The sounds of Roxborough and what they say about our connection to nature

I set up my laptop and place a microphone on the edge of one of the mesh seats of the aluminum chairs on the back deck of my house in Roxborough. The neighborhood I live in with my family is densely populated, but suburban in its layout. Most streets are residential. There’s a strip of businesses struggling to stay open on the main thoroughfare – a hearing aid store, a shoe repair shop, a few dollar stores, an antique kitchen appliance seller, and too many pizzerias and Chinese take-out joints. These businesses are faring better than the many shuttered storefronts – the family grocer, the car dealership, the gas fireplace showroom, the embroidery shop. People drive through the neighborhood. Not many stop and get out for a stroll. We live a block off of the main street. Capturing the sounds of my new home, for the hour between 7:50 p.m. and 8:50 p.m. one early June evening might reveal things not so apparent when the dissonance of combined senses, the distracting sights and smells, reduce the noise to a mere accompaniment, meaningless, and signifying nothing.

An hour-long sound log 

At 7:50 p.m., a baby cries a few dry duck-like quacks and then stops. I can tell, listening back, it is not my daughter. A minute later, the siren of a fire engine whines, slowly rising and then disappearing in the distance. Shortly after, someone draws metal utensils over earthen dishes in their sink. My neighbors must have their windows open. Four minutes in, the wind picks up and ruffles the leaves, sounding like a flash of water in pan, sizzling violently for a moment and then quickly trailing off. Soon after, a dog barks plaintively.  He’s a small dog and he wants to go inside. 

Within minutes, a small plane passes over. At first, the engine whines, as if accomplishing an incredible task, but as it flies directly over, it roars with undeniable power. Next, a helicopter passes over. Initially, the whirring of its prop blends together in a faint and singular rolling sound, but when its overhead, the spinning blades cut out distinct thumps in a deafening war-like crescendo. The bells of the Leverington Presbyterian Church ring out the hour as a big plane roars above. These two sounds silence the ambient wildlife sounds.

As these distinct sounds occur throughout my recording, a base level of constant and repeating sounds persist from the very beginning to the very end. The engines of cars and trucks fluctuate like waves, traveling the whole spectrum of frequencies, from a low constant hum to a ceasing hiss. The chirps of crickets or some other insect persist in the most upper registers, a reliable but slightly varying rhythm. Various species of birds tweet, trill, chirp, and scream. These are the clearest sounds I record. At least six window air conditioner units hum, occasionally jumping for a second as they spit trickles of water onto the sidewalks and into the grass.

A screen door opens, its hinge snapping emptily. Heavy feet fall on a wooden deck and glass bottles clatter into a plastic recycling bucket. One minute later, a man finally yells at the little dog and the yapping stops. Next up, the brakes of a bus squeal and air hisses out of its suspension. An automated voice announces a message to the passengers too muffled to decipher. Shortly after, another distant, large plane passes. A police siren sounds off in the distance, more compelling than the fire engine’s siren. An air compressor in my neighbor’s garage sputters and comes to life. This causes a larger dog to bark. At 8:15 p.m., the birds start chirping more consistently, though they are still interrupted and silenced often by vehicular and air traffic. A few more bird species join the chorus.

Silencing of the local wildlife soundscape 

This is the soundscape of Roxborough at dusk. While I listen to the playback, I can’t distinguish, at times, between the recording and the insistent snare beat of the music blaring from my neighbor’s garage. This is the same neighbor with the air compressor that boots up too often in the course of a day. He and his buddies kickstart their straight-pipe motorcycles and leave them running in the driveway along the side of my house, before roaring off, too fast, down the street. I don’t capture this sound in my recording, but I know it would have a similar effect to the helicopter passing over – a complete silencing of the little remnant of wildlife present in the soundscape.

When I listen to Bernie Krause’s soundscapes, I can tell they are not recorded on an outdated laptop with free software and a unidirectional vocal mic ill-suited to pick up ambient sounds. Krause’s recordings capture a spectrum of frequencies in crystal clear resolution, most of which my backyard soundscape only hints at. But that’s all beside the point. The very soundscapes Krause seeks out are, by their nature, richer and more varied than Roxborough at dusk.

Krause has been traveling the world for well over forty years, recording the soundscapes of the last truly wild places on earth. Urban parks, or even national parks or most wildlife refuges, fail to meet Krause’s criteria for wildness. His life’s passion has been to find those disappearing locations where no human sounds can be heard, where the primeval soundscape remains untouched, and to record those soundscapes with the best possible equipment. In his new book,”The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places“, Krause brings readers on a sonic trip around the world, from the beaches of Big Sur, the Indian Ocean and the North Atlantic, to the glacial calving of southeast Alaska and the mountain jungles of Rwanda.

‘Auditory infringement on the natural world’ 

Thankfully, though perhaps misleadingly, Krause’s book focuses much more on the ecological impact of human civilization, specifically in the realm of auditory infringement on the natural world. Many of the most disruptive forms of anthrophony, human noise, compromise the life cycles of sensitive wildlife species, even killing some through disorientation. Some generations of the U.S. Navy’s sonar systems can stun and beach whales hundreds of miles away.

However, Krause is not only concerned with the natural world, separate from humans. The physiological effects of noise, not just on the biome, but on individual humans, as shown in The Great Animal Orchestra, is alarming, especially for someone living in an increasingly noisy part of the world. It turns out my neighbor’s straight-pipe motorcycles might give me a heart attack and give my daughter a learning disability. The white noise systems installed in many offices to block out excess noise and to provide a semblance of privacy in open cubicles, do not relieve stress, but instead produce more. Our manmade attempts at calm and contemplation are no substitute for the relaxing sounds of nature. Though, again, we’ve perverted ourselves so much so that most nature sounds worry us. If we can hear the crickets out our open windows, the ambience is a little too quiet for many. We’ve all become Woody Allen, reassured by the blaring of sirens on our city streets throughout the night. Maybe not.

The ray of hope Krause provides in the book comes from an odd source, as it did in Alan Weisman’s 2007 book, The World Without Us. Chernobyl, an environmental catastrophe, in its exclusion of humans, stands as an ideal wild place with a rich diversity and density of wildlife, both flora and fauna, far surpassing managed wild places where human use is prevalent. The message is clear, if we want to preserve wild places, we need to stop futzing around in them so much. Recreation, if it means dirt bikes and snowmobiles and rifles and jet skis, does not equal preservation. Only a reduction of careless human use, along with other restoration measures, can restore any biome to the richness of a primeval wild place. Let’s hope we learn this lesson before all of the soundscapes Krause has recorded disappear forever.

Michael Buozis moved to Roxborough in Nov. 2012 with his wife and daughter. He edits philadelphiareviewofbooks.com and is pursuing a Master of Journalism degree at Temple University. The book discussed in this essay is “The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause. 

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