, I believe it was song. And that song may have come before the dry click of conversation. I like to imagine we were once fluid and aware of our biophonic channels. We knew how to send melodic arrows through the forest, disturbing no one, always reaching and softly drumming the ear of our beloved.
Bernie Krause advises silences. He tells us we need to listen again. And make less noise. I agree. But I also think that there is another fertile option. What would it mean to reclaim a biophonic niche? What would it sound like to spend a year in a forest carefully listening, and then to, accurately, engaging your whole body, begin to whistle into collaborative, orchestrated biophony with the rest of the more-than-human world? Yes, we have taken up too much sonic space. We have actually driven birds and insects to extinction. But that does not mean we can’t exit anthrophony and enter biophony. Perhaps the answer is to speak less, to build less, to drive less, to do less, and to sing more.
Sources: https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2017/08/biophony/, Future Ecologies Podcast Episode The Nature of Sound, NPR Invisibilia episode The Last Sound, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/.../10.../rsbl.2019.0649, Handbook for Acoustic Ecology by Barry Truax