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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Soundscapes

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at the Master Naturalist Annual Gathering was about soundscapes. A landscape is visual, but all the sounds of an area are its soundscape, which was a totally new idea for me. A soundscape consists of all the sounds you would hear if you were sitting in a particular location at a particular time. It is not a recording of isolated sounds. Soundscapes are divided into three categories: biophony, geophony and anthrophony. Biophony refers to sounds created by animals, like birds calling, coyotes howling, or insects chirping. Geophony consists of things like wind, thunder, waterfalls and babbling brooks. And anthrophony refers to sounds created by humans and their machines: traffic noise, voices, industrial roars and clangs. My first reaction to anthrophony was “Ugh, annoying!” but then you realize it also includes things like symphony orchestras, singing, chanting, and other pleasant sounds.

The presenter played several soundscapes for us, recorded in diverse places such as the Congo, Madagascar, Lafayette, and the Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. We heard monkeys howling, elephants trumpeting, woodpeckers hammering, frogs croaking, and much more. One of the soundscapes we heard was used in the film Jurassic Park. Other artistic uses of soundscapes include music that imitates bird calls, such as Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. There’s a website that compares his orchestrations to the actual sounds he was imitating. In Gene Stratton Porter’s book, A Girl of the Limberlost, she describes how Elenora played the violin in imitation of all the creatures she heard in the Limberlost Swamp. There is also music that is played with natural sounds interspersed in it. I have a CD that intertwines gentle melodies with the sounds of loons, wolves, rain, and frogs.

There are of course also many scientific uses of soundscapes. One of the most interesting examples we heard concerned an area that was selectively logged. A logging company convinced a government panel that their selective logging would not hurt the landscape because they would only take a few trees that “wouldn’t be missed.” There were before and after pictures taken from an identical vantage point and in truth there was really no difference visually. It was still a beautiful, seemingly undisturbed landscape. But Bernie Krause (author of the The Great Animal Orchestra) had the foresight to record all the sounds before and after the logging operation. The difference there was incredible. There were so many fewer birds, insects, and other animal sounds after logging. Were they gone because the logging operation had disturbed them or because they needed the density of the forest and the old growth to provide the habitat they needed? It would seem to be the second alternative because even after a period of a year the forest was still remarkably quiet compared to its previous soundscape.

A soundscape is a vital piece of a habitat. Animals react to sounds. Some animals fall silent when they are out-competed in decibels. Others increase their volume to be heard. There is speculation that birds are most vocal in the early morning and early evening because these are quieter times and they can be heard more easily. I suppose it might even be that they sing as much all day long, but that we notice them more at that time because there is less competition. When the sounds of one animal are covered over by other sounds it’s called acoustic masking. This can make it harder for animals to locate prey, avoid becoming prey, or find a mate. All of these things make the animal expend more energy, thus making their existence even more challenging.

Soundscapes even exist underwater. A bleached coral reef is silent, but a healthy one has a vibrant soundscape. We also heard a soundscape that included ants. Depending on the sensitivity and quality of the recording device, it is possible to hear ants “talking” to one another as they pass. I didn’t even know ants made any sound at all!

What is your favorite soundscape?  Where do you go to hear it? How has it changed? These are thoughts to ponder. We often take our surroundings for granted, and even more so the sounds, which are an important part of our environment.