The sounds of forest silence

laurel shadows 3

UPDATE (Feb 19): Thanks to a comment from Leslee, I’ve just learned that the New York Times Magazine also had an article about Krause’s niche hypothesis yesterday, bizarrely enough. Check it out.

The silence you listen to in the woods when you’re by yourself is not at all like the silence you listen to with another person.

Of course, when we say silence, what we really mean is, absence of human noise. The woods are rarely quiet — except when people are talking or running machines. I imagine only someone from a true forest culture — the Mbuti of the Ituri rainforest, the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia, or the Penan of Borneo — would know how to talk in a way that harmonizes with the natural soundscape.

The woods are peaceful, we think, meaning not simply that noise is absent, but that harmony is present. It seems very likely that all members of an ecological community occupy distinct, non-conflicting aural niches, says bio-acoustics researcher Bernard Krause.

Experienced composers know that in order to achieve an unimpeded resonance the sound of each instrument must have its own unique voice and place in the spectrum of events being orchestrated. All too little attention has been paid to the fact that insects, birds and mammals in any given environment have been finding their aural niche since the beginning of time and much more successfully than we might have imagined. Indeed, combining an audition with a graphic print-out of the diversity and structure of natural sounds from a rainforest forcefully demonstrates very special relationships of many insects, birds, mammals, and amphibians to each other. A complex vital beauty emerges that the best of sonic artists in Western culture have yet to achieve.

Of course, the soundscape of a temperate-zone forest in the winter is minimalist in the extreme: a twittering of juncos, the tapping of a woodpecker, the sudden burbling of a Carolina wren. Trees creak in the wind. A chickadee sings his spring song — two descending, minor-key notes — in the middle of a snow squall. If you stand absolutely still, you can just barely make out the sound of snowflakes hitting bare branches. Drop a pin and you’d probably drown it out.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

17 Comments


  1. I don’t know if you’re familiar with John Luther Adams, but in his book Winter Music he writes about seeking as a composer to harmonize with the natural world that inspires his music. Your thoughts here resonate, for me, with some of his.

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  2. A very thoughtful and well-illustrated essay, Dave. In my mind’s ear I could hear the soft impacts of the snowflakes…

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  3. Just a week ago I was in the the forest thinking very similar thoughts. The quality of the silence there is different from anywhere else.

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  4. steve – I’ve only ever heard a couple things by Adams, so no, I’m not as familiar with him as it sounds like I should be. Thanks for stopping by.

    Larry – Thanks. I like “mind’s ear.”

    pablo – Since you and I running this Festival of the Trees thing together, I guess it’s reassuring to know that we suffer from the same delusions about forests.

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  5. Fascinating the idea that our language might find its niche in the soundscape in which we developed. It got me thinking about our English. Where do the dulcet tones of our colonial-tinged language best resonate? What heaths and dales are not disturbed when we speak but rather offer us our specific sound niche? Are there such places in the Americas?
    If not, I wonder if I can modify my language so as to enter seamlessly into the soundscape around me wherever I find myself.

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  6. Your mini essay reminds me of a scrap of poem I wrote a few years ago, when some pedant repeated the brilliant idea that if a tree falls in the woods an no one hears it, then it didn’t really fall. Just a bit antropocentric.

    if i walk a wood without flowers
    i am not whole
    to see
    to smell
    everything
    ambience of flowers in my mind

    if a tree falls in the woods
    and i don’t hear it
    then I am not
    in the woods
    if i step on a twig
    the forest listens

    if a bird sings
    a flower blooms
    a roach scrambles across the littered way
    a mosquito hums and then rests quiet
    my sense of these is met
    by their sense of me

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  7. Brett – Maybe New England a hundred years ago was that kind of landscape: hilly, agricultural, with lots of hedgerows and small woodlots. Maybe.

    I’m not sure what languages were spoken in pre-Columbian times where I live now. Something related to Susquehannock, maybe. Can languages become native to a place? I’d certainly like to think so. It would probably require that the people that speak them first become locally adapted themselves, practicing ecologically sustainable economics.

    Phil – Thanks for sharing this! I think your last two lines are an apt summary of the problem as I understand it, too.

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  8. I’ve been thinking about noise too . It seems to me that something’s happened to large numbers of people’s hearing – at least in large cities – making them insensitive to noise. Sometimes, if I am in places where the noise is at torture-level and makes me want to run out screaming (I do leave, but quietly) I look around and nobody else seems to be similarly affected. I was in such a place a couple of days ago, an exhibition venue with live music, where the sound was literally in the zillion decibels and to talk or listen to anyone , you had to put your face in the other’s face but even then, you couldn’t make out any words. But nobody complained- how come? Restaurants, pubs, cafes, stores, every type of entertainment venue or public gathering place, they all have this noise-attack approach. You’re lucky to hear woodland sounds, Dave. Keep watch over them so they don’t get replaced by the noise brigade.

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  9. Okay, I posted a comment twice here and both vanished. I’ll try not linking. What I said was that I had been reading your blog and then finally got around to yesterday’s NY Times, which had an article on Kraus in the Sunday Magazine. I wondered if you’d read it, or if you’d heard about Krause elsewhere.

    Sheesh.

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  10. Natalie – I remember you talking about this before. In my twenties, it didn’t bother me, but now I’m more like you. I certainly won’t pay to eat or drink in a place that assaults me with music i don’t like. I don’t undertand why people would choose to congregate in places where they have to shout to be heard.

    leslee – I’m sorry. I think I have this set to only flag people with three or more links in a comment, but I’ll have to check. My spam-blocking server might have seized on the link somehow too.

    That’s an interesting coincidence . No, I first ran across Krauss’ research several years ago when I was helping some folks try and stop a local highway proposal. Now I have three things to check out: the article, the exact spelling of his name, and what the heck happened to your comments.

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  11. leslee – I found both your comments in the Akismet spam basket. Akismet is the anti-spam software that protects an increasing number of blogs (not just WordPress ones anymore). Since this most recent one of yours got through, the problem obviously isn’t with your IP or anything. So I think what’s happening is that Akismet doesn’t like links using the probably too-popular link-shortening service you used (i’m avoiding using the name because I don’t want THIS comment to be flagged). A lot of spammers use it to cloak the addresses of whatever smut they’re peddling.

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  12. O.K., the article Leslee referenced is here. And I did have his last name wrong: it’s Krause. I’ll correct that and add an update about the article.

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  13. During my sojourns in the rainforest, one of the greatest things was the constant, er, tapestry of natural sounds.

    An entymologist from Germany who shared a hut with me collected either 92 or 118 (I can’t remember which number) species of crickets from the forest near our village. Each species–and this goes along with Krause’s hypothesis–has its own song, and they can all find each other without getting mixed up.

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  14. Wow, man. You’re so lucky to have had these experiences!

    I’ve been to a little bit of rainforest and cloud forest in Honduras — particularly loved the latter. I’d like to go back with a camera and audio recorder.

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  15. Someone sent me a CD of shamans singing in the Peruvian rainforest during ceremonies, and I like it a lot, but I wince when the shamans start to sing, drowning out the animals whose music I really like much better!

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  16. It would be interesting to get an audio technician to adapt some of Krause’s rainforest recordings for karaoke.

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