What Listening To Nature Teaches Us About Changing Habitats

Sep 27, 2013
Originally published on December 26, 2013 11:25 am

Part 3 in the TED Radio Hour episode "Everything Is Connected."

About Bernie Krause's TEDTalk

Bernie Krause has been recording the wild — the wind in the trees, the chirping of birds — for 45 years. He has seen many environments radically altered by humans, sometimes even by practices thought to be environmentally safe.

About Bernie Krause

Bernie Krause is a bioacoustician whose recordings have uncovered nature's rich sonic tapestry — along with some unexpected results. Krause captures the fading voices of nature, studying sonic interplay between species as they attract mates, hunt prey and sound out their roles in the ecosystem. His documentation of vanishing aural habitats is a chilling reminder of shrinking biodiversity. Krause is also known for his music career, working with artists such as The Byrds and Stevie Wonder. He's the author of the book The Great Animal Orchestra.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

You know what I was just doing? I was watching the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now."

BERNIE KRAUSE: Oh, for heaven sakes.

RAZ: Yeah.

KRAUSE: What made you do that?

RAZ: 'Cause the helicopters.

KRAUSE: Oh.

RAZ: That helicopter. You did that helicopter sound.

KRAUSE: Guilty as charged.

RAZ: That's like iconic. That was you.

KRAUSE: Yes sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "APOCALYPSE NOW")

RAZ: This is Bernie Krause. How did you record that sound?

KRAUSE: I did it on a Moog Model 3 synthesizer.

RAZ: So that was not a helicopter?

KRAUSE: That part was done on a Moog. And I did about a third of the score on a Moog.

RAZ: Back in the 1960s and '70s, Bernie Krause was a musician. And he was an early pioneer of the Moog synthesizer.

KRAUSE: We worked with almost every major artist that you could name in the '60s and early '70s.

RAZ: Van Morrison, George Harrison, The Birds, and of course, The Doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE END")

KRAUSE: The problem was I was fired eight times on that role. Each time I was hired back, I got double the amount of money so. The "Apocalypse Now" helped fund my life since. Right after that film, I quit music and Hollywood and went back to school and got my PhD in bioacoustics. So I'm very grateful to Francis for this.

RAZ: For firing you eight times.

KRAUSE: Yeah. I wish he'd fired me ten more. I'd add it to my resume.

RAZ: So that was also the end of Bernie Krause's music career and the beginning of Bernie Krause the bioacoustician.

KRAUSE: Which means that I record the sounds of animals, all kinds of organisms from viruses to large whales.

RAZ: And Bernie has recorded literally thousands of hours of tape in wild habitats all over the world. And somewhere along the way he came up with a revolutionary idea. That these sounds aren't just random, that they're all connected and they're trying to tell us something. So he started to listen even closer.

KRAUSE: Every living organism has its own unique signature. Your voice is very different from mine. The sound of a bird sounds different from a lion. And all of the sound that reaches our ears at a certain point is called a soundscape. And the soundscape has three basic sources to it.

RAZ: So here's Bernie's explanation of the soundscapes on the TED stage. And a quick note. All of the natural sounds you will hear are sounds that Bernie actually recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KRAUSE: The first is the geophony, or the nonbiological sounds that occur in any given habitat, like wind in the trees, water in the stream, waves at the ocean shore, movement of the earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOPHONY)

KRAUSE: The second of these is the biophony. The biophony is all of the sound that's generated by organisms in a given habitat.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIOPHONY)

KRAUSE: And the third is all of the sound that we humans generate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHROPHONY)

KRAUSE: That's called anthrophony. Some of it is controlled like music or theater, but most of it is chaotic and incoherent, which some of us refer to as noise.

RAZ: Is there a pattern? Is it just sort of chaos? Or is it almost like a symphony, like an orchestra?

KRAUSE: Well, what I've found is, is that in habitats that are pretty much untouched, the sound is organized and structured in such a way so that each critter establishes this bandwidth. Think of it as niches or television channels. The choruses in that healthy habitat went like this. First, the insects establish their acoustic territory within the frequency spectrum.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSECTS)

KRAUSE: And then the reptiles and the amphibians join the chorus, establishing other niches.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS, AND REPTILES)

KRAUSE: Then come the birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS, REPTILES, AND BIRDS)

KRAUSE: And finally, the mammals.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIOPHONY)

KRAUSE: So that if one of those elements - one of those hundreds of elements is somehow compromised, it changes the whole structure of that niche. So these sounds can be disrupted by anything. They can be disrupted by human footsteps. They could be disrupted by the presence of a predator. And it's a very fragile moment.

RAZ: So by listening closely you can actually hear whether something's missing.

KRAUSE: Yes. You can tell how that habitat is faring and whether it's healthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KRAUSE: When I began recording, I could record for 10 hours and capture one hour of usable material good enough for an album or a film soundtrack or a museum installation. Now, because of global warming, resource extraction and human noise, among many other factors, it can take up to a thousand hours or more to capture the same thing. Fully 50 percent of my archive comes from habitats so radically altered that they're either altogether silent or can no longer be heard in any of their original form.

RAZ: Wow. Half of that. I mean, there are sounds in your archive that don't exist anymore because those species aren't around.

KRAUSE: That's correct. It's like - it's like taking out of the human musical repertoire everything that Mozart ever wrote. It's at that level.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC COMPOSED BY MOZART)

RAZ: I mean, that's shocking. I mean, that tells us that something is messed up.

KRAUSE: We are suffering from this collective, mass hysteria of trying to get every last resource, either out of the Earth or off the planet. So we're losing this natural soundscape - this signature voice of the natural world that so informs us. You know, if you're a religious person, this may be the last chance to hear the voice of the divine because, to me, that's as close as we're ever going to get.

RAZ: In a moment, some of those disappearing sounds from Bernie Krause's archive. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, nature's delicate balance. Why every flower, every animal and, as Bernie Krause says, every single sound is connected. So for decades, Bernie's been recording wild habitats all over the world, including in an area called Lincoln Meadow, it's in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KRAUSE: In 1988, a logging company convinced local residents that there'd be absolutely no environmental impact from a new method they were trying called selective logging - taking out a tree here and there rather than clearcutting a whole area. With permission granted to record both before and after the operation, I set up my gear.

And got this wonderful, rich recording in the spring of 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINCOLN MEADOW BIOPHONY)

KRAUSE: There were probably 10 species of birds at that particular moment that we've identified. A year later, I went back, and using the same protocols and under the same exact conditions - same time of year and so on, recorded again and captured the soundscape and the biophony as it existed after selective logging.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINCOLN MEADOW BIOPHONY)

KRAUSE: And the difference is profound. The richness, the density and diversity of the biophony is gone. I've been back 15 times since and it hasn't returned to anything like it was in the '70s and '80s - even now.

RAZ: It's incredible. It's unmistakable. What happened to those birds? I mean, did they go somewhere else? Did they die?

KRAUSE: Well, when you change the habitat, you change the way creatures live within that habitat. Maybe there wasn't enough food. Maybe there wasn't enough nesting area or places where the birds felt safe. And so they just migrated to another place.

RAZ: In your talk, you tell another story about these toads - spadefoot toads - and where they live.

KRAUSE: Yes. The spadefoot toads are all over the American West. At the end of their breeding cycle, they dig themselves down about - oh - a yard under the surface. And they can stay wrapped in this cocoon that they weave around themselves. And when there's enough moisture in the soil, the frogs will dig themselves to the surface and gather in large numbers around these vernal pools where they vocalize in a pulsating synchronicity with one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPADEFOOT TOADS)

KRAUSE: And they do this for, actually, several reasons. The first is they're looking for mates, of course. And the second is they do this as a protective cover because if they're all vocalizing together and chorusing at the same time, with the same synchronicity, it makes it really difficult for predators like foxes or coyotes or owls to come in and pick off any individual.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KRAUSE: Mono Lake is just to the east of Yosemite National Park in California. And it's a favorite habitat of these toads. And it's also favored by U.S. Navy jet pilots who train in their fighters, flying them at speeds exceeding 1,100 kilometers an hour. And altitudes only a couple of hundred meters above ground level of the Mono Basin, so loud that the anthrophony - the human noise - even though it's six and a half kilometers from the frog pond, it masked the sound of the chorusing toads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONO BASIN ANTHROPHONY)

KRAUSE: Now at the end of that flyby, it took the frogs fully 45 minutes to regain their chorusing synchronicity, during which time and under a full moon, we watched as two coyotes and a great horned owl came in to pick off a few of their numbers. The good news is that, with a little bit of habitat restoration and fewer flights, the frog populations, once diminishing during the 1980s and early '90s, have pretty much returned to normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONO BASIN BIOPHONY)

KRAUSE: Biophonies and geophonies are the signature voices of the natural world. And as we hear them, we're endowed with a sense of place, the true story of the world we live in. In a matter of seconds, a soundscape reveals much more information from many perspectives, from quantifiable data to cultural inspiration. And while a picture may be worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.

RAZ: They're constantly communicating with us. I mean, all these animals are communicating with each other and sort of sending us messages as well.

KRAUSE: Yeah. And it's just like a Rosetta Stone. We've got to figure out what this narrative - this natural soundscape - these biophonies and geophonies - are telling us. And that's the lesson that we have to learn yet because I suspect that the purpose is survival. That the purpose is to thrive.

RAZ: What can we do now to start to fix it?

KRAUSE: All we have to do is be quiet and somehow learn not to be so noisy. You know, the more quiet we are and the more humble we are in the face of our experience with the natural world and stop trying to overcome it and dominate it, the more we're going to find a healthy coexistence with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIOPHONY)

RAZ: Bernie Krause. He's the author of the recent book called "The Great Animal Orchestra." Check out his full talk at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.