The Music of Nature

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Nature isn’t just what we see. It encompasses all our senses. Think of the vanilla essence of Ponderosa Pines, the rough grains of sandstone, and the sound of a dolphin’s exhale as it surfaces. We’re so used to the visual it’s challenging to remember other senses, especially in environmental and scientific work. I recently learned there’s a field that specializes in sound and the environment. It’s called acoustic ecology.

Acoustic ecology explores the relationship between living beings and the environment through sound. This can take many forms, from delving into what a forest sounded like 70 years ago when different species of birds lived there, to the affect of car alarms on the urban environment.

On a blustery day this past October I had the chance to talk with an acoustic ecologist. Chris Bocast is a talented musician who specializes in the field. He just finished producing a podcast about Lake Superior for our joint employer, Wisconsin Sea Grant. The series isn’t an example of acoustic ecology per se, but it does show how sound can illustrate environmental topics.

Because I’ve worked around Lake Superior for many years, Chris wanted to include me in the series. And of course, I couldn’t let him get away without covering the St. Louis River Estuary, too.

We met during a Sea Grant conference in downtown Duluth. For the interview we walked next door to the historic Greysolon Plaza Hotel. We sat in the hotel’s ornate and quiet mezzanine lounge.

In the middle of our conversation, Chris asked, “What’s the function of an estuary in an ideal ecosystem?” I replied that I happened to have written a poem about that, and darned if the poem didn’t make it into the series. It’s “Two Sisters” from my last entry. An audio file of the poem is on Chris’s web site (look for “Two Sisters”).

Click here to listen to the Lake Superior podcast series. My poem can be found near the end of program #7 (Superior’s Sister).

The piano-based ambient music Chris created for the podcasts is unnamed. He told me it’s designed to evoke a sense of the pristine. I don’t know about you, but I could bliss out on his music all day.

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