Toiling away inside is never a bad idea in Dunedin when it’s drizzly out. Well, the last week in Dunedin has been pretty drizzly out. Luckily there was some work to be done on the Late Reflections podcast series.
So, I toiled. And now I present to you the first of three episodes recorded, compiled, edited and narrated by yours truly.
The series is based around the work of Tess bunny, a talented Masters student who I’ve talked about numerous times in the past. Tess is in her final year of a Masters of Science Communication at the University of Otago. For the creative component of her thesis she undertook a spectacularly large array of activities aimed at raising public awareness about issues dear to her. And she does a pretty good job of convincing everybody else that they should hold these issues dear too.
In a nutshell, her project aims to encourage the re-integration of “wild” green spaces into arid, concrete, urban areas. This, she explains, can be achieved in a number of ways, not limited to the planting of native species and the establishment of communal veggie gardens (one carrot each please – don’t be greedy!).
But Tess also places a huge premium on the quality of the soundscapes we immerse ourselves in on a daily basis. From my perspective, this is where things really get interesting. I won’t give too much more away because I wouldn’t want to ruin the podcast. Have a listen and you might just find yourself converted to Tess’ cause.
Like many dissatisfied scientists before him, Bernie Krause devised his most important theory after becoming frustrated with the research modus operandi in his field. Before he arrived on the scene, field work as a “bio-acoustician” usually involved honing in on and studying very particular sounds. Scientists were concerned with Individuals species and did their utmost to isolate vocalisations from the sum total of sound around them. This tendency can be attributed to the greater ease with which it is possible to grasp and measure individual, isolated recordings within rigid academic convention, which values measurable results and concrete conclusions, usually for a very good reason. But such methods yield questionable efficacy when it comes to studying making sense of natural soundscapes . As Krause notes:
“Abstracting the voice of a single creature from a habitat and trying to understand it out of context is a little like trying to play Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” absent a violin section as part of the orchestra”
Without its accompaniments, the individual part is virtually devoid of meaning. Krause suggests that the great composers know this. I would add that audio engineers, always seeking to find the ideal balance of a many-layered mix, and indeed any great artist must also know this.
Considered from the principles of its conception, Krause’s Niche Hypothesis can serve as a guide and inspiration for those frustrated by short sightedness and singular goals mired in specific, immutable presumptions. This is not to advocate some spacey new age approach to everything and specialised research plays a hugely important role in scientific development. But you and I and the scientific establishment might just occasionally benefit from venturing outside established norms and taking a holistic approach, as Krause has done. In this way, we may just see the forest for the trees.
An interesting decree has been announced by Indian officials in an effort to deal with excessive night time noise in India’s bustling metropolis’. According to CNN, new laws have been put in place banning certain noise-making activities during the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, which is now officially considered night time. Activities that have been banned include horns, sound-emitting construction equipment and firecrackers.
The effects of human made noise on wildlife is nigh on impossible to accurately gauge. The range and intensity of responses exhibited by animals to our many cacophonous engagements is too varied to draw any concrete conclusions. Policy makers are paralysed to do anything, the public is unconvinced that its noisy activities can seriously affect wildlife and scientists lose faith in their ability to prove what some already know through intuition.
These are the principle conclusions from Autumn Lyn Radle’s 2007 article, “The Effect of Noise on Wildlife: A Literature Review. And what frustrating conclusions they are, the kind that compel this blogger to consider making this academic article the last he ever reads. But then, it’s not Radle’s fault. Nor is it the fault of the scientists whose largely inconclusive studies constitute the subject matter of Radle’s aggregation of largely inconclusive studies. Least of is it the animals’ fault. They can’t help inhabiting environments where countless factors dictate towards behavioural and physiological traits, making it difficult to ascertain which factor contribute towards which traits, and whether human noise is a significant one.
So we know very little about how man-made sound affects wildlife. But we do know some things. We know that man-made sound has more sources than we might initially think. As well as the obvious – recreational noise from motorboats
Recreational boating is a key noise culprit
or holidaymakers; military noise; and commercial noise from airplane flyovers, mining operations and logging – there is also evidence that scientific research (usually with the intention of assisting wildlife) is in some cases noisy enough to pose a possible threat to some species.
We also know that noise can be hugely detrimental to humans. Look at the case of Cairo, a city where the average noise level between the hours of 7am and 9pm is 85 decibels – just louder than a freight train passing by 5 metres away. Of the city’s 7 million inhabitants, two-thrids are estimated to suffer from some sort of sleeping disorder. Indeed, the city has just opened its first sleep clinic, the first state-sanctioned one in the world.
But regardless of the current state of knowledge, knowledge isn’t necessary for action. Our reluctance to act on this issue due to a lack of concrete evidence is proof in itself of our anthropocentric worldview. If we took a view more sympathetic to the rest of the living biosphere we would, in Radle’s words, “intuitively understand that a cacophony of noise, even if not life threatening, cannot provide for a decent quality of life for any organism”. These words have a certain resonance to them. Since the advent of the Industrial Age our actions have caused sometimes irreversible damage – to our landscapes, waterways and atmosphere. In those cases, much of the damage was done before we had proof that any damage was being done. While the evidence is not concrete, intuition provides a valuable clue here. If we pay heed to it, we may be able to stop the relentless advance of man-made noise before its effects on the biosphere begin to resemble those other horrors.
All you Finnish folk out there (I know there’s hundreds of you) need to stop what you’re doing and head to Koli. Right now the International Conference of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology is happening. Although it might be overlooked by some in favour of a certain popular sporting event there are no doubt many who have turned their back on the beautiful game and flocked to Koli to mingle with the who’s who of acoustic ecology. The Godfather himself, Murray Schafer, is along to speak, along with Hildergard Westerkamp and countless other esteemed individuals.
The topic of the conference this time around is ‘Ideologies and Ethics in the Uses and Abuses of Sound’, an intriguing theme which, according to media reports includes discussion of “the interconnectedness of peoples, nationalism and soundscapes, as well as the ethical issues of working with sound, and the productization of silence in, e.g., tourism or as a way of filling common spaces in urban settings”.
After a lengthy gestation period the fruits of my imagination have finally taken pixelated physical form. Introducing the new introductory video for the Late Reflections blog.
Instead of overloading it with facts and figures I’ve tried to make it a bit of an experience. It features an immersive audio track so make sure your sound is turned up. Over the next few posts I’ll be exploring some of the themes and ideas I touch on in the video, including the fundamentals of acoustic ecology. I’ll also attempt to justify some of the outlandish claims I make.
Many thanks to the kind folk who offer their images under a CC license:
A friend and colleague of mine, Tess bunny, runs a wonderful blog called Wild the City. She talks about ways that we can enhance city landscapes, soundscapes, biodiversity and manage the ever-increasing disconnect between the natural world and our everyday urban experiences.
In a post she writes about her experience living in Dunedin:
For me, living in Dunedin, the most powerful story I’ve heard about the area is that people could not sleep at night due to the sound of whales in the harbour. Only 200 years ago they were kept awake all night by the whales spouting, calling and moving. It is a sad reality that today we don’t hear or see any whales in the harbour.
This degradation of the urban soundscape is a recurring theme in her work and something that I will be exploring in depth in the next few weeks as I help Tess put together an audio-visual installation she’s running between July 6th and 11th. The installation will be housed in one of Dunedin’s blandest, most sterile destinations, the Meridian shopping centre, in attempt to raise awareness of these issues.
As well as discussing the issues that Tess is addressing, I’ll also be putting together some podcasts documenting our experiences collecting sounds from the Dunedin environs; details of and public reaction to the installation itself; and a stream of the audio portion of the project.