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The Sounds of the Natural World by Nicholas Allan
The Sounds of the Natural World by Nicholas Allan
9th September 2020
NHN Member and sound designer Nicholas Allan explores the profound feeling of being submerged in the ambient sounds of the natural world around us, from Bristol in lockdown to the vast Atlas Mountains.
As natural history filmmakers, many of us have experienced it: we arrive at our camp, or filming location, switch off the engine of the 4x4, and, as we step out, the first thing that hits us is the immediately calming, sublime sense of quiet.
When we left our homes in the city suburbs or surrounding villages we hadn’t noticed the noise that enveloped our world. We might have felt we’d visited quiet places from time to time over the preceding months. But we hadn’t been somewhere this quiet. Suddenly we can hear in hi-fi; the sounds of the natural world are allowed to breath.
For all of us apart from those living in the most remote countryside or coastal areas, noise is, of course, all around us. A large component of the modern soundscape is the diffuse, broadband noise that radiates from the collective surface airflows, tyres and engines of vehicles from miles around, and the aircraft above. Diffuse so that it surrounds us, with little discernible directionality, and broadband so that it lacks a definable pitch. Together these characteristics allow noise to sit unnoticed in the background, and for us to continue to communicate, hearing foreground sounds mostly without too much difficulty. They also mean that, even if we listen, we’re often unable to detect its presence.
But this diffuse noise masks the subtleties in the soundscape, leading to reduced clarity and the loss of some information altogether.
Many of us noticed the drop in ambient noise during lockdown this year. An event we thought we’d never experience – the anthropause – led to people commenting on the new sense of peace, or the presence of more birds.
My peak–quiet moment came when I walked to my local shop here in north Bristol early one still Sunday morning. The only sound as I stepped out into the street was the birdsong emanating from the scrub patch 50 metres away. Then, in the foreground, a collared dove sung loudly from a rooftop, its song reflecting off the widely-separated rows of houses. It was the crystal-clear reverberation that was striking – this was an effect normally inaudible with the usual buzz of the suburb, the low hum from the city centre and the 24-hour roar from several mid-distant motorways. Suddenly I could hear the ‘space’, as opposed to the ambient city drone that normally filled it.
As I walked, further sounds revealed themselves: the zooming-by of a tiny fly, so small that it was closer in sound to a mosquito than a housefly, and the faintest of breezes through the vegetation in a neighbours garden. Fairly mundane or inconsequential sounds you might say (unless the buzzing was from a biting insect, in which case this might have been an important and normally missed audio cue!), but the ability to hear them felt like the revealing of the full picture; the auditory equivalent of putting my glasses on or switching to HD.
It’s not just about the listening experience of course. Noise is connected with a range of health issues and behavioural effects in humans and wildlife and has even been shown to slow the development of speech in young children living next to busy roads. A recent study linked road noise to a reduction in diversity of bird species in Britain, as rarer, often migratory bird species are found to be less common where suitable habitat is noise-polluted.
As someone who records the sound of nature, primarily for the films I work on as a sound designer/editor, I’m more acutely aware of the presence of noise than most. Such is the situation in England that it’s close-to impossible to record some of our habitat types without it: there are simply no remaining examples of them that are not heavily noise-impacted.
Over the past few years I’ve wondered whether we can, to some extent, reduce or control noise in order to restore quiet to places otherwise protected as parks or nature reserves.
Now there is an organisation seeking to do exactly that. The non-profit Quiet Parks International recently certified its first Urban Quiet Park and first Quiet Wilderness Reserve in Taiwan and Ecuador, respectively. It hopes to open its first Urban Quiet Park in London this year.
The link below is to an essay I wrote for QPI following an expedition in the Saharan Atlas Mountains. I try to piggyback my more ambitious sound recording ventures on the back of other projects, and in this case I was with a team of biologists who were tracking rare and elusive caracal and endangered Saharan gazelle.
The article attempts to evoke something of the experience of quiet in the places I go to record for my work, as well as the landscape and birds of the Saharan Atlas Mountains.
If you’ve been noticing the noisiness of the world since the loosening of lockdown, or you’ve been unable to get your quiet fix or your shoot underway yet, I hope reading it can remind you of those wild and quiet places we hope to return to, before too long.
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