This Is What Extinction Sounds Like
Seventy-nine-year-old soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause used to go into the wild to record the chorus of nature. Now, he has become an expert in the sound of extinction.
Photo collage by Adam Mignanelli
Once or twice a week, every spring, Bernie Krause drives 20 minutes from his home in the Sonoma Valley to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, California. He takes with him a couple of microphones, over-ear headphones, and a recorder. At the park, he sets up his gear and then, as he puts it, "shuts the hell up" and listens. Usually, Krause hears the rustling of leaves, wind sweeping through the grass, and—before the drought—birdsong.
From 2011 until just recently, a dry spell ravaged the West Coast, parching Sugarloaf's creek and killing thousands of animals. In 2015, Krause experienced what he says was "virtually a silent spring, with no birdsong for the first time in living memory." Krause used to go into the wild to record the chorus of nature. Now, the 79-year-old soundscape ecologist has become an expert in the sound of extinction.
He might have guessed where his career was heading, having scored Apocalypse Now and been an early adopter of the plastic sound of 80s synth. Back then, Krause thought of the natural world as mere ambience. Earlier, he had been a violinist, a guitarist, and part of the folk band the Weavers. But in 1968, commissioned by Warner Bros. to make an album that included some samples from nature, he ventured just north of San Francisco into the Muir Woods one October afternoon and had an epiphany.
"The moment I switched on the recorder and heard the incredible impact of the outdoor space," Krause told me recently, "I made the decision then and there to find a way to do that for the remainder of my life."
In the 49 years since, Krause has traveled from the Amazon rainforest to the deserts of the American West, amassing thousands of hours of audio from more than 15,000 different creatures. He has recorded the sound signatures of ants, insect larvae, wolves, and viruses. One of his favorite places to record, he says, is in a place with just more than 700,000 people in an area about three times the size of France—Alaska. Once, walking along the shore in that state, he purposefully lowered a hydrophone into the mouth area of a sea anemone, which sort of swallowed the device while he recorded its audible groan.
Krause has never seen well. The sonic world, instead, has been the lens through which he has found a sense of place and meaning. "I'd consider myself a 'nativist,'" he told me. "In the sense that if I want to hear a sermon I go outside in the morning and listen to the birds." To sound ecologists, the voice of nature is the root of human culture: language, music, story. "The original narrative," Krause said, "is that of the natural world." When he's out there, he's not thinking, just taking it in. "There's no more sacred sound than the voice of life around me," he told me. "It's the voice of the divine."
Understandably, it crushes Krause that the natural world is disappearing. In his 2013 TED talk, Krause describes a sound recorded by a colleague in the American Midwest—after a 16,000-year-old pond was detonated by a couple of game wardens, killing a female beaver and her babies, leaving the father behind. That evening, explains Krause, his colleague captured a remarkable event: the lone surviving male beaver swimming in slow circles crying out inconsolably for his lost mate and offspring. "This is probably the saddest sound I've ever heard," he told the TED audience, "coming from any organism, human or other."
The future is not entirely dire, though. Voices of creatures in some parts of the Costa Rican rainforest have gotten louder. And at Chernobyl—the site of the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear disaster—wildlife including birds, frogs, insects, wolves, and bears have returned. In Japan, the other major site of nuclear disaster, there's a practice called Shinrin-yoku: "bathing in the forest." The idea is pretty simple: Go into the woods, meander, sit, listen. There is also a Shinrin-yoku group in California that runs sessions at Sugarloaf. "When I wake up in the morning," said Krause, "if I can swing my legs over the side of the bed, I still have some hope left. But I'm not optimistic at all. We are in deep trouble."
There's one question Krause gets all the time, which he can't answer: What are the animals saying? It's because we want certainty, he told me, but nature is uncertain. "It keeps us alert, and alive, and aware, and curious, and engaged at levels… It's the world of life, where the rest of us are engaged in a world of death." Recently, though, he's come up with a kind-of answer: "There's life here. Respect it."