Unsettling sounds: World-renowned soundscape ecologist doesn’t like what he hears
SONOMA - Bernie Krause is a global pioneer in the field of soundscape ecology. And what, exactly, is that?
Think of him as a doctor, then think of the expensive, ultra-sensitive microphone he carries in the field as a stethoscope. Listening to a given soundscape - high desert or coral reef or mangrove swamp - gives him a good idea of whether that habitat is healthy, or under duress.
“When I’m a bit under the weather you can hear it in my voice,” said Krause, 81. “It’s the same with the natural world. When you subject a thriving habitat of living organisms to resource extraction, pollution and the clatter of human noise, the critter life will tell you very quickly how we’ve affected them.”
Around the world and in his own backyard, the news hasn’t been great of late. Krause and his wife, Katherine, lost their home in the hills above Glen Ellen in the 2017 Nuns fire - a direct result, they are convinced, of global warming.
The coronavirus pandemic is further evidence of a planet out of balance, he said. Krause is not an epidemiologist; his Ph.D. is in a field called bioacoustics. But the changes he’s noted in the data he’s collected over the last dozen years lead him to the conclusion there’s “a strong correlation between climate and health issues that we haven’t even begun to address.”
He is a scientist and musician, author and North Bay fire survivor. Mostly, though, Krause is a man ahead of his time.
Sitting at a table recently on the patio of the stone house he and Katherine are renting, tucked among vineyards in the hills just northeast of Sonoma, Krause recalled his rejection from the Eastman and Juilliard schools of music, 65 years ago.
“My instrument was guitar,” he recalled with a wry smile. “In 1955, I was told that the guitar is not a musical instrument.”
After studying Latin American history at the University of Michigan, he joined a folk band called the Weavers - he replaced the group’s previous tenor, a guy named Pete Seeger - then helped pioneer the use of the Moog synthesizer.
On a fine fall day in Muir Woods in 1968, his life took a different course. Krause had driven over the Golden Gate Bridge to record some natural sounds for Warner Bros. Records. Switching on his microphone, listening on headphones to the wind in the redwoods, the calls of ravens, even the sound of their wings in motion, riveted and transported him.
For the past half century Krause has devoted his life to recording wild sounds, in the process pioneering the field of research called soundscape ecology. His archive, over 5,000 hours of field recordings featuring more than 15,000 species, include the sounds of shifting glaciers, bellowing orangutans, mournful whales.
These archives also tell an alarming story of profound and possibly irreversible loss. More than half of his recordings, Krause reckoned, were made at sites that since have been so compromised by human intrusion they can no longer be heard in their original forms, or have fallen silent altogether.
“We’re talking, not here anymore,” Krause said. “We’re talking, you go back to one of these habitats, in the Amazon or Africa or North America, and they’re gone. They’re parking lots now.” The loss of habitat, he said, “has been exponential since the late 1980s.”
The deterioration hits close to home.
Every April since 1993, he’s been recording at the same spot at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. This once-thriving soundscape, a dense harmony of woodpeckers, hummingbirds, hawks, ducks, coyotes and many other creatures steadily has deteriorated. In 2015, during California’s recent, five-year drought, Krause recorded what he calls “my first silent spring at Sugarloaf. There were lots of birds. They just weren’t singing.”
Sugarloaf’s wildlife has rebounded since that year - but feebly. On April 15, nearly a month into the county-imposed pandemic quarantine, Krause went to his accustomed spot in the park, and began to listen.
Had the drastic reduction in car traffic and other human-produced noise - Krause calls it the anthropophony - led to a corresponding increase in birdsong and other natural sounds?
The short answer: no. While the birds and beasts weren’t louder, the absence of car and plane traffic meant they were “better heard.” A month of humans sheltering in their homes had not resulted in the animals suddenly thriving. Sugarloaf hadn’t suddenly been restored to a previous state of biodiversity. The issues - in Sonoma Valley specifically and on the planet in general - are too deep-seated for such a rapid recovery.
The park, for instance, is at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in 1993, Krause said. And spring starts two weeks earlier. Those factors, along with drought and wildfires, have further altered migration patterns. As a result, he’s observed “radical changes in bird, insect and frog density and diversity as expressed in the biophonies.”