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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.”

Alarming story

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.”

Silent spring

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.”

Trees “leaf out earlier, the insects come out earlier, the birds can’t find food,” he said. “Everything changes.”

He’s chronicled similarly dramatic changes in ecosystems all over the planet. “He’s listened to earth more carefully than anyone alive,” said his longtime friend Doug McConnell, a Bay Area television journalist who described Krause as a “general practitioner” for the planet, supremely qualified to diagnose its health.

His diagnosis is not upbeat. While Krause is “hopeful” humans can check climate change before the Earth incurs catastrophic, irreversible damage, “I’m not optimistic.”

The day before this interview, he’d completed the manuscript for his eighth book, “The Healing Power of Sound: Finding Peace In a Noisy World.” Krause’s 2013 TED talk, “The Voice of the Natural World,” has been downloaded some 1.2 million times. An exhibit featuring his recordings, titled “The Great Animal Orchestra,” sponsored by the Paris-based Fondation Cartier, has made stops in Paris, London, Shanghai, Seoul and Milan, drawing over a million visitors.

His work has found enthusiastic audiences in museums around the globe - with the exception of those in his native country. “I can’t even get the Sonoma Valley Museum of Arts to be interested in this stuff,” said Krause, with a rueful smile. “And a lot of the work that we’ve done is right here in the Valley.”

That lack of interest, he said, is endemic to museums across the United States, which is “about 20 years behind everybody else in ecology and environmental studies.”

That no-hitter may soon be broken up. Just before the arrival of the coronavirus, he’d received strong interest from two museums: one on each coast.

McConnell doesn’t judge those in the Bay Area who aren’t familiar with his friend’s work. “Sometimes you have a National Monument in your backyard, that you don’t visit,” he said.

Cause for hope

Speaking last fall at a Florida symposium dedicated to protecting the Indian River Lagoon, Jack Hines was delighted to meet young people from all over the American south who were deeply familiar with Krause’s work.

Hines, of Glen Ellen, is a musician and fellow soundscape ecologist who has known Krause for 20 years.

“The difference between when I first met Bernie and now,” he said, “is that, these days there are people all over the world who have read his books and tuned into (soundscape ecology) because of his work.”

While Krause isn’t exactly bullish on the future of this warming planet, barring swift, dramatic action, Hines is more upbeat.

During the months of mainly staying home, Hines said, friends have told him how much more clearly they’re hearing birdsong, the rustle of wind in the trees. It could just be lighter traffic, he said. “Or maybe it’s because nature’s been given a chance to come up for air.”

A former teacher at the Hanna Boys Center, Hines has worked with kids who’ve shown tremendous resilience. “And that’s what you focus on,” he said - whether you’re working with at-risk youth or this at-risk planet.

Walking a reporter to the driveway, Krause paused to point out the San Francisco skyline, 40 miles south. The city is much easier to see during the pandemic, due to reduced smog.

“Sometimes, at sunrise and sunset, you can see the actual detail on the buildings,” he said.

The future of the planet, however is less clear.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88.

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