Sound lands on Google Earth

Bernie Krause teaches the world to listen – not just to a few bird chirps, but the whole environmental symphony.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In the living room of bioacoustician Bernie Krause's California wine country home, a reporter's click on a Google Earth computer image of Antarctica produces a sound so foreign, there seems no possible way it could emanate from this planet.

But Dr. Krause, who has spent the past 40 years collecting sounds from around the globe, explains that the clicks, chirps, and howling ethereal decrescendos are indeed from this planet: They're made by Weddell seals inhabiting the frozen continent's McMurdo Sound.

"You know what they're doing?" asks Krause, suddenly animated. "They're imitating thunderstorms at the equator." He explains the theory that the seals use their skulls to pick up the electrical energy of thunderstorms transmitted through the earth's magnetic field from half a world away.

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"They're social animals," he says. "They do that over long stretches of open water."

The aquatic discourse is among the 30-plus sounds now available as "The Wild Soundscape Tour," a free add-on layer to Google Earth, the downloadable navigation tool that allows users to scan the planet using steerable satellite images. Through Krause's WildSanctuary.com website, one can now not only see the Amazonian rain forest, but hear the monkeys, jaguars, birds, and musical frogs that call it home. The same goes for the inhabitants of the wild places of Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Yellowstone National Park, as well as the not-so-wild urban soundscapes of New York, London, Paris, and Lisbon.

"You can immediately hear a difference between the places," says 30 Proof Media creative director Jesse Evans, explaining that police sirens and even just the traffic set the cities apart. "Once you start paying attention to it, you hear it immediately," says Mr. Evans, who with his brother/partner, Sam Evans, created the sound-embedding program.

Any programmer can add a layer of data, known as a KML layer, to the Google Earth program; in the case of The Wild Soundscape Tour, Google was impressed enough to give 30 Proof access to one of its developers to assist the project.

"When we see such truly spectacular KML layers, we do reach out with advice and support," says Megan Quinn, a Google spokesperson.

***

Paying attention to what people hear has become Krause's mission in life. Raised in Detroit, Krause moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune as a musician, and played for a time with the folk group The Weavers. He became better known for his pioneering work with the Moog synthesizer, teaming with Paul Beaver to put out "The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music." A 1968 collaboration with Mr. Beaver called "Into a Wild Sanctuary" focused on ecology by creating an album of natural sounds.

"By natural sound I'm talking about the entire soundscape, not separating out signature animals like wolves, a bird or two, or whales. That was a big shift in musical concept, which nobody got until..." Krause pauses to think. "They're just beginning to get it now."

In that early natural sound endeavor, Krause ventured from his San Francisco base to Muir Woods, Baker Beach, Fisherman's Wharf, and the San Francisco Zoo. "Having to record outside, and work in the natural world for the first time, I was terrified, actually [of what may have been lurking there]," he confesses. "But having to do that for the album changed my life, as soon as I turned on the recorder and heard that sound."

He says the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees relaxed him, and he realized there was nothing to fear at all.

Krause continued to record, ranging farther afield; first to California's Sierra Nevada and Trinity Mountains, and later to Alaska, Latin America, Indonesia, and Africa, giving up traditional music and getting a PhD in bioacoustics.

"I was aware of this kind of atavistic relationship, a sense of experiencing a distant past, not only in my life, but in human life," he says, referring to a feeling of a deep genetic connection between humans and the natural world that was triggered by sound.

Krause's recording of "biophonies," the combined sounds that whole groups of living organisms produce, consumed him, he says, "to the point where I was working with mountain gorillas in Dian Fossey's camp, slept with them in their nests."

In 1985 Krause did gain some fame for using his recordings of humpback whale feeding sounds and social noises to help lure Humphrey, a humpback that had swam up California's Sacramento River, back to the ocean. Krause was called back to action a few weeks ago, when an injured mother and calf humpback found themselves in the same predicament. Again, Krause – who had been dubbed the "whale whisperer" – arrived on the scene with his recordings. But the whales didn't respond, and his recordings were abandoned in favor of banging on pipes to frighten the mammals back to sea.

"These are wild animals. If we have human expectations that anything we try is gonna work, or one of the things we try is gonna work, we're gonna be very disappointed."

The whales returned to the ocean of their own accord.

Krause's archive, believed to be the largest privately held collection of natural sounds in the world, now boasts 3,500 hours of soundscapes from more than 1,200 habitats, encompassing 15,000 species. His Wild Sanctuary company records marine and terrestrial life from pole to pole, providing sounds for film, music for download, and sound installations for museums, zoos, and aquariums.

Of course, it's not the safest job in the world. Krause has tales of warding off a polar bear with a flare gun, of a killer whale leaping onto the ice next to him to pounce on a penguin, of a gorilla tossing him 15 feet into stinging nettles, and of a grizzly bear engulfing Krause's microphone in his mouth. ("So I have the only surround recording of what it's like to be in a bear's mouth," he says.)

Wild Sanctuary's ambitious Google Earth undertaking holds the prospect of focusing millions of primarily urban Google Earth users on the natural world. When a user clicks on a soundscape icon at earth.wildsanctuary.com, a box pops up with field notes describing the location, when the recording was made, weather conditions, and the sources of several of the sounds. Some, such as a recording made north of California's Lake Tahoe, come with before-and-after recordings – in this case recordings taken before and after selective logging took place at the spot in the late 1980s. Krause returned to the meadow 15 times after the logging. A gurgling brook takes center stage to a background cast of birds in the "before" recording; "after" reveals little life at all.

"Forty percent of my library is from now-extinct habitats. That's in my working lifetime," Krause says, who preparing for a trip to Alaska's Katmai National Park to record grizzly bears.

His goal is to get people to reconsider a culture in which noise equates with power, in favor of one in which people value the importance of natural sounds in their own lives.

"If you listen, and listen right, it changes your concept of time. You can't hear it in a four-frame cut, like we're used to.... You have to spend the time out there to engage and hear that...." he pauses to listen to the distinct, intermittent click coming from just outside his recording studio, "...the click of the oakworm out there."

Krause notes that there's a healing quality to what he refers to as the "voice of the divine" in natural sound – but it won't come to those used to instant gratification.

"You have to spend time hearing the whole call of a bird, which may take 45 seconds, or the song of a whale, which may take 45 minutes. Or to hear a series of repeated calls in a rain forest – it may take 30 hours. So your time changes, your whole sense of cycles changes, and you become more connected to the natural world around you and your own cycles of health and awareness. Which are more natural.

"And, he says, "it makes you feel better."

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