Last month, just before the reality of the covid-19 virus was becoming widely known, I added another snapshot to my sonic stash. While I hiked with my family in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, the silence that surrounded us whenever we stopped trudging and paused to listen was nearly tangible.
I felt as if the dense quiet were resting on my shoulders. The nearly soundless peace was as beautiful as the surrounding desert panorama.
Vacation sounds span the spectrum. I can hear pinball in Grand Bend, Ontario; horse hoofs on Michigan’s car-free Mackinac Island; sea lions barking in Santa Cruz, Calif.; the roar of Niagara Falls; cicadas’ electric buzz in Provence, France; batted balls at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y.; mountainside cowbells in Switzerland; and from just about everywhere, young voices mingled with splashing, seeming like a message across years.
In Ray Bradbury’s book, “Dandelion Wine,” a dying man longs to hear the sounds of Mexico City. He calls a friend there and asks him to hold the phone to an open window so he can hear the “hot yellow noon” of a populated place he once knew. Metal horns, squealing brakes and “the calls of vendors selling red-purple bananas and jungle oranges” travel through the phone line.
For most of us, our individual worlds are a bit quieter right now, or at least aurally altered by stay-at-home orders. Out-of-school neighborhood children are playing on their lawns and roller-skating up and down the sidewalk. And the conversation of early-spring birds is more apparent, partly because we have more time to listen.
While the pandemic has paused our ability to travel, we can still press a conch shell to our ears.
Various websites, sound projects and commercial offerings provide audio of global destinations. Numerous recordings from around the world give us subway doors closing, taxi horns, sirens and crowded cafes.
Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist devoted to preserving the world’s quiet places, says travel is adventure listening. Speaking by phone from his home in Port Townsend, Wash., Hempton describes sound as our original surveillance system.
“We’re wired to process sound,” he says, “much more than looking.
“Our eyes are in front of our head; we see only the surface of objects.”
The current social distancing has the positive effect, he says, of reconnecting us with our ability to listen to our surroundings because we’re “time wealthy,” as Hempton says. During this period of hunkering down, frustrated travelers can rekindle their listening skills as they prep for their next excursion.
Hempton’s Sound Tracker label features albums of ambient recordings he has made of various quiet places (generally defined as no human sound for 15 minutes).
The albums, available on iTunes, are invitations for people to virtually travel before actually visiting those same spots to hear what Hempton calls “the live concert.”
He’s a founding partner of Quiet Parks International, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving quiet places. The Zabalo River in Ecuador is the first certified wilderness quiet park. Hempton has recorded the Zabalo Park and it’s not quiet. Rather, it’s rich with animal voices and other ambient sounds.
Quiet Parks plans to designate other peaceful spots, including urban parks and hotels.
Although Hempton advocates for the protection of remote, natural sound, he also has an affection for the rhythm and music of cities. He’s fond of Old Venice, at night.
“Because of the lack of cars, you can listen to people walk at night; hear the tapping of their feet, the tones of their voices, the cadence, the echoes off the stone walls,” he says.
Another of his auditory pleasures, he says, is the sound of Tokyo, where “the smoothness of the street pavement combined with the treads of the tires makes for a very interesting sound.”
Hempton refers to sound as a time stamp. And sounds, both natural and man-made, do vanish.
In train stations around the world, for example, large, mechanical boards used to feature split flaps (like the mid-century alarm clocks) that displayed departure times with a wonderful clatter sounding like a shower of dry beans spilling from a jar or hail pelting pavement. That sound is being silenced by updated technology. But in San Francisco, the iconic Ferry Building was outfitted with a vintage split-flap schedule board that honors the age of the structure. The result is a pleasantly layered sensory experience.
Trains and birds dominate ambient recordings. Birds, especially, are the universal soundtrack of the world (although a recent day I spent in Death Valley was pretty devoid of tweets).
But as online sound exploration underscores, the world is a highly diverse acoustical wonder. Recordings feature squeaky sand (underfoot), clattering cafe dishes, cracking ice, wind, soccer fans, taxicab radios, the spray of Rome’s Trevi Fountain and waking coyotes in Yellowstone National Park.
In this current and strange state of quiet, it helps to remember there are trees falling in the forests and they are making sounds.
If we practice listening now, future destinations will be about show — and tell. No ear buds required.
Places to listen
Ambient recordings of global places highlight the natural harmony of sight and sound. With our travel unplugged, a little acoustic wandering can help us hear what the world has to say.
Cornell University’s Natural Sound Archive [macaulaylibrary.org] offers 150,000 digital and converted analog recordings that date back to 1929. Listen for whales, elephants, frogs, primates and birds. Cuts include a loon on an Adirondacks lake, birds at dawn in Queensland, Australia; and the “UFO-like” call of a curl-crested manucode in New Guinea. Search by animal or region.
At Sonic Wonders [sonicwonders.org], listen to “squeakings” sand in more than 10 locations, including Porthor Beach in the United Kingdom. Also here are the chimes of Big Ben.
Sound Cities [soundcities.com] is an open-source database created by Stanza, a London-based artist. “Next stop is Lombard crooked street, Lombard crooked street, next stop” is heard in a San Francisco trolley clip. A bike bell, car horn and conversation blend on a street in Kolkata, India, and Italians talk soccer.
Gordon Hempton’s Sound Tracker [soundtracker.com] offers previews of his recordings, including Zabalo, a certified quiet place in the Ecuadoran Amazon, where it’s possible to walk for 1,200 miles without crossing a road.
Cities and Memory [citiesandmemory.com] is a sound map founded by sound artist and field recordist Stuart Fowkes that features more than 3,000 sounds from 90-plus countries and territories. Visit Hanoi and Florence; and hear flamenco in Seville, Spain; and gnaoua music in Essaouira, Morocco.
Wild sounds of the National Parks from Jacob Job, a natural-sounds recordist and science communicator, and his team at Colorado State University can be heard at Sound Cloud [soundcloud.com]. Among the most popular are Coyotes Wake Up in Yellowstone, Dawn Chorus in Yellowstone, and Elk Rut and Coyote at Rocky Mountain National Park. With funding from National Geographic, Job has just completed “Voices of a Flyway [voicesofaflyway.com],” which recorded sounds of six ecosystems along the Mississippi.