I was reading through the September 2010 issue of The Sun and came across this great interview with Gordon Hempton about Acoustic Ecology and the place of silence and noise in our environment. It’s funny for us because we live less than 200 feet from an active rail line and have neighbours that love to yell and their children and children that just love to yell. Even when there are no people yelling and the trains are miles away in Evansville or Indy, we can hear the noise of emergency vehicles and the constant hum of Highway 37. All of this noise is very odd for a couple that met in relatively quiet Bozeman, MT. Odd because as Hempton might indicate this noise has to be having some kind of effect on us. And most likely not a positive one.
So what is this acoustic ecology? Well for Hempton (who lives out Washington State way) it’s not so much about silence, but the lack of human pollution of the natural soundscape produced by the ecosystems around us. He talks about his first experience of this more “pure” ecology by sleeping in a corn field in Iowa on his way to graduate school in Madison, WI. It was the crickets, the distant thunderstorms, the sound of wind through the corn stalks that gave him such a “true” experience that he dropped out of graduate school and worked on preserving these nature soundscapes through audio recordings. While his more notable endeavours at preserving these acoustic ecosystems have taken from Iowa to the deserts of Africa and the expanses of the Western US wilderness areas, it seems that his insights into noise and human health become of the utmost importance.
There is in Hempton’s words the kernel that we are all part of our evolutionary past; those upright apes on an African savannah. And the sounds of birdsongs, the rustle of grass and leaves, the calm rolling of distance of rainstorms all does something wonderful to us. They have positive effects on our unconscious hearing. The hearing that in large part helps us form a connection to our place. Hempton faults automobile and air traffic as the greatest threats to our natural acoustic ecosystems. He shows this with the research done in Europe about birds changing their song frequencies in response to the passing of vehicular traffic. However, standing in our backyard at night and hearing the cars grind along in nearby Bloomington and Monroe county, I’d have a hard time arguing with him. And as I recall, you could readily hear planes over the mountains in Montana on any given day of the week. It all affects us and those effects must push in some way that is not wholly beneficial and not in all keeping with our animal selves. According to Hempton, we can to try to block out those poisonous noises, but those blocks matters little to our unconscious selves.
So what of silence then? What about cars and highways and noise pollution? No, we’re not about to tear up to the concrete world around us to create or restore that acoustic ecological existence that Hempton talks about. But maybe in listening, stopping and focusing on the bird songs at sun-up, or the slow-moving roll of approaching storms, we might get what it is that we’re missing. And in getting what we’re missing, we might make better decisions for our future that leads to a healthier understanding of place and our connection to it.