Turning Down the World’s Volume




It is dusk, and I am standing in the middle of the Endangered Wolf Center. Acres of land, edged by woods and divided into giant enclosures with ponds and little sleeping houses, all of this tucked into the vast nature preserve that is Washington University’s Tyson Research Center.

An EWC staff member moves away, tilts his head back, and lets loose a mournful howl, as though a wolf has been separated from his pack. For a few seconds, the howl reverberates in the chilly, damp air of early spring. And then it comes: the answering howl. It starts deep and mournful, rising like hope. Then a chorus comes in, the communal howl done in separate keys and registers at once, some of them high and dissonant, like a tape played backward, and others holding the melody.

The higher, more chaotic, almost yipping howls come from the red wolves, I am told, and the baritone belongs to the Mexican grays. The short alerting bark at the beginning came from the maned wolf, a solitary creature that does not much care for all this communal stuff.

The howl keeps coming, the sound layered and lasting far longer than I expected. They are now howling for the sheer joy of it, and the sound cuts right through my body—eerie, haunting, primal. Animals pulling me into their wild world for once, instead of me trying to tug them into our tightly constrained grid. Driving home, the howl echoes in memory, and I feel tingly; changed, somehow.

Wolves howl when one wolf is separated from the pack, the response letting him find them again. They howl in grief. They howl in celebration. They also howl for a million other reasons, some of which humans will never fathom.

That does not stop us from trying.

In Sounds Wild and Broken, biologist David George Haskell writes that “in the murmur of cells and the voices of animals, we hear solar energy refracted into sound.” We also hear longing, solidarity, the rites of spring, the sense of danger. And at least some of those messages carry across species.

How boring the planet must have been when it was silent, when there was only “stone, water, lightning, and wind.” Then, for a good three billion years, the noisiest sounds on Earth were “the tremors of cell walls and the eddies around simple animals,” Haskell writes. The symphony of nature sounds—the soft, resonant owl hoots, the cicadas and peeping frogs that we put on our playlists for relaxation, the thrilling bugle of an elk or roar of a lion—all that is comparatively new. It built to a melodic crescendo as new species arrived, each one chiming in with its own language, its own rubbing wings or barks or underwater songs. Elephants make more than seventy sounds, from that shrill trumpeting to snorts, grunts, screams, rumbles, and groans. Anger an alligator, and it will roar. A breeze feels odd without an undercurrent of buzzing and chirping….

But our noisy human machines and vehicles and explosions are crashing that concert. “We’re pumping massive amounts of sound into some ecosystems that block the capability of animals to live,” Haskell told Vox tech writer Neel Dhanesha. “There’s a sensory crisis of just total overload.” Birds and bugs cannot hear one another. Sensory systems are thwarted. Beneath the ocean—in that realm that once seemed so peaceful, with coral waving and sunlight filtering down, and then a deeper darkness, utterly silent—“we are pumping the sound in through drilling and shipping and exploring with seismic guns.”

The fish are not happy. Humans do not live well in human noise, either. It stresses us, breaks our concentration, disrupts our sleep, and causes cardiovascular disease. I never knew how much ambulance sirens stressed me until we moved to a small town where they are so rare, and the town so small, the occasional siren gets chopped off before its wail even has a chance to peak. Once my everyday world became quieter, I began to realize just how many beeps and buzzes still punctured the peace, and I went on a tear, disabling the microwave beeper, unplugging stuff, cursing the refrigerator motor.

Deep silence is rare; even our thoughts can be scattered and loud. On a hike through an old pine forest to the top of a bluff, a friend and I came upon a sign nailed to a tree. Only one word was scrawled: “Listen.” And so we stopped and listened, and the hush gradually filled with tiny sounds far more interesting than my thoughts.

The fact that nature’s sounds relax us is a clue to who we are—and what we are losing. We do not do well with the soundscape we have created, its mechanical chugs and electronic beeps. Nor do we do well when we silence the world around us by stripping away its diversity. Strip mine, chop down forest, denude the prairie, and you drop from a symphony of sound to a few plunks on an out-of-tune guitar string. Keep going, and the Earth will be a ghost planet, with only wind rushing through the emptiness.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.