The sounds of nature are as diverse and beautiful as the sights. But more and more, these sounds have to compete with human noises. It's a problem that Bernie Krause is all too aware of. He says, "Our brain spends most of its time filtering out noise in our environment." Bernie is probably the world's preeminent natural sound recordist. Since 1968, he's devoted his life to documenting and studying the many voices of nature. Bernie discovered that birds and insects and other animals in the same area vocalize in relationship to each other. They produce a tightly choreographed natural symphony... what Bernie calls a biophony.
"The sounds to me are more mellifluous and more sensuous than any musical score that we've ever written," explains Bernie. But sometimes the music of nature gets overpowered by other things. Bernie tells me, "Actually, we're about a mile from Highway 12, and we can still hear a lot of traffic noise." Bernie brings me to Bouverie Preserve, a lovely, protected oasis in Sonoma County... to give me a taste of pristine and not-so-pristine sound. He lets me listen to what his sensitive microphone picks up, and there's a tremendous amount of noise from Highway 12.
Nearby traffic and airplane noise is something that also concerns Bouverie's Manager, John Petersen. He says, "One of the things that we really can't control is the soundscape around us." Bouverie spans 535 acres and many different types of habitat.
"In just a very small area, you have a great diversity of plants and animals, over 135 species of birds and many large mammals including mountain lions and coyotes and bobcats," says John.
Bouverie Preserve is located near the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen, about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's part of Audubon Canyon Ranch, which also protects several parcels in West Marin County. The preserve was a gift from longtime owner David Bouverie, who didn't want the place to be developed. John says, "And so now, we have this wonderful property here that's preserved in perpetuity, where we offer wonderful environmental education programs free of charge to third and fourth grade kids." If you're not a kid, access to Bouverie is quite limited. You have to enter a lottery for a spot on a guided weekend hike.
For third and fourth graders, the programs include looking... and listening. John explains, "For example, one of the activities that they may do is a sound map, where they sit down in a quiet spot with a piece of paper, and they draw a sound map where they put themselves in the center, close their eyes, and then they pick out the different sounds that they hear." He adds, "I think it's very enlightening for them, and I'm hoping that it'll get them to start listening a little bit more in the rest of their lives." And that's what Bernie hopes all of us will do.
He says, "We used to get our music from the natural world. We used to sing with the forest -- the sounds of the forest. We learned to dance from the sounds of the forest and the movement of the animals."
In the 1980's Bernie created a CD of music made entirely from animal sounds. He called it Gorillas in the Mix. Bernie actually started out as a musician. In the early 60's he was part of the legendary folk group, The Weavers. As half of the duo Beaver and Krause, he was an innovator in electronic music. But he gradually became more and more fascinated by the natural world.
"To me, this is the voice of the divine," exclaims Bernie. "I can't imagine anything more calming and peaceful." Bernie has released numerous CDs of his nature recordings… which are musical in their own right… such as a biophony from the wilds of Borneo.
Bernie shows me how biophonies work: "But notice how when the Asian Paradise Flycatcher stops singing, the Ferruginous Babbler comes in a nanosecond later. And look what happens: it stops singing, and the Barbet comes in. It's like it's orchestrated and like it's being conducted."
In his studio, Bernie has many examples of the orchestration of nature… and what happens when it’s disrupted. He plays a chorus of Spade Foot Toads… recorded at Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra.
"What the Spade Foots do is they all sing together so that no predator can get a bead on any one creature," explains Bernie. A low-flying jet changes everything. According to Bernie, "They lose contact with one another, so that there are breaks in the chorusing."
This gives predators the opening to zero in on individual toads, which is what Bernie observed. The National Park Service recently designated soundscape as a natural resource, worthy of protection.
"We just went up to Yellowstone to do a measurement of the snowmobile noises," says Bernie. He'll play the recordings of snowmobiles, and recordings of wolves howling, for our elected officials to make a choice as to which sound should prevail in Yellowstone. "And I hope we'll make the right one," he says.
Just as rainforests and other sensitive habitats are endangered by human exploitation, so, too, are their biophonies. "When I first started, 35 years ago, I could record for about 15 hours and get one hour of usable material, like for a CD. Now it takes me two thousand hours," Bernie says, matter-of-factly.
According to Bernie, nearly a third of his vast library of soundscapes could not be duplicated today – the sounds just don't exist anymore. Others, such as Bouverie's, are out there, but they can be a bit elusive.
Bernie explains, "You gotta get up at five in the morning!" Bernie wants us to recognize the value of these natural symphonies… and to take the time to appreciate them. "You want peace, and you want to feel calm and centered in a very important, spiritual way, that's the way to do it. Guaranteed!"