SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF Spanish Fork, Utah, I’m telling Jeff Rice—a man who makes his living recording nature sounds for the University of Utah Library—about a minor obsession my wife and I have developed. We’ve been tracking a ubiquitous hawk shriek used on television and in Hollywood movies.
The shriek, a piercing cliché, always comes right as the camera sweeps across some treeline—the aural equivalent of sagebrush tumbling through town in an old western. What’s more, the kee-eeeee-arr (as the red-tailed hawk’s scream is spelled by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York) always sounds exactly the same.
Rice, an amiable, unassuming 44-year-old who started out in radio journalism, snaps to attention at the wheel of our rented SUV. “That’s Kevin’s hawk!” he says excitedly, referring to Kevin Colver, a 56-year-old Provo physician and fellow wildlife recordist.
As it happens, Rice had been documenting the great bird’s screen screeches himself, in everything from Rango to The Colbert Report. When he graphed the sonograms, they all looked suspiciously similar to a red-tailed hawk call that Colver had captured in the mid-nineties and sold to the Hollywood Edge, a sound-effects shop. In Rice’s estimation, this became the cry heard round the world, issued by a bird that, with any justice, would be getting some serious residuals.
For me, the overexposed hawk also provides two important lessons about natural sounds. First, the fact that the same screech gets used again and again shows just how hard it is to obtain good nature recordings. “You have to get up early, drive out on a dirt road, get away from everything, and have the right equipment,” says Rice, and even then you might come back with nothing. Rice himself has fallen down ravines and been covered with ticks in a fruitless quest to record the legendary bark of California’s endangered giant salamander.
Second, the cry is a symptom of how acoustically impaired we humans have become. We’re so inured to the idea of natural sound, so generally helpless at identifying its nuances, that we fail to notice that what we hear on TV is often laughably wrong. The red-tailed hawk, Rice says, has been used to ventriloquize everything from vultures to Colbert’s freedom-loving eagle. “Movies have done a disservice,” he says soberly. “They’ve gone with what’s easy.” The bog-standard sound used for frogs, for example, whether on a southern plantation in Forrest Gump or in the bush in India, as in Disney’s The Jungle Book, is actually a chorus of Pacific tree frogs—which live only on the West Coast of the U.S. “Those are the frogs in California that the recordists can go out and get,” Rice says, slightly aghast at the laziness of it all.
And it’s not just mass-market entertainment that’s to blame. As nature filmmaker Chris Palmer explained in Shooting in the Wild, a 2010 nonfiction tell-all about the documentary business, even National Geographic and Discovery Channel producers slip manufactured sounds into their finished products. When I speak with Colver, he recalls an episode of the PBS show Nature that focused on a woman who tracked wild horses in Montana. “They had all the right birds, but it was autumn—and those birds don’t sing in autumn,” Colver says. “Those who listen,” he adds, suggesting that most people don’t, “find this either amusing or annoying.”
Like the great majority of people—especially the majority where I live, in Brooklyn, New York—I wouldn’t have noticed one way or the other. So I thought I might try, if only for a weekend, to learn how to listen in a world that is at once the background music of our deep evolutionary past and something increasingly alien.
RICE AND I ARE halfway up a box canyon in southern Utah, the sun not yet over the red, Entrada-layer sandstone cliffs, when he tells me how to repel moths by jiggling my keys. “Keys make ultrasonics. Moths think there’s a bat around,” he says. “It’s more fun than a bug zapper.”
In the past few years, Rice, under the auspices of the Western Soundscape Archive—an ongoing project funded by the University of Utah—has been ranging across the West hunting for sounds to preserve in the form of digital recordings. Pointing his parabolic mic toward distant birds and dropping his remote into dark hillside burrows, he’s compiling a sound portrait of the region and its inhabitants. So far, the archive includes the sounds made by 574 western bird species, all 48 of the region’s vocalizing frogs and toads, and 106 varieties of mammals.
Not to mention humans. Rice can’t help but include our sonic influence on many of his recordings. With the vanishing exceptions of places like One Square Inch of Silence, in the Hoh Rainforest in Washington’s Olympic National Park, there’s no place in the U.S. where natural sound holds full sway. The most remote terrestrial locations still tend to be blanketed by the great universal noise machine of commercial air travel. “People now talk about ‘noise-free interludes,’ ” Rice says.
One goal of the archive is to create an aural benchmark of a certain place at a certain time, with the understanding that it will likely change without our noticing it. Any number of artists have rephotographed the great vistas of Ansel Adams and John Muir, but there’s no way to know what those landscapes sounded like.
And it’s sound, rather than any visual data, that is the surest indication of an ecosystem’s robustness. “I recorded one place near the Great Salt Lake, and they put in a highway the following year,” Rice says. “It changed the acoustics completely. That soundscape no longer exists.”
Nothing seems to be making much noise on this early morning. Rice and I have come to the University of Utah’s Rio Mesa Center, a multipurpose research outpost built on a remote stretch of ancient floodplain on the Colorado Plateau. We’re about an hour from Moab, where the colossal exhortation of human noise known as Jeep Week is occurring, and intent on adding to the archive.
When we think of the wild, we tend to think visually: epic sunsets, towering peaks, and the desert vistas seen in car commercials. Colver, who has also contributed to the Soundscape Archive, notes that even in nature-oriented pursuits like birding, sound is secondary. On birders’ life lists, he says, “you can mark s or h, for ‘seen’ or ‘heard’. If you saw it, you get 100 percent credit. If you have an h, they cast doubt on that.”
It was not always so. “Sight is often deceived, hearing serves as a guarantee,” observed Saint Ambrose of Milan, the fourth-century bishop, in his comments on the Gospel of Luke, reflecting the pre-printing-press dominance of oral culture. Back then, the closer people lived to nature, the more important sound was. As Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer noted in his 1993 book The Soundscape, “In the virgin forests of North America, where vision was restricted to a few feet, hearing was the most important sense.”
For people inhabiting forests, like the Kaluli, who live in Papua New Guinea, sound is still supreme. “Virtually all Kaluli men can sit down in front of a tape recorder and imitate the sounds of at least one hundred birds,” wrote anthropologist Steven Feld in his 1982 book Sound and Sentiment, “but few can provide visual descriptive information on nearly that many.”
Meanwhile, the rest of us, dulled by a lack of variety in our soundscape—or the motivation to seek out a richer sonic environment—might be able to produce only one or two generic birdcalls. “We’ve subverted our minds’ audio-processing abilities to a certain extent,” says Colver.
Plug “nature” and “sounds” into Google and you’re just as likely to see ads for white-noise machines as links to whales singing. I should know, because I lull myself to sleep every night with the Stream setting on my Brookstone Tranquil Moments device. Rice has argued, roughly quoting Heraclitus, that you never make the same recording of a river twice. But my stream is a seamless, unchanging loop. My ears, far from being trained to alert myself to predators, have become dulled by a processed natural sound meant, ironically, to block out human-created noise. And so I went to clean them out—near Utah’s Dolores River.
AFTER A DAY AT RIO MESA, the rush of the city and the airports behind me, I’m trying to clean my ears, as Schafer once described the first step in the process of learning to listen. It was hard, almost a bit perverse, to block out all that visual scenery in a place of such arresting beauty. And yet I quickly learn that there is just as much aural splendor here as visual. Listening for canyon wrens one afternoon, Rice and I find ourselves in a sort of overhanging bowl-like rock formation. It’s not only a great place for echoes—deep, profound echoes, as if the ancient rock were trying to pull one’s voice back in time—but also a sort of dish receiver for distant sounds.
I ask Rice, “Can you record snow falling?” He nods.
“It’s like this little pfff, pfff, pfff. Mostly what you get with the sound of snow falling is the absence of sound, because it dampens everything.”
But there’s never absolute silence. The composer John Cage once noticed when he went into an anechoic chamber—an acoustically perfect room completely free of echoes—that he could hear two distinct tones, which a sound engineer informed him were his nervous and circulatory systems working. “There is no such thing as silence,” he concluded, and his composition “4'33"” usually described as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, is precisely not that.
At night in my tent, my thoughts drift back to a story one of the researchers at Rio Mesa had told me, about a family that had tried to make a go of it out here in the 1970s, their traces marked by a few rusting vehicles, crumbling shacks, and debris along the Dolores River. The couple had a child, whom they let roam more or less freely, attaching a cowbell to his neck. But, the story went, the boy wandered into the river and was never seen again. In the dark, with my ears on fire for the slightest stimuli, I think, for a moment, that I hear a distant bell.
Why should we care about what we hear in the wild? Yes, our ancient ancestors may have needed to know if a saber-toothed cat was approaching. And there may be isolated instances in which sound could mean life or death, even today. Rice tells me about a colleague who was in the desert and heard what he thought was a jet. “He started to think it through and said, ‘That’s a flash flood.’ ”
Most of us, though, go through life without daily worries about avalanches or predators. Ringtones, smoke alarms, and baby monitors constitute our survival soundscape. What do we gain from hearing a susurrant stream, the bugling of an elk, the opening salvo of the dawn chorus—nature, as James Fenimore Cooper put it, “speaking with her thousand tongues”?
Quite a lot, it turns out. There’s increasing evidence that nature sounds are mentally and physically good for us. In one study, a group of psychologists exposed subjects to an artificial stressor—a series of math problems. Subjects were then hit with various sounds, ranging from a noisy road to a fountain with tweeting birds. People who heard the nature sounds recovered faster from the stress (as measured by galvanic skin response, or how much they sweated). Other studies have found that nature sounds can reduce perceived pain during surgery.
THESE FINDINGS DOVETAIL with a growing movement to preserve the aural integrity of our national parks. Karen Treviño heads the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, which began more than a decade ago in response to increasing concern about tourist overflights at the Grand Canyon and other locations. Treviño says that when she started in 2004, many people in the Park Service “didn’t even know this office existed,” but these days “it’s difficult for us to keep up with all the requests.” It’s not just airplanes: it’s everything from the generators at ranger stations to resource-extraction operations to people talking; QUIET ZONE signs at Northern California’s Muir Woods National Monument were found, in one study, to decrease sound levels.
What complicates this effort is that while the majority of people say they visit parks at least in part for “natural quiet,” this is not necessarily an objective term. “Whose noise?” as Treviño asks. While a sound can be measured in exact decibels, human perception is more slippery. “Where did you come from—a city or a rural area? Are you with a spouse? Are you with your kids or with a church group? Did you come to hike in the front country or to backpack in the backcountry? For two days or ten days?” All these, she says, will influence what a person perceives to be noise.
There’s a bit of self-selection here, too: Park Service exit surveys show that backcountry campers (negatively) recalled hearing aircraft more often than front-country park users, which in itself speaks to how time spent in the wild sharpens one’s senses.
Back at Rio Mesa, Rice is sorting through his various mics. He tells me that while he’s often making what might amount to “quintessential relaxation music,” for him the process isn’t so calm and peaceful. “It’s not like you’re just sitting there and meditating and listening to bird calls,” he says. Instead, there’s a note of urgency in what Rice is doing. “What we used to experience is diminishing,” he says. “People used to be more conscious of sounds because there were more opportunities to experience them.”
And for those dwindling snatches of pure nature—a tree falling in the woods with nobody around to listen—there’s a chance we’ll hear them after all. Because Jeff Rice will have staked his microphone nearby.