Listening to the Natural West
The U’s Western Soundscape Archive captures the animal and ambient music of the wild.
Here’s an animal-noise pop quiz: What sound does a frog make? What about a wolf? A slithering snake? Or a hawk? Too easy? Try something harder: A North American river otter, perhaps? An American pika? What about a Utah prairie dog?
If the specific croaks, howls, hisses—or rattles!—and squeals of these animals aren’t already part of your sound repertoire, then the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library can help. The library is home to the Western Soundscape Archive, a collection of animal sounds and ambient noise gathered across 11 contiguous Western states. Established through a federal grant in 2007 by then-U librarians Jeff Rice and Kenning Arlitsch, the archive is a treasure trove of all that chatters, growls, hoots, squeaks, and warbles.
“But it’s more than just a collection of recorded sounds tucked away in a library,” says Rice, who is now the managing editor at the University of Washington’s Puget Sound Institute. “It’s about paying attention to the world out there. The more you start looking into it and the more time you spend outdoors, you realize how important sound is to the environment.” A river, for example, sounds different under the snows of February than it does beneath the sunny skies of July. Birds sing in dialects, so the sweet chirp of a robin won’t be the same in Iowa as it is in Idaho. Even the tiniest ants make vibrational sounds that the human ear can’t detect without amplification.
The U archive is intended to foster both preservation and education, says Arlitsch. Wild places and their animal inhabitants disappear by the day due to factors such as commercial development and climate change. Kurt Fristrup, a scientist who works for the U.S. National Park Service’s Natural Sounds Program, says preservation efforts aimed at saving those landscapes or animals aren’t uncommon, but often they are driven by the visual stimuli. “We don’t think about the need to preserve the auditory landscape,” he says, and so we may not notice if sounds disappear.
Arlitsch notes that the sounds of howling wolves, which draw thousands to Yellowstone National Park each year, were once gone from the park because the animal had been eradicated there by humans in the early 20th century. “It was a part of the ecosystem that was missing,” Arlitsch says.
Once a species is gone, it’s not likely to come back. As a means of sharing that conservation message, sound has proved to be a powerful tool, Arlitsch and Rice say. “A recording can appeal to so many different people,” says Rice. “It can appeal to a 5-year-old or my 9-year-old son, and they think it’s fascinating. That same recording can appeal to a professional biologist who wants to understand the bioacoustics of that creature. It really crosses over.”
Recordings from the Western Soundscape Archive are featured throughout the U’s new Natural History Museum of Utah. Rice worked closely with the museum and recorded and designed sounds for six major dioramas and several other listening areas within the building. Many recordings were also supplied by archive consultant Kevin Colver MD’83, a former Utah physician now living in Florida who has recorded the songs of many birds in the West.
Scientifically defined, sound is the auditory sensation created by pressure variations that move through mediums such as air or water. A soundscape is the symphony of sounds that populate a place—a combined chorus of wind, water, wildlife, vegetation, and even man-made noises that make up the background music of life. The gift of hearing those sounds is not just for communication or auditory enjoyment, but a critical part of survival for every species on the planet, says Fristrup, who is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. It is sound that alerts all creatures to things unseen and helps them locate prey or predators and even mate. Sound is so important that researchers have found some cave-dwelling animals that have evolved to survive without sight, but no vertebrate species is known to have lost hearing, he says.
“It doesn’t matter what you are doing, including when you are sleeping: Your ears are always tuned into the world,” Fristrup says. “The value of something like the Western Soundscape Archive is to provide people with educational material so that the next time they go out into nature, they listen more intently.”
Sound can also leave a strong auditory footprint in our minds. Because of the way the brain processes the senses, sounds, like smells, are wired for connections on a very elemental level. It’s why music can make a person cry, or a wave of homesickness can be triggered by crickets singing on a hot summer night. “Hearing connects us intimately with nature and with our environments, but also connects us quite intimately with memory,” Fristrup says.
That sort of emotional tug led Rice to pursue a life with a microphone in hand. As a kid growing up in western Washington, Rice was captivated by the croaking frogs in the woods near his home. “With frogs especially, very often, you don’t see them, you just hear them. It’s mysterious and interesting,” says Rice. “I never got over that.”
Rice went on to obtain degrees in electronic music and recording media. A career as a radio producer allowed him to pursue stories that fed his interest in science and the natural world, and along the way, he began to develop a robust collection of animal and ambient wilderness noise recordings. But he also noticed a gap. Some of the sounds he sought for use in storytelling—a northern grasshopper mouse call, for example—weren’t readily available. Others were disappearing as development and human activity encroached on open spaces, and he thought they ought to be preserved. “I realized that this stuff wasn’t really available anywhere and thought this might be something libraries would be interested in collecting, so I approached Kenning with the idea,” Rice says.
Arlitsch, then the associate dean for Information Technology Services at the University of Utah, loved the idea. Raised in crowded and noisy New York, Arlitsch had become an avid hiker and recreationalist with a deep love for the West’s wide open spaces and dramatic landscapes. At first, though, those feelings were largely tied to his visual experience, he says. “Jeff really turned me on to the auditory concept that places don’t just change with the human impact, but they also change in terms of sounds that are there or not there,” says Arlitsch, who in 2012 became dean of Montana State University’s library in Bozeman.
At the University of Utah, the soundscape project was a natural evolutionary progression of work already being done to digitize the Marriott Library’s collections, including books, photographs, maps, and newspapers, Arlitsch says. In 2007, he and Rice won a three-year, $350,000 National Leadership Grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Western Soundscape Archive was born.
Today, the archive features about 2,640 recordings, including animal sounds and ambient noise from areas across 11 Western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The collection also contains 60 hours of recordings from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gathered during a 2006 expedition that was partially funded by the University of Utah. Through the entire collection, curious listeners can enjoy more than 680 hours of sounds that include screaming hawks, hooting owls, and growling bears, says Anna Neatrour, a Marriott librarian who was a project manager for the archive. Listeners seeking a more peaceful or relaxing experience might prefer to tune into the pre-dawn rain shower and birdsong from the Ironwood Forest National Monument in Arizona, or the babbling alpine stream that crisscrosses Alta, in Utah’s Albion Basin. Some of archive’s recordings last only a few seconds, like the high-pitched squeak of an arboreal salamander’s exhale. Others go on for several minutes, and many of the ambient sound recordings, including the one from the Ironwood Forest, can last nearly a half hour.
Deciding just what should be recorded and how to gather it was a challenge. From the Pacific coast to the valleys, deserts, and peaks, the West has countless soundscapes to document. The landscape includes more than 1,100 different vertebrate species, including various types of frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, birds, turtles, lizards, snakes, and mammals. Rice attacked the sizeable problem by dividing the West up by region and species and making strategic decisions about what was needed to create a collection that provided a strong representation of Western animal species.
Rice recorded much of the archival material himself, but also relied heavily on contributions from volunteers. In all, 80 individual recordists or organizations contributed to the project, including the National Park Service, which donated thousands of hours of recordings for which there was no publicly accessible archive.
The craft of making a recording depends in part on what story one is hoping to tell, so the approach to each recording and the equipment needed to get it will vary, Arlitsch and Rice say. If the focus is on an individual species, then the approach is more targeted. An animal’s habitats and habits must be identified. Permission or permits might be needed from state or federal agencies to gain access to an area. Then the recordist heads into the field, armed with a microphone, a recording device, headphones, and a parabolic dish—a sphere that collects sound from a large area and focuses it on the microphone. If ambient sounds from a location are the goal, a microphone can be set up in a specific spot and left to record on its own for hours at a time.
Either way, the recordist needs a good plan, a healthy dose of patience, and a reliable alarm clock. Rice often gets up well before dawn to trek to a recording location, because the early morning hours are the best for finding wildlife and limiting man-made disruptions. “There’s a window from about 4 a.m. to maybe 6 a.m. where it does feel like you’re alone in the world,” says Rice, who counts Yellowstone National Park among his favorite places to record. “You keep your ears open for the bears, and you’re alert, and then the animals start to tune up and chorus us. It’s a pretty special experience.”
Once sound clips were gathered, Arlitsch and his team, including Neatrour, stepped in to build the archive’s website and the infrastructure needed to support it. That meant shepherding high-resolution recordings through the digitization process, which readies the audio files for streaming over the Internet. Metadata for each recording also had to be written. The goal was to provide as much information about the animal and its specific recording as possible, right down to the time of day, weather conditions, and global positioning system coordinates. As designed, the site, westernsoundscape.org, lets curious listeners browse the archive using an animal’s common name—like greater sage-grouse—or by its Latin name, so in this case, Centrocercus urophasianus. A link to maps also lets site visitors see just where various species make their homes across the West.
Arlitsch says he and Rice would like to see the U’s Western Soundscape Archive become a research and teaching tool, and not just for those interested in bioacoustics. “We think there are medical or therapeutic or psychological practices that can come out of this, as well as environmental research, of course,” Arlitsch says.
Without additional grant funding, no new recordings are currently being added to the archive, but Neatrour says the Marriott Library has acquired a state-of-the-art digital preservation system and plans to transfer the archive’s contents, to better preserve the files for the long term. The soundscape’s availability is also expanding. Its contents recently were added to two larger collections: the Mountain West Digital Library, a digital hub for libraries, museums, and historical societies in six Western states; and the Digital Public Library of America, which aggregates photographs, manuscripts, sound, and film from sources across the United States.
It’s not clear whether the Western Soundscape Archive contains sounds that have never before been recorded—that’s a difficult thing to know—but both Rice and Arlitsch say the project brought more than a few surprises and deeper awareness of just how rare and special it is to record the animals that roam the West. “There is so much more variety and so much potential to discover, that the work is never going to end. There’s always going to be more to do,” says Rice. “It’s important for all of us to just pay attention to the natural world. If a recording in an archive will help you with that, which I think it does, that’s valuable.”
—Jennifer Dobner, a former longtime Associated Press reporter and editor, is now a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.