Recording the Symphonies of Nature

04-01-2002 // Marc Breslav

LANG ELLIOTT has been driving for several hours to escape Florida's humid heat, but something tells him to turn and head back to Alexander Springs Creek in Ocala National Forest. Elliott, who records nature sounds for a living, was there earlier in the day taping the cacophony of the swamp, listening unsuccessfully for the mating bellow of an alligator. Hours later, Elliott is back in his canoe retracing his route and questioning the sanity of driving all day only to return to the same uncomfortable spot. He makes camp without setting up his recording gear.

At the opposite end of the country, Kathy Turco's bush pilot lands on a gravel bar aside a river in Alaska's remote coastal plain, promising to return in one week. Turco, another nature recordist, has been trying for years to capture the sounds of migrating caribou for an educational project about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alone now, she begins to hear hooves in the distance as soon as she zips up her tent.

Turco and Elliott, scientists by background, are among a small cadre of people presenting the sounds of nature as "symphonies" by recording multiple creatures combined with the ambience of their habitat--from the buzzing of insects and bellowing of lions and elephants at an African waterhole to the voices of prairie dogs, burrowing owls and bitterns in the American Southwest.

Traditionally, nature recordings have been scientific audio field guides, in which a narrator introduced the isolated sound of each species. But today many recordists want people to gain a deeper appreciation for the environment by hearing nature's diverse voices in concert. Assisted by digital technology like compact discs, "sound artists" create realistic recordings that are undistracted by narration and the hiss of cassette tapes or the pops of vinyl records. "Listeners able to let go of their scientific inclinations to identify each sound will find themselves immersed in an aesthetic musical experience," says Jim Cummings, founder of EarthEar, a clearinghouse for such recordings.

Even some mainstream scientists are recognizing the merits of these recordings. "Abstracting the voice of a single creature from a habitat and trying to understand it out of context is a little like trying to comprehend an elephant by examining only a single hair at the tip of its tail," wrote a group of researchers in the journal Science.

Elliott, from Ithaca, New York, notes that simply recording the sounds of nature can lead to scientific discoveries. Many birds have been well studied by scientists, but often the nuances of their songs and calls have not. He believes he may be the first person to have recorded the summer tanager's morning song. "Even American robins, a species found over the entire continent of North America, have a dawn song that is poorly known," says Don Kroodsma, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Like Elliott, Turco, who sells her recordings to filmmakers and also works as a scientific field assistant and public radio reporter in Fairbanks, Alaska, wants her recordings to inspire people to care about what they hear.

But her work can be arduous, particularly in the arctic area Turco calls home. Travel is difficult, distances are long and seasons are short. And she has to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. This time her persistence finally pays off.

On the coastal plain, Turco finds herself in the middle of the caribou's massive spring migration. With 24 hours of daylight providing her no cover, she cannot even unzip her tent for fear of spooking the herd. "If you push animals, all you get are alarm calls," says Turco, emphasizing the need for recordists to become "invisible." For three solid days she rolls audio tape as the wildlife parade passes around her tent, milling, eating and resting. "It was as if my tent was one giant ear," she says.

Back in Florida, Elliott awakes in his tent at 4:00 am to the call of the limpkin, a southern wading bird he's never recorded. Too rushed for a flashlight, he fumbles to set up his gear, finding the creek by the feel of his feet.

A barred owl begins to inquire, "Who cooks for y'all?" Then a bellowing alligator joins the orchestra from no more than 15 feet away: It is the mating call Elliott has sought to record for years. The limpkin's screech punctuates the moment.

New York writer Marc Breslav is an avid student of animal sounds.

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