Saving Nature’s Wild Symphony
by Bernie Krause
We may be drawn to the sounds of waves or woodland streams or beguiled by the subtle winds and creature voices of the desert or mountains. Whatever captures our imagination, as we actively listen, something in a wild animal’s repertoire will cause us to catch our breath.
Nature teems with a vigorous resonance that is as complete and expansive as it is delicately balanced. Every place on the planet populated by plants and wild animals is a concert hall, with a unique orchestra performing an unmatched symphony. Each resident species possesses its own preferred sonic bandwidth—to blend or contrast—akin to how stringed, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral masterpiece.
Into Earth’s daily round are embedded the dawn and daytime, evening and nighttime choruses. Whatever the purpose of a creature’s aural signal—mating, protecting territory, capturing food, group defense, play or social contact—it must be audible and free from human acoustical interference if the species is to successfully function.
During the last half of the 20th century, I recorded the wild sounds of more than 15,000 species and 4,500 hours of natural ambience. Nearly 50 percent of these land, sea and sky habitats have since then become seriously compromised, if not biophonically silent. The loss of representative habitats due to human presence and noise has resulted in declines in the density and diversity of creatures large and small that contribute to healthy natural soundscapes.
Fortunately, in the absence of human habitation, these places can become lively again. Fellow British soundscape ecologist Peter Cusack wrote of the restoration of wildlife 20 years after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in the Ukraine: “Animals and birds absent for many decades—wolves, moose, white-tailed eagles, black storks—have moved back, and the Chernobyl [human] exclusion zone is now one of Europe’s prime wildlife sites. The species-rich dawn chorus is one of Chernobyl’s definitive sounds… its nighttime concerts equally spectacular.”
In 1968, 45 percent of the old-growth forests in the contiguous United States were still standing; by 2011 it was less than 2 percent. Before the forest echoes die, we may want to step back for a moment and listen carefully to the chorus of the natural world, where rivers of sound flow ranging from crickets, frogs and insects to wrens, condors, cheetahs, wolves—and us. Otherwise we are denying ourselves the fullest experience of that which is essential to our spiritual and psychological health.
The whisper of every leaf and creature’s song implores us to love and care for the delicate tapestry of the biophony that was the first music our species ever heard. It told us that we are part of a single, fragile biological system; voices in an orchestra of many, with no more important cause than the celebration of life itself.
Adapted excerpt from The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause, used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Listen in at WildSanctuary.com and learn more at NatureSounds.org and WorldListeningProject.org.