Tag Archives: nature

Does the Glen Canyon Dam need to come down?

10 Jan

Goldwater, Bower and the disastrous damming of the Colorado River

How two bitter opponents came to a meeting of the minds on water in the West.

The Colorado River

The Colorado River runs below Glen Canyon Dam. (Los Angeles Times / February 6, 2005)

By Paul VanDevelderJanuary 10, 2014

As all eyes in the West look to the courts, the skies and the Colorado River for relief from 14 years of drought, it might be useful to remember the battles waged by two titans of the 20th century who played leading roles in the drama that led to the current mess.

The first protagonist was Arizona’s favorite son, Sen. Barry Goldwater. His nemesis was the fearless environmental crusader, David Brower, a founder of the Sierra Club known to those who loved him as The Archdruid. Early in their parallel careers, these two men were fierce adversaries over water projects across the Southwest. By the end of their lives, however, the tables had turned in the most unpredictable of ways.

During the boom years for damming American rivers, no politician was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Goldwater. He was the Bureau of Reclamation’s best friend in Congress whenever the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects such as the Glen Canyon Dam.

While Goldwater and the reclamation bureau were enjoying a golden age for water projects, Brower battled to stop many of Goldwater’s pet endeavors. Most notably, Brower led an unsuccessful national campaign to stop Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell in northern Arizona. Brower called his defeat on Glen Canyon “the darkest day of my life” and vowed it would never happen again. It didn’t.

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. In 1997, PBS aired the documentary “Cadillac Desert,” based on Marc Reisner’s book of the same name. In the third of four episodes, Goldwater and Reisner discussed the adjudication of the Colorado River, and the silver-haired paragon of American conservatism revealed a remarkable change of heart. Looking out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, he asked Reisner a pair of rhetorical questions that clearly pained him: “What have we done to this beautiful desert, to our wild rivers? All that dam building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

A few months later, I had lunch with Brower and asked him what he made of Goldwater’s change of heart. Brower was then in his late 80s but just as fierce as ever, if not more so. He cackled with an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called him! And he answered, and I said, ‘Barry, this is David Brower; what do you say we do the right thing: help me take out Glen Canyon Dam.'”

The Archdruid looked at me, eyes twinkling with green fire. “He said he would; he said that was a grand idea. Then he died a few months later.”

And Brower died not long after that.

In many respects, trouble with the Colorado began long before Goldwater and Brower fought over Glen Canyon. The trouble with the Colorado, and any other river, for that matter, is that nothing in nature is static. Flow rates, based on historical data, are inevitably flawed. When the Colorado’s water was divvied up between the states and Indian tribes in the 1960s, the math was based on hydrologic fictions. The river’s annual flow was overestimated by millions of acre-feet, and taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not change that by one drop. The nation had fully invested in the vain belief that we could dam its way out of aridity and drought, and it had built up the desert based on that faith.

Nevertheless, taking out Glen Canyon Dam would make a resounding statement. It would say: Wild rivers rock. It would say: “We should have left well enough alone; we should have listened to John Wesley Powell and limited settlement on arid lands.”

We’ll never see the likes again of Goldwater, Brower and their cohort. Guys like Floyd Dominy and Edward Abbey were men of a time, of an America that no longer exists. We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the Indian wars and reverse-engineer the outcomes to create a legacy with less shame, less betrayal, less destructive exploitation. We’re stuck with what we’ve constructed, just as we’re stuck with a long history of terrible water management.

The Colorado River has always been a special case. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, and climate modeling suggests things are likely to get worse. Ironically, the first state in line to lose water from diminishing reserves is Arizona. Suddenly, those 280 golf courses in the greater Phoenix area, not to mention tens of thousands of swimming pools, look kind of ridiculous. And don’t look now, but guess who’s first in line for the water that would otherwise water those golf courses?

The tribes. Dozens of them: the Fort Mojaves, the Shoshones, the Chemehuevi and Quechan, the Hopi and Navajo, et al. Where water flows between a rock and a dry place, tribes get first dibs.

Karma, it seems, is very patient, and it has its own funny way of asking, “What in the world were we thinking?”

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-vandevelder-glen-canyon-brower-goldwater-20140110,0,3785716.story#ixzz2q0Sn18rB

 

Meet Jack – 93 yr old living in a cabin in the woods

10 Oct

Meet Jack English, a 93-year-old legend who lives in a cabin isolated deep in the Ventana Wilderness.

While on a hunting trip he learned that an old homestead in the Ventana Wilderness was being put up for auction by the estate of a childless heiress. He put a bid on the property and won. On the land he built a small cabin using materials from the land and milling trees by hand. When his wife passed away, Jack effectively left “society” and moved to the cabin full time.

 

Deaf and blind man hikes the Appalachian Trail

25 Sep

http://www.sunjournal.com/blindAThiker

Deaf, blind AT hiker gets help in Bethel

Submitted photo

From left are Appalachian Trail hiker and special service provider Roni Lepore of New Jersey, AT hiker Roger Poulin of Winthrop, and hikers Paul Austin, Molly Siegel of Bethel and Samantha Southam of Bethel. Lepore and Poulin, who are both deaf, were helped through Mahoosuc Notch in Riley and Grafton townships by local hikers.

 

Alison Aloisio, Sun Media Wire

Oxford Hills |

Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 11:52 am

BETHEL — A deaf and nearly blind hiker is nearing the end of his 2,185-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and several Bethel residents have been helping him out as he approaches his goal.

Roger Poulin of Winthrop was born with Usher Syndrome, which affects vision and hearing and causes problems with balance. He is blind in one eye and has only tunnel vision in the other.

He set out on his journey more than three years ago, accompanied by Roni Lepore of New Jersey, who serves as what is known as a special service provider.

Like Poulin, Lepore is deaf. They met in 2007 at the Helen Keller National Center in New York while attending a Deaf-Blind Interpreters Training Seminar.

Poulin told Lepore about his dream to hike the AT, and he also said he needed a special service provider to go with him. Poulin said he wanted to do the hike in part to show others who are deaf-blind that the dual disability doesn’t have to stop them from taking on challenges. Lepore, a hiker herself, agreed to go along.

After doing a lot of research and taking camping classes, the two were prepared for their adventure — and for however long it took them to complete it.

Poulin used trekking poles to help him with his balance, as well as arm and shin guards, safety glasses, gloves and a helmet. Climbing over all the rocks, roots and other obstacles on the trail resulted in frequent falls, and he often ran into low-hanging tree branches.

He communicated with Lepore using American Sign Language. The two went by the trail names “Adventurous Cane” (Poulin) and “Rambling Shamrock.”

Along the way, Poulin said Aug. 30, they met many hikers who were amazed at his progress. It was slower than what he had first anticipated, however.

“At first, I thought that I could complete it in six to eight months, perhaps nine months” like blind hiker Bill Irwin, author of “Blind Courage,” Poulin said. “When I began hiking from the Springer Mountain (Georgia), I became frustrated so quickly when I realized that I couldn’t keep up with other hikers and hikers passing me most of the time. I had to change my entire view of the hiking world … I do not have to force myself to fit with the ‘mold’ of normal and sighted hikers’ ability.

“I reframed my thinking by focusing on my needs, well-being, and safety to hike. If I need more time to get through, it is OK. It was not easy in the beginning. Over time, it became easier on me to accept that I hike on my own terms — Deaf Blind Time. I give all what I can do to get through in one piece, then I am contented that I know that I do my best to continue with hiking and be patient to reach my dream. I didn’t expect that it would take more than two years, but if it takes four years to do it, then it is OK with me.”

When the pair arrived in Maine in June, the going got tougher.

Poulin described his experience in an interview at Bethel Outdoor Adventures, where Jeff and Patti Parsons and Molly Siegel have been among local outdoorspeople providing them with lodging and assistance.

“Maine is very challenging to hike compared to other states that I hiked in,” said Poulin, who signed his description to Lepore, who in turn typed it out on a laptop computer. “On the trail, there are many exposed roots, large-sized boulders, muddy/bog/boreal fields, steep to climb down especially wet and slippery rock/trail.

“Prior to the White Mountains and Maine, my daily average of miles to hike was between 12 to 15 miles a day. Upon my entrance into the White Mountains and beyond, my daily average dropped to 5 miles a day. By encountering this challenging terrain on the trail, I work hard to negotiate and get through. My body works very hard and I get pretty exhausted by end of day. The weight of my backpack creates another challenge for me to go over the challenging terrain as well due to my balance issue.

“When I first came to Bethel Outdoor Adventure in June, I met Jeffrey and Pattie Parsons. I asked them to shuttle us to the Grafton Notch State Park. My original plan was to hike 95 miles from Grafton Notch State Park to Route 27 in Stratton — around 10 days of hiking.

“I met them again a few weeks later, in July, to inquire where we can find a store to replace my broken bicycle helmet. Somehow, it led us to discuss my AT hiking plans with Jeff and Pattie and all of us got involved to get some help from the Bethel Outdoor Adventure with my hiking challenges.”

Poulin’s original timetable fell by the wayside.

“I had to exit in Andover when I experienced severe case of heartburn and dizzy vision,” he said. “I didn’t expect the terrain to be that daunting. I had to get off the trail to get some rest,” he said. “We had to change my hiking plans several times” and finally completed the section Aug. 28.

Poulin got some extra guidance from Siegel and others through the Mahoosuc Notch.

“From Grafton going south, it goes through the Mahoosuc Notch,” Poulin said. “It required special hiking plans since my SSP didn’t feel comfortable going in without support person(s). The blind hiker, Bulldog, in 2010, went through that area and it took him 9.5 hours to get through 1.1 miles of Mahoosuc Notch. With Operation MNOB (Mahoosuc Notch Or Bust) comprised of three hikers (Molly Siegel, Sam Southam and Paul Austin), we were able to get through without major incident within 4.5 hours.”

Siegel had helped Poulin and Lepore earlier with a re-supply hike. For the Mahoosuc hike, she and the others hiked two miles north on the trail and met the pair headed south.

“Roni let him know if there were dangers,” Siegel said. “We didn’t have to do that much. We took some of their gear.”

To warn Poulin of potential danger, such as a hole, Lepore would tap on one of Poulin’s poles to get his attention and then sign a warning.

Siegel said she enjoyed the unique circumstance of hiking along without a steady chatter among the group, which provided more opportunity to take in the natural surroundings.

She also said she was impressed “at how aware (Poulin) is of his surroundings, how well he uses his poles, and what a good system he and Lepore have to make it all work.”

Poulin and Lepore left Bethel on Saturday for the last leg of the hike — 114.5 miles from Route 15 in Monson to the summit of Mt. Katahdin, via the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Poulin was asked what he would do when he finishes his journey.

“People have been asking of me to write a book sharing my experiences of the past three years,” he said. “To be frank with you, all I think about is taking one thing at a time — to reach the northern terminus of Mount Katahdin. Once I conquer the Mount Katahdin, then I can start thinking about how to share my experience with the world. The reason for that is that I sustained an injury to my rib cage that forced me off the trail last July (2012) and ended my hiking season. Therefore, I want to focus on my ‘last haul.’”

He said he’s grateful for the help he has received while in the Bethel region.

“These folks at the Bethel Outdoor Adventure are like my family!” he said. “I feel very welcome and being part of the community. These people make efforts to communicate with me in any way they are able to via paper/pen, smartphone, laptop, email, gesture, etc. I am a lucky man meeting the Parsons and folks of the Bethel Outdoor Adventure and Bethel. They make an impact on my hiking experience by giving me some support. I may never know how much progress I might have made otherwise in Maine if not for them.”

To follow Poulin and Lepore’s progress on their final leg, see their blog.

 

Is Silence Going Extinct?

26 Mar

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html?_r=1

Whisper of the Wild

Davyd Betchkal, sound catcher, in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

By KIM TINGLEY
Published: March 15, 2012

Setting off in the predawn gloaming of central Alaska, we were the sounds of swishing snow pants, crunching boots and cold puffs of breath. As sunrise gradually lightened the late November sky, we took visible shape: a single-file parade on a narrow white trail traveling west, deeper into Denali National Park and Preserve. It was three degrees and so still that when we pulled up to rest, I heard no wind, no sibilant leaves, just a barely perceptible ringing in my ears. Tundra swans, kestrels and warblers had all flown south. Grizzlies were asleep in their dens. We tramped over frozen streams and paused to discover water still trickling faintly in hollows below. To the north, a morning blast of pink and orange brightened snow-shrouded Mount Healy at the edge of the Alaska Range; to the south — where the sun is always rising or setting during winter at a latitude just three degrees shy of the Arctic Circle — an alpine ridge remained covered in shadow and alder.

We saw a beaver hut on a frozen pond and moose tracks in snow. Ice frosted the nettles of black spruce and the beard of our leader, Davyd Betchkal, the park’s physical-science technician. Betchkal’s beard recalled that of his hero, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, at the start of the Civil War. Otherwise he was a 25-year-old Wisconsinite wearing a lime green hat knit by his mother. He and I shouldered backpacks each weighted with 30 pounds of recording equipment. Far up ahead, a park ranger on skis towed more gear by sled.

Our destination was a ridge above Hines Creek, where Betchkal planned to assemble a station to collect a month’s worth of continuous acoustic data documenting an intangible, invisible and — increasingly — endangered resource: natural sound. Our mission was not only to trap the ephemeral but also to experience it ourselves, which at the moment was impossible for three reasons: 1) the chafing of our nylon outfits; 2) the chunking of our military-issue Bunny Boots on ice; and 3) planes.

“If you’re on foot and you choose to focus on the natural quality of the landscape, you’re completely immersed in nature; nothing else exists,” Betchkal said to the back of my head, letting me set the pace as we traipsed steadily uphill. “Then a jet will go over, and it kind of breaks that flow of consciousness, that ecstatic moment.” Meditating on our surroundings, I became a little curious how much farther we had to go. “Don’t think about that — that’s my answer,” Betchkal called ahead cheerfully. “Another answer is that I don’t know.”

An undeveloped swath of land nearly the size of Vermont, Denali should be a haven for natural sound. Enormous stretches of wild country abut the park in every direction save east, where Route 3 connects Fairbanks to Anchorage. One dead-end and mostly unpaved road penetrates the park itself. Yet since 2006, when scientists at Denali began a decade-long effort to collect a month’s worth of acoustic data from more than 60 sites across the park — including a 14,000-foot-high spot on Mount McKinley — Betchkal and his colleagues have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent. Planes are the most common source. Once, in the course of 24 hours, a single recording station captured the buzzing of 78 low-altitude props — the kind used for sightseeing tours; other areas have logged daily averages as high as one sky- or street-traffic sound every 17 minutes. The loudest stretch of the year is summer, when hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Denali, embarking on helicopter or fixed-wing rides. Snowmobiles are popular with locals, and noise from the highway, the park road and daily passenger trains can travel for miles. That sort of human din, studies are beginning to suggest, is imperiling habitat — in Denali as well as wilderness areas around the world — as surely as a bulldozer or oil spill. But scientists have so little information about what landscapes should sound like without human interference that trying to correct the problem would be like a surgeon’s wielding a scalpel without knowing the parts of the body, let alone his patient’s symptoms. To restore ecosystems to acoustic health, researchers must determine, to the last raindrop, what compositions nature would play without us.

For more than 40 years, scientists have used radio telescopes to probe starry regions trillions of miles away for sounds of alien life. But only in the past five years or so have they been able to reliably record monthslong stretches of audio in the wildernesses of Earth. Last March, a group of ecologists and engineers taking advantage of advances in collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of digital data declared a new field of science: soundscape ecology. Other disciplines have long observed how various sounds affect people and individual animal species, but no one, they argued in the journal Bioscience, has yet studied the interconnected sounds of whole ecosystems. Soundscapes — composed of biological utterances like birdcalls, geophysical commotions like wind and running water and anthropogenic noises like motors — are “an acoustic reflection of the patterns and processes of the landscape,” the paper’s lead author, Bryan Pijanowski, an ecologist at Purdue University, told me. “And if we can take sound samples and develop appropriate metrics, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this is a healthy landscape and this is an unhealthy landscape.’ ”

Indeed, though soundscape ecology has hardly begun, natural soundscapes already face a crisis. Humans have irrevocably altered the acoustics of the entire globe — and our racket continues to spread. Missing or altered voices in a soundscape tend to indicate broader environmental problems. For instance, at least one invasive species, the red-billed leiothrix of East Asia, appears to use its clamorous chatter to drown out the native European blackbird in Northern Italy. Noise can mask mating calls, cause stress and prevent animals from hearing alarms, the stirrings of prey and other useful survival cues. And as climate change prompts a shift in creatures’ migration schedules, circadian rhythms and preferred habitats — reshuffling the where and when of their calls — soundscapes are altered, too. Soundscape ecologists hope they can save some ecosystems, but they also realize they will bear witness to many finales. “There may be some very unique soundscapes around the world that — just through normal human activities — would be lost forever,” Pijanowski says — unless he and colleagues can record them before they disappear. An even more critical task, he thinks, is alerting people to the way “soundscapes provide us with a sense of place” and an emotional bond with the natural world that is unraveling. As children, our grandparents could hope to swim in a lake or lie in a meadow for whole afternoons without hearing a motorboat, car or plane; today the engineless hour is all but extinct, and we’ve grown accustomed to constant, mild auditory intrusions. “Humans are becoming an increasingly more urban species, and so we’re surrounding ourselves with concrete and buildings” and “the low hum of the urban landscape,” Pijanowski says. “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”

In Denali, silence and solitude define the winter. Fall, Betchkal says, is the departure of the sandhill cranes — an urgent, lonely trilling of flocks taking flight. Spring returns with wood frogs, the park’s only amphibian. “They’re a riotous little chorus of fellows,” Betchkal told me the day before our expedition, as I watched him assemble and test, in an empty library across from his office building, the station he planned to deploy. Outfitted in a flannel shirt and jeans, he could have been a woodsman readying his traps if not for the headphones he wore. “It’s like a really organic, biological sounding rasping, but it’s really nice, like krrrup, krrrup,” he continued, pausing amid a tangle of wire to roll his R’s. In high school, Betchkal’s band teacher told him that before he could play a note on his trumpet, in order to appreciate how the instrument produced the syllable, he needed to articulate the sound himself. Betchkal thinks the same is true of wildlife sounds: “To understand what they’re all about, you have to make them,” he said. “You’ve got to. People think it’s goofy, but it isn’t. It’s studying.”

Sounds are remarkably difficult to describe without onomatopoeia. Defining the resource he wants to protect — in words and numbers, to scientists and policy makers — is a fundamental challenge for Betchkal and other soundscape researchers. Betchkal, though, is well suited to his role. As a boy, he went camping in Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park with his father, an amateur ornithologist who taught him the pleasures of lying in a sleeping bag listening to birdcalls. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he majored in biochemistry and botany while running soundboards for indie bands at the King Club downtown. For Betchkal, whose office bookshelf holds titles as various as “An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing,” “Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data” and “Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue,” perhaps the greatest appeal of soundscape ecology is the way it intersects other fields of study. “It’s almost like going back to old-school naturalism,” Betchkal said, “where you paid attention to anything and everything that was fascinating. That’s totally what I’m into — interdisciplinary science.”

Surprisingly, soundscape ecology, with its focus on the natural, got its start in the streets. An M.I.T. city planner first applied the word “soundscape” to habitat analysis in 1969 for a study he did on the “informativeness” and “delightfulness” of various sonic environments around Boston. Pushing volunteers about in wheelchairs, first blindfolded, then ear-muffled, then without sensory checks, he discovered that the sounds of seaports and civic centers were just as important as their appearance in influencing how much people enjoyed being there. This was a novel notion, even though objections to undesirable sounds date back to the invention of neighbors. In his influential 1977 work, “The Tuning of the World,” the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer charts man’s relationship with noise. As long ago as 3000 B.C., he notes, the Epic of Gilgamesh discussed “the uproar of mankind,” which aggravated the god Enlil. “Sleep is no longer possible,” he complains to the other gods. In the second century A.D., wagon traffic “sufficient to wake the dead” ruined the Roman poet Juvenal’s ability to rest between Satires. Many English towns were sequestering their blacksmiths by the 13th century, and Bern, Switzerland, passed its first law “against singing and shouting in streets or houses on festival days” in 1628. Over the next 300 years, it also legislated against “barking dogs,” “singing at Christmas and New Year’s parties,” “carpet-beating” and “noisy children.” In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared noise a pollutant.

Only recently, however, have governments from Japan to the European Union begun to recognize natural sounds as a resource requiring protection. When Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916, it was to “conserve the scenery”; not until 2000 did a Park Service director issue systemwide instructions for addressing “soundscape preservation.” In 1986, a midair plane crash above the Grand Canyon National Park — where sightseeing tours had operated virtually unchecked for almost 70 years — prompted Congress to pass the National Parks Overflights Act, requiring the Park Service to work with the Federal Aviation Administration in remedying the “significant adverse effect on the natural quiet” that aircraft there appeared to be having. The act also called for studying the impacts of overflight noise on other parks.

Initial research returned alarming results. In Yosemite, planes were heard 30 to 60 percent of the day. In the Haleakala volcano crater in Maui, 8 to 10 helicopters passed overhead per hour. What’s more, other experiments showed, much as the M.I.T. study did, that noise affected the way visitors saw landscapes: when volunteers viewed photos of natural vistas while listening to helicopters on tape, they rated the scenes less picturesque than they did under quieter conditions. By 2000, the National Park Service had staffed a division to gather data on park soundscapes nationwide and create, with the F.A.A., air-tour management plans at 100-plus locations. More than a decade since — partly because of disagreements between aviation and conservation interests — no such plan is in place, though many parks have begun looking for ways to trim other noise, turning off idling shuttle buses, curbing car traffic and investing in less uproarious maintenance tools. Grand Canyon managers, after nearly 25 years of laboring, last year proposed amendments to the timing and routes of sightseeing flights that would make the park somewhat more serene.

When Denali fielded its first sound station in April 2001, far earlier than nearly every other park in the country, the primary concern was determining the level of annoyance caused by planes and snowmobiles. But scientists were about to realize the damage society’s widening sonic footprint could do to natural ecosystems. In 2003, a Dutch team studying a common songbird, the great tit, reported in Nature that males of the species shifted their calls to a higher frequency in cities, where low-frequency human noise masked their normal song range. Further proof that urban sounds cause wild creatures to adjust their vocal styles quickly followed. Nightingales sing louder in louder environments. Robins — usually diurnal singers — switch to nighttime in areas that are chaotic by day. Subjected to constant mechanical whirring, certain primates, bats, whales, squirrels and frogs all change their cries. Many other animals, it seems, lack the physical equipment to adapt, and perish or move away. Not only are individuals editing their tunes in real time — as the great tits did — but natural selection is also rewarding louder, higher-frequency singers, redirecting the course of evolution.

Species can fight for airtime in a limited bandwidth by changing their volume or frequency, or by rescheduling the timing of their calls. But there’s no way animals can alter their ability to listen — for their very survival — if human noise conceals, for example, the twig-snap of a prowler or the skittering of prey. In the United States, where more than 80 percent of land is within two-thirds of a mile of a road, the listening area available to most creatures is rapidly shrinking. Beyond hunting and hiding, even invertebrates use the gabbing of unwitting cohabitants for navigation. Sightless, earless and adrift in the open ocean, coral larvae seek to settle on tropical reefs by swimming toward the throbs of muttering fish and snapping-shrimp claws. Eurasian reed warblers en route to southern Africa at night flutter blind over pine forests, sand dunes and the Baltic Sea until, hundreds of feet below, the cheeping of other warblers signals the presence of sustaining wetlands. If those aural cues disappear, the species that heed them may be floating and flying without a compass.

Explosive human sounds can have catastrophic impacts, especially underwater, where they travel faster and farther than they do in the air. Porpoises and whales have beached themselves fleeing the high-pitched shrieks of U.S. Navy sonar, researchers believe; they also blame the low-frequency booms ships use to search for oil and gas for fatally ripping through the organs that cephalopods like squid use to detect vibrations. Fewer studies have examined the health impacts of more mundane, chronic noises on terrestrial species, but proof is emerging that the droning of freeway traffic and the 24/7 rumbling of natural-gas-pipeline compressors directly harm the ability of birds nesting nearby to reproduce. Jesse Barber, a biologist at Boise State University who is the co-author of two recent papers about the impacts of noise on land-dwelling animals, writes that “it is clear that the acoustical environment is not a collection of private conversations between signaler and receiver” but a network of broadcasts reaching both intended and invisible listeners. Like pulling Jenga blocks from a teetering tower, removing sounds from soundscapes — or adding them — he warns, “could have volatile and unpredictable consequences.”

In the library across from his office building, Betchkal crawled among cables, politely probing each instrument with a voltmeter like a plaid-clad doctor with a stethoscope. The park has been able to take continuous recordings since only 2010 (previous setups recorded five seconds of audio every five minutes), and the scale and quality of its efforts in the wilderness are among the most advanced in the world. Though each station costs about $12,000, glitches are common: the instruments still aren’t designed to work together, or in outdoor conditions. Wind has toppled them; rivers have flooded them; grizzlies have mangled microphones. Betchkal fiddled much of the morning before he felt satisfied that the station was running properly and began to break it down, packing it methodically away and carrying it to his office. Pulling a checklist from his desk, he started filling bags with tools he might need the next day: blue crystal desiccants in vials to keep the air in the equipment boxes dry, wire strippers, extra cable. He’d never set up a station in November and December before. Part of the point was to add to baseline measurements of the park’s overall soundscape — another was to measure just how quiet the winter could be and preserve that sensation for posterity. “I suspect that it gets down below the threshold of human hearing,” Betchkal said, adding duck seal, Gaffer’s tape and an Exacto knife to the bag. “Below zero decibels.” If he did manage to capture a stretch of quiet that extreme, I wondered, what would it reveal?

“Openness!” Betchkal exclaimed. He paused to chase his thought. “Quiet is related to openness in the sense that the quieter it gets — as your listening area increases — your ability to hear reflections from farther away increases. The implication of that is that you get an immense sense of openness, of the landscape reflecting back to you, right? You can go out there, and you stand on a mountaintop, and it’s so quiet that you get this sense of space that’s unbelievable. The reflections are coming to you from afar. All of a sudden your perception is being affected by a larger area. Which is different from when you’re in your car. Why, when you’re in your car, do you feel like you are your car? It’s ’cause the car envelops you, it wraps you up in that sound of itself. Sound has everything to do with place. What is beautiful about this place? What is interesting or iconic about Alaska? Anyway,” he bowed apologetically at the waist, “that’s a lot of words. What I’m really measuring is the potential — the potential to hear natural sounds. If you’re choosing to listen, what are you actually going to hear?”

Around noon, nearing Hines Creek, we halted on the trail. The afternoon was windless. We were warm from walking but rapidly started to freeze; feeling left our fingers and noses first. Betchkal pointed off the path to the south, across a field of tangled willows, to a steep, snowy ridge, atop which he wanted to put the station. We shook up chemical hand warmers so they’d be hot when we reached the summit and charged into the thicket after Jeff Duckett, the ranger. Branches crashed against jackets and backpacks. We tripped on roots and fell. The sled proved too awkward to carry, and after retrieving two solar panels and a box of gear, Duckett and Betchkal abandoned it. At the foot of the hill, we began switchbacking upward through knee-high snow drifts. A Piper Cub skirted low over our heads, the roar of the engine momentarily blotting out the sounds of our breathing. Reaching the top, we dumped the audio equipment and threw on extra jackets. Betchkal got to work quickly, arranging tripods and running Arctic cable designed not to snap in subzero weather. Below, miles of black spruce spanned the valley separating us from Mount Healy.

Ostensibly, Betchkal’s stations capture exactly what we would hear if we could stand invisibly in the wilderness for a month. The recordings can reveal the sonic relationships that play out in our absence — and help us to modify our acoustic footprint. But our understanding of sound will always be limited by our perception of it. We will never experience the ultrasonic cries of insects, lizards or bats without distorting them. Decibels are self-deception. Bell Telephone Laboratories conjured them to measure loudness in the 1920s (the “bel” honors the company’s eponymous founder), but they represent volume as our ears register it, and the louder a sound is, the less of it we actually take in.

Hearing arguably fixes us in time, space and our own bodies more than the other senses do. Our vitals are audible: sighing lungs, a pounding pulse, a burbling gut. John Cage, the composer, once tried to observe complete silence in a soundproof room, but he still heard distinct noises — made, it turned out, by the nerves and blood of his own body. “Until I die,” he concluded, “there will be sounds.” We can shut our eyes at will, but not our ears, and what we hear is penetrating and physical — a wave entering our head. Even the deaf perceive internal jangling and external sonic feedback. The tactile nature of sound — the way it bounces back to us from other surfaces — helps us locate ourselves in relation to our surroundings and to know what’s behind us or around a corner. Fast asleep, our heartbeats quicken at a loud noise. In the womb, before we are aware, we hear the cacophonous exertions of our mother’s body. Returning from a field trip to the Potomac River refuge in Northern Virginia last year, a fourth grader wrote — in a passage that eventually reached a biologist in Soldotna, Alaska — that “the best thing about this place is that it has such nice noises you don’t feel alone when you are alone.”

In a series of gloveless maneuvers, Betchkal screwed together a weather station that would measure temperature, wind speed and direction, plus humidity. He arranged the solar panels, connected them to a box of batteries and sent power to the instruments: a sound level meter that continuously logs decibels at specific frequencies and an audio recorder. The meter powered on. The recorder did not. “Come on, you little stinker!” Betchkal said. Thinking it might be frozen, he slipped the device under his long johns, yelping when it met his thigh.

The next day, Betchkal showed me on his computer how he uses a program called Splat to analyze the data he gets. “Like in farming,” he said, “you’ve made the harvest, and now we’re going to take that raw thing and cook it or refine it down into something that can be used for different products.” Splat takes the data from the sound-level meter and arranges it on a spectrogram: a blue field of time on which sounds appear as orange shapes, their height representing their frequency, their brightness showing loudness, their length duration. Scrolling through the month, Betchkal labels many sounds by sight. Once he’s done tagging, the data can take on meaning, morphing into a graph of the circadian rhythms of wood-frog calls, say, or a park map of helicopter audibility.

Betchkal also listens to a subsample of the recordings. “I love this clip,” he said, pressing play on his computer. We heard a snuffling at the microphone and, nearby, the bellowing of babies that were actually bear cubs. “Part of my job is to go around and document these rare sounds,” he said, “to better understand the resource that needs to be protected — are there really important sounds out there that are disappearing?” He clicked again, and the tinny gurgle of an ice cave filled the speakers. “There’s thousands of little bubbles,” he said in narration. “I imagine like a big cave, and each room of the cave probably has different ways of reflecting sound. We can share sounds with people who might not be able to walk up to that ice cave and go hang around inside of it. Maybe even better, it excites them enough that they’re like, All right, let’s go on a hike! We’re going to check out an ice cave! Or whatever.”

Listening to Betchkal’s recordings of people passing his stations in the course of their travels can be unexpectedly elegiac. Tents flap, camp stoves hiss, people laugh, sniffle, adjust their packs. Once, trolling through audio from a mountain site, Betchkal happened upon a two-man concert, climbers duetting on guitar and mandolin. Another time, he discovered a rocky summer avalanche, an escalating rumble so deep it shook his desk.

On the ridge top, Betchkal’s body heat and hand warmers failed to revive the recorder. After more than an hour of troubleshooting, a spare pair of AA batteries succeeded in getting the device to work — but that meant, unlike the rest of the solar-powered equipment, it would run for only about a week. “It’s disappointing to me — really disappointing,” Betchkal said. “But that can happen — that does happen. If things go wrong, I’ll come back, and I can fix them.” He wrestled the instrument case closed and sealed it against the snow and wind of the coming month. The weather had begun to seep through our Polartec defenses, numbing our joints; water and pen ink were solids; cheese sticks gonged against canteens. “One last thing we need to do,” Betchkal said, shaking off defeat. “I know everyone’s probably cold and tired, but we’re going to listen. Get comfortable, be sure you’re not needing to fidget with stuff — ” A zipper zipped. Two magpies chirped. I lifted my arms from my sides to shush my sleeves and closed my eyes.

Night fell as we retraced our steps along the trail. The sky turned from lavender to indigo while the snow on the ground and the mountains glowed even when the last of the sun was gone. We headed for Jupiter, hanging low above the trees, and as we walked, I pictured the station back on the ridge, wrapped in the same darkness. When Betchkal harvests the audio, he will find us repacking our packs, exclaiming over our frozen apparatuses and sliding down the hillside into the willow field below. He will also, for three minutes, witness us still our movements and attune our ears to one of the quietest places left on Earth. In that window, I could hear the vastness of the valley — no sound marks materialized, like buoys bobbing on an empty ocean, to segment the sense of infinity. The landscape enveloped me, as Betchkal said it would, and I felt I was the landscape, where mountains and glaciers rose and shifted eons before the first heartbeats came to life.

“Standing in that place right there,” Betchkal told me later, “I had a complete sense that I was standing in that place right there and not drawn or distracted from it at all.” I felt located, too, but I could also imagine that if I hollered, my voice might not ever bounce back — that where I was, precisely, was a ridge top in a wide wilderness on a spinning rock in outer space. Ahead of me on the trail, as we neared our destination, Betchkal’s figure blurred in the darkness. The trees around us disappeared. There were, at last, only our footsteps. Then, barely audible, an inevitable airborne murmur — a sign from the civilized world.

Kim Tingley is a freelance writer and an online columnist for OnEarth magazine.

Need to focus? Here’s a tree.

17 Nov

 

“In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.”
John Muir

 

It’s November 17… National Take a Hike Day.

 

Taking  break from your day to watch these won’t kill you. In fact, it might make the day a little easier.

“A 2008 study by University of Michigan psychologists found that walking outside or even just looking at pictures of natural settings improved directed attention, the ability to concentrate on a task. Put another way: nature restores our ability to focus.” 

– Outside Magazine, Dec 2011

 

 

Landscapes: Volume Two from Dustin Farrell on Vimeo.

Time Lapse Tour of Yosemite National Park from Henry Jun Wah Lee on Vimeo.

Landscapes: Volume One from Dustin Farrell on Vimeo.

Timescapes Timelapse: Mountain Light from Tom Lowe on Vimeo.

On Assignment with Jimmy Chin – Yosemite

22 Aug

I feel like i’ve posted a lot of climibng vids. Truth be told I’m not a climber. I did some indoor stuff in college but not having someone I COMPLETELY trusted belaying me made me always have doubts and fears in the back of my mind… to the point that I stopped. Maybe one day I’ll give it another shot.

The reason for the vids isn’t necessarily the climbing aspect though. It’s the beauty. The scenery. Nature.

We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.

-Henry David Thoreau

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