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Stateside With Rosalea - Quiet, please!

Stateside With Rosalea - Quiet, please!

The monarch is here. She flew in from Canada to be at a garden party last Sunday at the Museum of California in Oakland, which is where I saw her. No, I don't mean Betty Windsor! I mean the monarch butterfly. Thousands of them have arrived, as they do each year, flying 100 miles a day. They are the sturdy, long-lived fifth generation of monarch, born in Canada and migrating to California's Central Coast in the autumn. They come in such numbers that they transform blue gums into what looks like a show of fall foliage. Four short-lived generations die on their way back north, according to the information at

I was at the museum for a talk about the world of nature sounds. Marv Jensen, managing director of the National Park Service's Soundscapes Program, was speaking about "natural quiet as a vital resource, and the need to preserve and protect the sounds of nature in our parks and wilderness areas." I was interested because last year I spent a wonderful weekend with the Nature Sounds Society at a camp near Yuba Pass in the Sierra Nevada, getting up at 3 am to travel to remote places with sound recording equipment to capture the sounds of nature before the noise of the human world intruded - cars, planes, generators, and domesticated animals like dogs and cows.

The parks service didn't identify the natural soundscape as a resource it should protect until a couple of years ago, "charismatic megafauna" - like bison - falling more obviously under their protection. The NPS is the only federal agency that is getting involved with the soundscape, and is discovering that sounds data collection may be one of the tools that helps it create a complete taxa of what's in the national parks, as well as being a way of understanding "critter" life cycles and whether they are flourishing or in danger.

The presence of snowmobiles in national parks is one very well-known point of contention here in the States. Jensen spoke of the review of current law as "another cycle in a number of iterations of that issue", which started off years ago in Yellowstone National Park, when the people of nearby Cody, Wyoming, put congressional pressure on the parks service to keep the roads plowed all winter - an impossible task that was only avoided by the NPS allowing snowmobiles in the park instead. Jensen said that, as a result of some college engineering competitions, two-stroke motors with less piercing sound have been developed. Moreover, a study has showed that the wildlife in Yellowstone is more disturbed by humans on snowshoes and skis than by snowmobiles. Perhaps that's because the sounds they make carry less distance.

Two other high-profile issues related to quietude in national parks are the use of tour aircraft flying over e.g. the Grand Canyon, and military flight training at low altitudes. The latter affects about 40 percent of national parks, and the NPS obviously can only hope to talk the military either into or out of courses of action that affect the local soundscape. One success resulted from taking a group of generals into a remote canyon where they "got buzzed by their own jet jockeys", as Jensen put it, and the flight path was raised to 18,000 feet.

As far as tour flights and other aviation goes, the National Parks Service works with the Federal Aviation Administration but the two have diametrically opposed missions set by Congress, so it's slow going. All the same, the NPS is the first organisation in the US to have equal signing authority with the FAA on some matters. Having a lead agency and a cooperating agency is the model for all environmental planning here, but this is the only case where the cooperating agency effectively has a power of veto.

Another speaker at the Oakland museum talk was Bernie Krause, whose book 'Wild Soundscapes' was recently published by Wilderness Press. According to the book's blurb he has recorded natural landscapes for over 30 years all over the world. Some of you might know him as the person who replaced Pete Seeger in the '60s folk group, the Weavers. He has often spoken at workshops I've been to with the Nature Sounds Society, and you can see what he's about at his website The book can be seen at

I recommend the book - despite its occasional use of what might be called persuasive, rather than hard, facts - simply because it's as comprehensive a resource as you're likely to find if the subject interests you. And if you plan to make a hobby of recording natural sound, this is an excellent place to start because it assumes no prior knowledge of equipment or recording techniques, and gives you several projects to get started with. A CD of some of Krause's recordings comes with the book, including one of his meeting with a jaguar in the Amazon. Although 'Wild Soundscapes' is geared towards the US market, it would be useful in any part of the world.

People the world over enjoy contemplative recreation - it can be something as simple as sitting under a tree on a hillside on a hot late afternoon, a gentle breeze playing over your skin, as the sun sinks into the ocean. (That's my idea of heaven, anyway!) But increasingly, no matter how far from the madding crowd you have gone, the sounds of "progress" will find you. Bravo to the folks like Krause and Jensen who, each in their own sphere, bring a little less noise to our world so we might hear a butterfly's wings.

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