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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Natural Noises

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks to recordist Peter Acker about the pleasures and challenges of capturing sound in the natural world. Acker says it's getting more difficult to record nature without the noises of civilization intruding. He's lobbying for noise-free areas to be set aside in national parks as refuges for nature's sound


ACKER: My recordings I liken to portraits. They're audio portraits of undisturbed natural wilderness.

NUNLEY: That's sound recordist Peter Acker. This selection is called "Winter's Final Bow," and it's from his latest CD, "Sounds from the Water's Edge."

(music up - sound of crows)

NUNLEY: Peter Acker tracks down places in the pristine wilderness where there is only the sound of the wilderness - no people, no cars, no planes. Then he records them, using a stereo microphone mounted in a plastic human head which he affectionately calls "Fritz." It's even got two rubber ears, so that it can pick up sounds the way people do. But in his quest to capture the sound of the wilderness as accurately as possible, Acker says it's getting harder and harder to escape the growing audio impact of humanity. He spoke recently with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

ACKER: Noise-free listening is quickly becoming a thing of the past as man develops, as man moves into wilderness areas, or the outskirts of areas to develop land. Noise-free listening is slowly being lost. If there's a location that I can record for five minutes of uninterrupted nature, I'm very lucky.

CURWOOD: Now, you have with you some samples of recordings that you've made...

ACKER: Yes, I do.

CURWOOD: Some have been absolutely quiet, and then some with some problems. This first one here that was recorded on the coast of Maine, can you tell me what we're about to hear and why it didn't go exactly right?

ACKER: This was up on Cape Elizabeth, Maine, not too far from Portland. And it was a dawn recording of Crescent Beach. And I happened to locate a spot where there was a fresh water supply that was running into the ocean. But as I settled - this was about 5:30 in the morning - as I set up and started the tape rolling, I was really enjoying this picture. And then all of a sudden, whoosh, a jet airplane from the Portland airport some 15 miles away...

(sound of water and airplane)

ACKER: At that point, the noise-free environment was lost and the world was waking up, especially around Portland. And unfortunately I had to scrub that one.

CURWOOD: How often do you run into this kind of trouble with your recording? You're making a face - you can't see that on the radio!

ACKER: Unfortunately, it happens fairly often. You know, we are desensitized because of the constant din of humanity. We're desensitized to what quiet really is. I remember as a child, I grew up on Long Island. And my family would come up to New Hampshire for summer vacations. And I remember looking out over a lake and there were motorboats off in the distance, and I was saying to myself, "This is wonderful! It's so quiet up here."

CURWOOD: Motorboats and all!

ACKER: Motorboats and all.

CURWOOD: What is it that we lose with this noise?

ACKER: Well, aside from losing an indescribable experience, I think you lose a sense, in the grand scheme, a sense of yourself. When you consider that generations and generations and generations of people literally survived in great part by their listening skill, and they were very much in tune with the world around them. And in native cultures, many places had names, were given names simply by the sound that was found there. I don't know how far back this goes, but the Thunder Hole at Acadia is an example of a location that got its name from the auditory cues that are present at that one location.

(sound of waves)

CURWOOD: What's being done to protect the audio integrity of the wild places?

ACKER: Recently, very recently, a study was conducted by the National Park Service, at Holiokola National Park in Hawaii, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon. And what has come out of this study is there is a growing sensitivity to noise intrusion. And as a result of that there will be some legislation, hopefully, introduced. To the extent that a location within a national park, say the Grand Canyon, where one wants, where they want to preserve pure listening. A spot is identified and a bubble is, in essence, raised over that spot and extends outward - effectively, a noise-free area where airplanes cannot cross, where there's no traffic of any kind. And this is part of what we call the setting aside quiet places, the quiet places system where individuals can go to enjoy the pure sound of nature without the human element, so to speak.

(sound of birds)

NUNLEY: Sound recordist Peter Acker has put out two CDs of his nature recordings, on his own Natural Rhythms label, based in Windsor, Vermont.



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