Nature writing and sound – part IV

13/09/2009

Aldo Leopold ( 1887 – 1948)

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…words (a sort of sign) are not separate from nature in the pre-Modern period, but intrinsic to it, woven in with everything else to make a single cloth… Prior to the Modern framework, language and discourse are part of nature residing among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals…

(according to Foucault)

Vernon Pratt with Jane Howarth and Emily Brady (2000). Environment and Philosophy, Routledge.

There are certain sound artists with whom I’d love to spend some time. For different reasons. With some I’d talk about field techniques, with others I’d share experiences; some would have much to say on aesthetics, others could keep me up to speed on geek tech talk – I love the whole discourse.

But the only person I’d actually want to follow on a field trip is writer, ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold. It would be like having meditation lessons with Buddha, or at least a guitar lesson with Jimi. Unfortunately Leopold is no longer with us, but before he passed on he left behind a priceless treasure in his classic work:  A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.

As lovers of American nature writing will know, two books in particular are frequently flagged up as essential reading : Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. To those two I’d have added Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard as well as various works by Susan Fenimore Cooper and  Thoreau, but broadly, yes, I’d agree that the two volumes in question are essential reading.

Leaving aside the issue of whether Silent Spring is nature writing as such, it would be fair to say that anyone interested in the natural environment, in human intervention in the environment and in ecology, will appreciate Carson’s courage in bringing to the attention of the world the worst abuses of pesticide and insecticide spraying programmes. She is often credited with having established the major discipline of ecology and a raft of related sub-disciplines. I’m not qualified to comment but I believe that  Carson was unique in establishing a strong bridgehead from which to launch offensives against the polluting agencies and the underlying corporate greed and institutional stupidity which supported them.

So we should of course read both Carson and Leopold diligently, cover to cover, except that I’d suggest we read Leopold twice, or, for good measure, once a year every year. I say this because I always have the uncanny sense that something else, another world,  lies behind Leopold’s writing. I can’t put my finger on it so I have to keep reading it to find out more. And I am never disappointed after subsequent readings – readings which render such a powerful representation of the natural environment that the reader might believe he or she is revisiting an actual physical location. There’s a beckoning transparency in his narrative  – we ‘read through’ his prose and in doing so are invited to contemplate a different world. If we follow the trail back to the historical roots of the word Almanac, we will find a word with a resonance of the mystical and prophetic. Perhaps Leopold has captured something of that resonance in his masterpiece.

Whatever the resonance, Leopold achieves his transparency with elegance and tenderness, without pontification, without assuming an aggressive and radical philosophical posture. Above and beyond all of this we are privileged to accompany someone whose awareness of sound in the natural environment is second to none. His overall aims converge with the aims of many a contemporary sound artist.

Naming Aldo Leopold in the right company,types such as environmentalists, nature writers, ornithologists, ecologists, will bring forth the same nods and winks as we had with mention of Thoreau. Both smack of the fine Scotch malt. I’ve handed my copy of Sand County Almanac to several friends. All have subsequently rushed to buy their own copy and  I invite you to do the same.

Although  I could write several articles on the literary merits of the book, its style and formal attributes, I want to focus on Leopold’s awareness and treatment of sound, on how he considers sound to be an absolutely essential element in his representation of the environment in and around Wisconsin’s Sand County.

Sound frames the first chapter. In January Thaw he writes

Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a night of thaw when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land.

This sound then stirs the animals. We follow the skunk.

I hear the tinkle of dripping water among the logs, and I fancy the skunk hears it too. I turn homeward, still wondering.

This brings to mind the passage in Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Otsego Leaves III where the wild animals listen to the sounds of the main ‘character’, an old elm tree atop a hill. Both authors adopt the technique of embedding themselves firmly in the living soundscape.

In March – The Geese Return Leopold is always actively listening. It is the honking and splashing of the geese which ‘shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails’. This ever present ambience, a potentiality, is comparable to the gristly static of a field recording.

On the nights when it has become warm enough to sit outdoors, we love to listen to the proceedings of the convention in the marsh. There are ling periods of silence when one hears only the winnowing of snipe, the hoot of a distant owl, or the nasal clicking of some amorous coot. Then, of a sudden, a strident honk resounds, and in an instant pandemonium echoes. There is a beating of pinions on water, a rushing of dark prows propelled by churning paddles, and a general shouting by the onlookers of a vehement controversy. Finally some deep honker has his last word, and the noise subsides to that half audible small-talk that seldom ceases among geese.

Leopold takes his inventiveness as far as coining neologisms. In describing the courtship ritual of the woodcock in April, Come High Water, he produces the word peent in his descriptive and detailed field-note observations – ‘a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk’. Describing the sounds of this ritual is as important to Leopold as the visual description.

Further evidence of the primacy of sound in Leopold’s world can be found in May, Back from the Argentine, where only the ear can confirm for us that spring has truly arrived :-

When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring. Sit down on a tussock, cock your ears at the sky, dial out the bedlam of meadowlarks and redwings, and soon you may hear it: the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.

Enviable fieldcraft indeed.

In July, Great Possessions we are treated to a favoured subject of environmental field recordists,  the dawn chorus or ‘daily ceremony’,  here presented like a timetable. ‘Proclamations’ begin, leading to the birds singing in tenor voices, warbling their claims to territory, all wrapped up in allusions to titles and domain. We are skilfully led through a series of focal shifts, from the perception of the environment through listening to the dog’s universe perceived as  a world of scent, to the bird-chorus running out of breath and to the eventual domination of the scene by human sounds – cowbells, a tractor.

Sound is tied up with memory, memory with elusiveness. In September, The Choral Copse (the title is significant) Leopold draws our attention to the virtue of the music of elusive birds, favouring the unseen sound source:-

Songsters that sing from the top-most boughs are easily seen and as easily forgotten; they have the mediocrity of the obvious. What one remembers is the invisible hermit thrush pouring silver chords from impenetrable shadows; the soaring crane trumpeting from behind a cloud; the prairie chicken booming from the mists of nowhere; the quail’s Ave Maria in the hush of dawn. No naturalist has ever seen the choral act, for the covey is still on its invisible roost in the grass and any attempt to approach automatically induces silence.

These are very special experiences for those willing to make the effort.  We have all had such experiences. I can still recall vividly the melancholy call of a curlew, unseen, on a damp early morning high in the Cairngorms. Leopold refers specifically to the efforts required – ‘The hope of hearing quail is worth half a dozen risings-in-the-dark.’

We come now to a classic passage from October Too Early, which I’d like to quote in full. Here Leopold offers a fresh and innovative  angle on the relationship between sound and the visual image, not to mention a sideways  glance at acousmatic listening strategies:-

To arrive too early in the marsh is an adventure in pure listening; the ear roams at will among the noises of the night, without let or hindrance from hand or eye. When you hear a mallard being audibly enthusiastic about his soup, you are free to picture a score guzzling among the duckweeds. When one wigeon squeals you may postulate a squadron without fear of visual contradiction. And when a flock of bluebills, pitching pondward, tears the dark silk of heaven in one long rending nose-dive, you catch your breath at  the sound, but there is nothing to see except stars. This same performance, in daytime, would have to be looked at, shot at, missed and then hurriedly fitted with an alibi. Nor could daylight add anything to your mind’s eye picture of quivering wings, ripping the firmament neatly into halves.

Much of what Leopold writes about in this passage is crucial to the sound artist’s discourse. Eventually the hour of listening ends when the fowl depart on muted wings for wider safer waters, each flock a blur against the graying east.

In addition to confirming Leopold’s preference for the unseen sound source, the next passage demonstrates his use of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings), a tried and tested nature writing technique beloved of adults and children alike at story time, wisely coloured in Leopold’s case with a healthy dose of humour and bolstered by his considerable rhetorical skills.

Like many another treaty of restraint, the pre-dawn pact lasts only as long as darkness humbles the arrogant. It would seem as if the sun were responsible for the daily retreat of reticence from the world. At any rate, by the time the mists are white over the lowlands, every rooster is bragging ad lib, and every corn shock is pretending to be twice as tall as any corn that ever grew. By sun-up every squirrel is exaggarating some fancied indignity to his person, and every jay proclaiming with false emotion about suppositious dangers to society, at this very moment discovered by him. Distant crows are berating a hypothetical owl, just to tell the world how vigilant crows are, and a pheasant cock musing perhaps on his philanderings of bygone days, beats the air with his wings and tells the world in raucous warning that he owns the marsh and all the hens in it.

Nor are all these illusions of grandeur confined to the birds and beasts. By breakfast time come the honks, horns, shouts and whistles of the awakened farmyard, and finally, at evening, the drone of an untended radio. Then everybody goes to bed to relearn the lessons of the night.

Leopold’s all encompassing sense of acoustic ecology allows for no censorship.

November, If I Were the Wind deals with geese. We begin our investigation with the wind as creator of sound (and music), a theme  familiar by now from our reading of Thoreau and Fenimore-Cooper:-

The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.

In a passage bookended by the approaching and receding sound of the geese, the flock approaches the author/reader/listener from afar:-

Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a far-away dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ears at that sound, wondering. Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming on. The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.

Part II, Sketches Here and There is worthy of mention for the same reasons as the main text; the sonic interest is sustained throughout. Throughout this series of articles on Nature Writing and Sound I have been drawing parallels between the procedures, work and aesthetic of writers on the one hand and sound artists whose material base is field recording in the natural environment on the other. Such artists will often investigate silence, conceptually as an over-arching theme and practically, in the form and content of finished work. Indeed some of the cleverest and most subtle work in the field examines the notion of silence. Unsurprisingly, Aldo Leopold does the same. By investigating the absence of sound, his overall investigation gains in completeness and integrity. As an aside, we might also deduce from the following passage that his awareness of field positioning is of the highest order.

In Wisconsin – Marshland Elegy, following a description of mist across the bog-meadows, we read:-

A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.

Out of some far recess of the sky a tinkling of little bells falls soft upon the listening land. Then again silence. Now comes a baying of some sweet throated hound, soon the clamour of a responding pack. Then a far clear blast of hunting horns, out of the sky and into the fog.

High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of the sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.

Leopold is evidently fascinated by the crane and devotes some of his finest writing to his subject . Following discussion of the venerable age of the crane’s ancestors we are treated to the following metaphor:-

When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.

Going back to sound and silence I’m reminded here of film sound designer Walter Murch’s 1998 discussion, Touch of Silence, delivered in a talk to the Institut Francais, London and published in The School of Sound Lectures 1998 – 2001. Murch offers excellent insights into the ideas behind his work on various scenes from Apocalypse Now, in particular the terrifying helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village where he talks of the ‘psychological component to silence’. (I take issue with Murch, however, in his statement that outside film no other art form can use long stretches of relative or absolute silence creatively):-

You have to imagine the 100 musicians on stage for silence to mean anything. You have to work with the psychic pressure exerted by the instruments/sounds that are not playing: to evoke the individual imagination of each member of the audience.

I would argue that Leopold is thinking along similar lines in his treatment of silence. Without the silence, the clamour of the cranes would be less impressive.

Finally, (thanks for staying with me thus far by the way, this has been a long article), in Wisconsin, On a Monument to the Pigeon, we revisit Susan Fenimore Cooper’s fascination with the extinct pigeon. Leopold writes beautifully on his subject, employing a fine array of rhetorical devices to emphasise his sorrow (never outrage) at the passing of  the ‘feathered tempest’.

I will finish by examining a passage in Arizona and New Mexico, Thinking like  a Mountain. His treatment of the wolf’s call is uniquely emphatic and effective, each paragraph driving its point home with forward motion. We are left wondering how much is imagined, how much experienced. It is the sound of the wolf around which the text crystallises. First he explores what the call means to flora, fauna and humans, before at last revealing its deeper significance:-

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well), pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Two last reflections. When and how did Leopold write his notes? How did he keep ‘life-side’ and ‘field-side’ apart? I find this whole area to be less problematic with Leopold than with Thoreau. Secondly, possible far-fetched, but it occurred to me that a parallel might be drawn between the way in which the discipline and practice of ‘sound’ art has pulled itself away from conventional ‘musical’ discourse (lots of quotation marks here), and the way in which the study of ‘literature’, encompassing the likes of journalism, ethnography, philosophy, art criticism, has refreshed the study of ‘Literature’ in the sense of high art. As I said, far fetched, but worth considering.

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5 Responses to “Nature writing and sound – part IV”


  1. Lovely piece, James.

    Question: in your readings, do you have any references that directly relate to a connection between the biophony and the origins of human music?

  2. James Wyness Says:

    Hi Bernie. The only book I’ve read which touches on this problem with a degree of serious scholarship is The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen. By serious I mean he avoids the usual platitudes and backs up his arguments. Even then, his definition of music is narrower than I would like and an examination of the biophony is not his primary research aim: http://www.amazon.com/Singing-Neanderthals-Origins-Music-Language/dp/0674021924

    But it might be worth a look through his bibliography.

    Apart from that, I’d be looking at some of the ethnographers and following the trail, maybe Victor Turner and certainly Steven Feld.


  3. Thanks, James. I’m currently researching material for my upcoming book titled, THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA: HOW ANIMALS TAUGHT US TO DANCE AND SING. I’ll be in the UK for an Aldeburgh Arts and natural soundscape festival the 1st thru the 8th of Nov. If you are around, check it out because I’ll be speaking on just that issue. It would be great to connect.

    Bernie


  4. BTW, James, re Murch’s comments on Apocalypse Now,I did all of the helicopter efx on Moog synthesizer and about a third of the realisation of the score. And, of course, there are many examples of sound art where silence is germane. John Cage once said that it is the most important element in music. He actually wrote a piece for any instrument or combo thereof, titled 4’33” where, for instance, a musician would sit at a piano for 4 min and 33 seconds playing nothing, then get up and leave.


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