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Sound lands on Google Earth

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

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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."

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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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