Earth Day Special
Feature: The Last Experiment | On Media: Climate Change in High Definition

Ear to the Ground

Natural quiet is a rapidly disappearing resource. According to acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, there are only seven or eight naturally quiet places — defined as where the sounds of nature are unbroken for intervals of at least 15 minutes during daylight hours — left in the United States. None exist in Europe anymore. But if you travel far enough to remote corners of the Earth, and listen carefully enough, you can still find them.

Acoustic ecology studies were established in the 1960s by naturalist R. Murray Schafer and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia as an attempt to define the relationship between humans and their environment, as mediated through sound. With a focus that spans both science and art, the continuum of acoustic ecology often attracts individuals who are part researcher, part composer, and part adventurer.

Edmund Mooney

Edmund Mooney is a founding member and co-chair of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology. In 2006, he traveled with collaborator Erika Harrsch to the relatively tiny mating ground of millions of Monarch butterflies in Michoacán, Mexico to record the delicate flapping during their yearly migration, as part of Harrsch's conceptual installation Eros Thanatos. "Even though I had outfitted myself with the quietest and most powerful preamps I could find, I still felt ill equipped," Mooney says. "I realized that no amount of sophisticated technology will ever entirely replace the simple act of listening with the human ear."

Audio: Edmund Mooney
Photo: Erika Harrsch

Sendero Los Quetzales

The Quetzales trail links two villages — Boquete and Cerro Punta — in a remote area of the Chiriquí highlands, deep in the Panamanian rainforest. Further to the south in Bocas del Toro, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute makes field recordings as part of their Physical Monitoring Program to track biodiversity, record mating calls, and study wave dynamics.

Audio: Soundlounge field recordings
Photo: tripleyew

Gordon Hempton

Gordon Hempton is a globe-wandering acoustic ecologist and Emmy Award-winning sound recordist. In his recent book, One Square Inch of Silence, Hempton calls attention to the rapidly disappearing spaces of natural quiet — areas free of man-made noise. He writes that, "the extinction rate for quiet places vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction." Here, in the early morning of the Sinharaja Rainforest in Sri Lanka, the dawn calls of birds and tree frogs mix with a rare surprise: the guttural licks of a leopard.

Audio: Gordon Hempton
Photo: sahans

Andrea Polli

Andrea Polli is associate professor of fine arts and engineering at the University of New Mexico. In 2008, Polli traveled to the McMurdo ecological research base camps in Antarctica to document the sights and sounds of the research being conducted there, as part of the National Science Foundation's Artist in Residency program. The project aims to communicate both the aesthetic beauty and the scientific importance of Antarctica to global climate. The "strange, almost electronic sound" in this recording from Polli's exploration of Taylor glacier is coming from moving water under the surface of the glacier. She's currently working with atmospheric scientists to develop systems for understanding storm events and climate through sound.

Audio: Andrea Polli
Photo: Andrea Polli

Andrea Polli

Here, Polli captures the quiet chirping of Adélie penguin chicks at Cape Royds, which lies on the extreme western edge of Ross Island near McMurdo Sound.

Audio: Andrea Polli
Photo: Andrea Polli

Edmund Mooney

Edmund Mooney recently surveyed the subtropical wetland preserve near Nambucca, in northern New South Wales, Australia. There, he woke up every day at four in the morning to record the very loud call of the resident Kookaburra. According to Mooney, "the Kookaburra is a large, impossibly cute, terrestrial kingfisher which is also one of the loudest birds known to man, by my limited experience. I'm sure the other birds woke up against their will, as I did."

Audio: Edmund Mooney
Photo: Edmund Mooney

Jonny Farrow

Jonny Farrow is co-chair of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology. In April of 2005 he made this unprocessed field recording of the intense wave action along the Outer Banks. Gulls and a barn swallow intermittently interrupt the rhythmic beating of the ocean. "The area is one of the best birding spots on the East Coast during spring and fall migrations," Farrow says. "We did a lot of bird watching when we were there — that, and listening to the surf."

Audio: Jonny Farrow
Photo: EduPic

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