During lockdowns, the volume of the human world was muted. Traffic, aircraft, industrial and other anthropogenic noise (that is noise caused by humans) reduced. We could hear birdsong again – birds could probably hear each other better, too.
But the noise of the economy bounced back quickly, and we were reminded how loud everyday life is compared to a quiet baseline. Research shows that a noisy environment has all sorts of health impacts for people. It also disrupts nature and both terrestrial and marine mammals suffer. The natural quiet of the planet is being lost, and while humans can theoretically seek out refuge in remote places, animals may not be able to escape. Even one person’s noise can affect the quiet commons of many. There are stories of people seeking escape in apparent quiet places like the Central Plateau, who find the Tongariro Crossing as full as a footpath, with walkers blasting (bad) music all along the trail.
Former musician Bernie Krause gave up a rock career in favour of recording the sounds of the wild. He helped develop the scientific field of soundscape ecology. He recorded the changing sounds of the world. He called human noise “anthrophony” and he compared this to “geophony” – the sounds the earth makes, such as water in rivers or the sea, the wind, cracking glaciers and rolling stones. And then there is “biophony” – the sounds of living nature, such as bird song, leaves rustling and creatures crawling and calling. Most soundscapes are a mixture of all three, though of course anthrophony has come to dominate them all.
I recently sat by a quiet inlet watching the tide come in. Fish plopped, water lapped. But suddenly around the corner came a truck with grinding gears, straining motor and tyres shredding gravel. The sounds of birds and fish and nature were overrun. Biophony was replaced by anthrophony. Even out in my kayak in the estuary, anthrophony, biophony and geophony come and go – a plane overhead, the surf on the beach, a lonely gull chick, the repetitive screeching of a bird scarer on a boat.
Auckland University public health expert Professor Shanthi Ameratunga calls it “infrastructure violence” when roads and utilities create negative effects in communities and the environment. In many instances she finds that some communities and nature carry the burden of noise and disruption, while other (wealthier) communities realise the benefits. Roads, powerlines, railways and other infrastructure sever communities of people and creatures, imposing costs externally. We know roads are violent places, but we think less about the violence of their noise until we are trying to find refuge, rest or respite from the world when anthrophony intrudes regardless.
Soundscape recordings capture the losses of biophony and the encroachment of humans. Sounds recorded in the field also capture the haunting sorrow of animals harmed. Impacts on nature and loss of biophony reflect a sorrow for us all. But visiting places like Tiritiri Matangi and Tawharanui remind us what was, and what could be retrieved.
Find out more about Bernie Krause and changing soundscapes here: