May 01, 2013, by Hank Lentfer
The first strands of music and fledging utterances of language stirred in the minds of early humans whose lives were embedded in the deeply complex soundscape of the natural world. Distilled from that complexity is the small suite of sounds endlessly re-combined to form presidential speeches, Inuit riddles, Tibetan prayers, and conversations unfolding around tables and campfires the world round. Also winnowed from the diversity of whistles, howls, and hoots of the natural world are the twelve familiar notes that we continuously re-arrange to create everything from low-down blues to high-flying rock and roll, from foot-tapping Irish reels to angelic choirs.
Just as a piece of cultural and acoustic diversity is buried when the last native speaker of a language dies, there is a great loss when the original source of language and music becomes buried beneath the whine of wheels and drone of jets. I’ve often fantasized about some guy on the Lewis and Clark expedition carrying a parabolic dish and digital recorder alongside his musket and powder bag. Each morning, at daybreak, while his companions kindled the morning fire, he’d walk from camp and capture the voices of a continent unfettered by industrial sounds. He’d record the whisper of tall grasses, the thunder of 10,000 bison hoofs, the rush of a sky filled with passenger pigeons. He’d hear the scream of mountain lions beyond the edge of camp, the gurgle of the Columbia River unimpeded by dams, the sound of waves crashing on a new shore.
When I find myself getting bummed by all we have lost, it helps to remember that our culture is also responsible for the largest conglomeration of protected lands on the planet. The good old U.S. of A., exporter of Big Macs and Coke, is running the world’s grandest experiment in communal land ownership. Nowhere is that more evident than outside my door here in Alaska where the chirps, grunts, drips, growls and songs of the natural world still dominant. With enough hardtack and endurance, I could step off my porch and spend years exploring over 23 million contiguous wild babbling acres of public land.
While we can’t reach back two centuries and send a recorder along with Lewis and Clark, we can get a microphone in front of a calving glacier, beneath a singing thrush, alongside a bellowing humpback. And, for the next two years, that is what I, and good friend Richard Nelson, plan to do. (Check out Richard’s radio work here.) With financial support from the National Park Service and Friends of Glacier Bay, Richard and I, armed with omni-directional microphones, a bag of batteries, and can of bear spray will prowl and poke through the Glacier Bay’s 3.3 million acres, recording the grooviest and grandest sounds we can find.
In an effort to share these sounds with as many people as possible, we’ll come in from the wilds every two weeks, take a shower, eat some ice cream, and send along our best tracks to be posted on this blog. (Listen to Richard’s “Night Sounds” track below for a taste of things to come.) Through these posts we hope to remind ourselves and others that, along with the mess our grandchildren will inherit, we also have the opportunity to pass along vast stretches of country where bears still chase salmon beneath the shrill cry of eagles. And, more importantly, we hope the sounds emerging through your speakers will put a welcome pause in your day and smile on your face as you remember that, somewhere, the full orchestra of natural sounds grumbles and whispers and sings the same tune that tumbled back through the ears of our earliest ancestors.
Hank Lentfer is the author of Faith of Cranes. He lives on a creek bank in Gustavus, Alaska.