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Magazine Articles

Wild Voices

August/September 2015

An Alaskan preserve steward uncovers the benefits of listening to nature.

Standing on my porch with closed eyes and open ears, I’ve heard the purr of hummingbird wings and chirping of tree swallows, the distant howling of wolves and the nearby clack of a kinglet’s beak. The more I listen, the more I appreciate the complexity and beauty of the never-ending con-cert playing outside my door.

I grew up in Alaska, and I’m now watching my daughter do the same. To do my part in conserving this astounding place, I manage The Nature Conservancy’s 4,000-acre Gustavus Forelands Preserve, near our home. Recently, I have also become a recordist—a documentarian of the whistles, groans, pops, hums, snarls and splashes playing through every moment of every day in the multimillion-acre expanse of Alaska’s coastal rainforest. I am building a library of sounds, focusing my recorder on the gurgling water and growling bears, tender evenings and raucously joyous mornings.

This morning’s snowfall is peppered with the twitter of crossbills and the lisping chatter of chickadees.

Now and then, the sudden staccato of a red squirrel erupts from deep in the woods. Just as my daughter pedals off to school, the meadow fills with the resonant croaks of a raven slipping like a winged shadow through the snowy white world. But the stage re-ally belongs to the snow, which makes a whispering click—so soft I have to hold my breath to hear it—every time a flake lands and piles up on the outstretched fingers of the spruce boughs above me. For more than 40 years, I walked through nature’s concert hall every day without really listening. Sure, I heard the big stuff, the buffeting storms and bugling whales. Sounds so loud you’d have to be dead not to notice. But I was missing the subtle things, the small sounds, the way the music changes from predawn to first light, from equinox to solstice. I started listening the day a radio producer friend clamped headphones over my ears and handed me a parabolic dish funneling sounds into the tip of an exquisitely sensitive microphone. I’ve got my own equipment now, and I can’t stop listening, even when I shut off the recorder. As a result, my grin muscles have become well-toned.


I’ve realized that my ears always worked fine—I’d just forgotten how to use them. And I suspect I’m not the only one. Our senses get over-whelmed by the constant flicker of screens, the tang of exhaust, the whine of engines and the obstruction of ear buds. Eyes and ears fill and clog, growing dull with overuse. We’re nurturing a collective deafness. It seems that the louder things get, the less we hear.

It wasn’t always like this. The hoot of owls, chirp of crickets and thunder of bison hooves shaped the stories and dreams of the generations of people who lived here before us. There are voices, like the bugling of sandhill cranes, that echo back beyond the birth of our own species in a continuous lineage of sound. This acoustic legacy is now fragmented and scattered, but it is not gone. Our ears are tired and over-worked, but not broken.

Our protected areas—whether a small open-space preserve on the edge of a town or a vast national park in the remote wilds of Alaska— do more than conserve the biological
keys to a resilient future. These quiet areas are also our hearing aids, our tools for relearning the songs that have shaped who we are.

Biodiversity is not just a concept or goal or management objective. The Earth’s rich mosaic of life has a complex and gorgeous voice. A voice that swells here when Earth tilts toward the sun and birds flow north to build nests. A voice that subsides with the onset of winter. A voice as subtle as the whirring flutter of a dragonfly’s wings over a still forest pond. A voice as riveting and wild as the cry of a cougar or howling of a wolf.

So, go. Listen. Some measure of great music is always playing. Maybe you’ll notice the slight difference between two robins singing at different ends of the same city park. If you’re really lucky, you might get your senses blown open by the trumpet of a humpback whale on a still summer evening. Pay attention, but beware. Your grin muscles will get sore.

 


Hank Lentfer, the steward of the Conservancy's Gustavus Forelands Preserve, is helping create a library of natural sounds for the National Park Service at Glacier Bay.