Wild city // Sounds of a place

Ice out on Lake Harriet happened early this year. On Saturday, March 17, my husband and I saw that the thin, pockmarked, blue frozen sheet that had been covering the lake in recent weeks was no more. Small sections of it, still intact, had blown to the north end, and some of that had shattered.

The wind was kicking up white caps. Near shore, the piles of ice shards rocking on the waves made the most remarkable sound, a delicate shush, shush, shush like a whisper, I want to say, but that description doesn’t quite convey it. Like a wind chime? But it wasn’t percussive. It didn’t sound like anything was being struck.

It was a bright sound, cheerful and lighthearted. I’d like to say “the lake was talking,” but that sounds ridiculous. “The lake was murmuring in satisfaction” doesn’t sound much better.

In The New York Times Magazine the next day I read an article, “Whisper of the Wild,” by Kim Tingley, about “trying to find and capture nature’s soft voice before human sounds completely drown it out.” The article features an enthusiastic young man from Wisconsin, Davyd Betchkal, who is working on a study at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, a study that has him setting up equipment outdoors and recording continuously for a month.

Even in Denali (a wild area the size of Vermont, one close to the Arctic Circle), during most 24-hour periods the drone of a snowmobile or an airplane is heard at least once. This “human din,” according to the article, “is imperiling habitat.” And, of course, it is affecting us. Natural sounds provide us with a sense of place, and without that “an emotional bond with the natural world is unraveling,” according to Tingley.

“As children,” he writes, “our grandparents could hope to swim in a lake or lie in a meadow for whole afternoons without hearing a motorboat, car or plane; today the engineless hour is all but extinct.”

I am both charmed and alarmed by this soundscape ecology research.

The charm:

  • That a young man from Wisconsin wearing a green hat his mother knit for him is traipsing across a remote park in Alaska in the middle of winter setting up sound equipment and waxing eloquent about being immersed in nature’s sounds. That Henry David Thoreau is his hero, and that Betchkal has grown a beard in his honor. That Betchkal got his technical skills running soundboards for indie bands at the King Club in Madison.
  • That I can hear the recorded natural sounds. I went to The New York Times Magazine website and listened to a mama grizzly snuffling around the microphone while her babies bawled in the background. Bear babies sound a lot like human babies.
  • That scientists are trying to learn what a place sounds like when we are not there. Which brings to mind that old question, “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear, does it make a sound?”

The alarm:

  • That technology developed by humans is noisy. Our response to this situation is to use technology, to go out and record the natural sounds, to preserve them digitally, thinking that they will still exist because we can sit in a room, turn on a machine, and hear them.
  • That there is no getting away from the sound of an engine. This reminds me of the time I stayed in a hermitage in the woods at one of those places where you leave the four-lane road for the two-lane, then the two-lane for the gravel, and then turn off onto a yet more primitive road before you arrive. In the middle of the night I was awakened by the sound of a helicopter buzzing my tiny cabin.
  • In the city we don’t expect the engineless hour. Most of us regularly hear cars, both near and in the distance, jets, and other machines depending on the season: leaf blowers, lawn mowers, chain saws, snow blowers. Our soundscape has a persistent mechanical component, a hum, whine and roar.

But we also have a layer of natural sounds which we may be blocking out, just as we block out the mechanical ones: squirrels chittering, cardinals whistling, robins singing us awake, house wrens rattling, crows cawing, thunder, rain, wind shushing us asleep.

Tingley writes, “To restore ecosystems to acoustic health, researchers must determine, to the last raindrop, what compositions nature would play without us.” I can think of two other ways to restore acoustic health: turn off your engines, and listen to the natural sounds available to you, like ice going out of a lake.    

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.