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February 27, 2009

The Sonic Traveler: Listening With the Naked Ear

Soundscape Google Map
Click on the image to access a
Google Earth sound map

by Sara Tucker

"Would you, perhaps, consider recording and selling some of your effective 'shut up' comments?" asked a rail commuter of Christopher Buckley at the Daily Beast. "I've tried without success on MetroNorth and usually get no response other than a f--- you or a glare."

Another admirer of Mr. Buckley's "Nazi of the Quiet Car" post suggested this tactic for silencing cell-phone users: "Amtrak should hire beefy guys to hurl them off the train."

"Honestly," commented a third, "that there are people who do not understand the concept of quiet makes me despair for the future of the human race."

Despair--not to mention crankiness--is tempting when you're trying to stifle a rising tide. "I've circled the globe three times mostly in search of quiet places, places that are free from noise pollution," says self-described "sound tracker" Gordon Hempton. His mission's lack of success has a lot to do with flight corridors, especially those that crisscross national parks. (Don't get him started on the FAA.) In March 2007, Hempton loaded a bunch of sound equipment into a 1964 VW bus and set out across the country, pausing to record the "varied natural voices of the American landscape--bugling elk, trilling thrushes, and drumming, endangered prairie chickens." The account of his road trip is told in One Square Inch of Silence, due out in March. Despite the book's title, his goal wasn't exactly silence but purity. And like all purists, he is a passionate defender of the realm.

Hempton's quest unites him with a growing community of acoustic ecologists and biophilia theorists who fear we're suffering from a national epidemic of manmade noise on the one hand and "nature-deficit disorder" on the other. A burgeoning sector of the blogosphere addresses the problem acoustically, by enhancing our soundscape awareness. The sounds of "light in trees,"  Madagascar frogs, even Saturn's radio emissions are just a click away.

If there's immediate hope for our deteriorating soundscape, it may be found in the debris of our shattered economy: "For stressed-out families, spending more time in the natural world--a nature stimulus package--may be just what the doctor and the economist ordered," Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv said in his blog on Wednesday. "Nature toys are free or cheap, and they encourage self-directed creativity. In 2008, the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, N.Y., inducted the stick, which it called not only possibly the oldest toy, but 'possibly the best.'"

For those of us craving relief from the "artificial, human-generated, undesirable and unhealthy sound" that "unduly burdens the soundscape," the Right to Quiet Society  has compiled a list of "silent retreats, quiet travel destinations, and quiet transportation." It will also link you to a bark-deterring dog collar or send you a free "Quiet please" poster to hang in your work space (good luck with that).

Another option: The Quiet American, where you can browse through hundreds of one-minute sonic "vacations": ice booming on a Minnesota lake, a peach tree moving in the wind, or this: "an elderly blind woman carrying a portable karaoke machine and singing for alms in the late afternoon sunshine, outside the cavernous, thronged Chiang Mai day market in northern Thailand." Each of the site's MP3 files "sketch in sound the experience of being in an unfamiliar place." Not a replacement for real travel, notes the archivist, but "sixty seconds to be someone else. . . . If it's your birthday, this is your present." The secret of the collection's charm is spelled out in the site's opening line: "The world makes its own music, but we rarely listen with naive ears."

Further reading:
* Web site of the Acoustic Ecology Institute
* Wild Sanctuary: "Home to the largest private collection of natural sound anywhere!"
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links


Interesting piece. It is amazing that there are so few naturally quiet spaces left in the world. I run a blog on enviromental sound @ Am soon to launch a study into what silence sounds like to different people in the modern world.

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