Friday, February 7, 2014

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places by Bernie Krause

Why I read it: Impulse buy with a gift card at an independent bookseller; besides, I conduct citizen science experiments that include some of the listening skills championed in this book.

Summary: Finding the sounds of the forest through the trees; what once was, and what we are losing.

My Thoughts: I come at this book from an odd angle. For the past ten years I've been training myself to be a good listener of the natural world. It's been part passion, part profession, perhaps a little obsession. It's all about the world of the citizen scientist in me. I collect data, and a lot of time I do it with my ears.

That's not an accident. I've always been musically inclined, if not talented. My dad showed me middle C on a keyboard when I was a kid, and from there, I began imitating what I heard on the radio. I never learned to read music, but if I figured out the first couple of notes I could carry the song through. I even had a woman walk toward me from across a yard staring at my left temple, saying "You have perfect pitch. I can see it in your aura." Do with that one what you will.

So this book brings both of those segments of my life together. The author, a naturalist-musician, throws some startling facts at us. He describes how, working in Hollywood gathering sound for movies, he was eventually thrown by the fact that directors always asked for a piece of nature - a bird's song, a frog's call - to be derived from the rest of the soundscape, when, in fact, Krause learned, the entirety of the soundscape was what we should all be paying attention to. He began to wander from the movie work to follow his own passion. He recorded the biophony of the African jungle and the geophony of reeds capturing the wind on the edge of a lake. He learned that the only thing that could and does disrupt the flow of these two forms of natural sound is anthrophony, noise generated by us and our cars and our planes and our cement mixers and our alarm clocks.

And we already know that we've ruined our planet in the sense of removing it from its wildest state. And, although we like to blame ourselves in the moment, we're 16,000 years too late for that accusation. The sixth great extinction of life on earth started when humans started the wholesale slaughter of animals for clothing, for food and for fashion accessories. We're just at the tail end of it. Extinctions, because of our stupidity, our greed, are now a regular facet of modern life.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are two of the biggest killers. While most biologists find it easy to understand that without adequate hunting and feeding grounds any animal is doomed, consider the necessities of communication in the animal world. A bird may find a patch of earth large enough on which to breed, but if it cant sing loudly enough - over the airplane noise, the taxi's horn, the hum of an HVAC system - it cannot attract a mate. So, there's wholesale slaughter, and then there's passively denying a right to life.

How bad is the fragmentation? Krause claims that it now takes him 200 times longer to capture an hour of uninterrupted natural sound today than it did just forty years ago. Places where one can find natural solitude, to just be alone with nature, are growing farther and farther apart, disappearing by the day.

I didn't need this book to convince me of the decline of the many species on the planet. I've seen it firsthand in the data I've helped gather over the past decade, especially when it is compared to similar data sets from the same locations from forty years in the past. What I did need this book for was another point of view, to open my eyes, and ears, to the coming deafening silence.

By the way - the book comes with a QR tag that leads to a website, to which passages in the text are keyed to audio clips. You get to hear what the author heard and was thinking about when writing the book.