I was walking to class last week when I noticed something I hadn’t heard for a while. Birds singing. Loud, cheerful, bird songs.
When I searched for the source of this pleasant interruption I saw a group of chickadees and sparrows sunning themselves in a bush along the sidewalk. All were puffed up against the cold and singing praises to the sun.
I remember thinking to myself how nice it was to hear such joyful noise. This has felt like a long, silent winter. I know I’ve heard an occasional cardinal but I could swear I haven’t heard a single bird sing since the first of January. Of course, I just might not have been paying attention.
On the first weekend of March the UW-Arboretum hosted an event called Madison Reads Leopold. Leopold was the first director of the Arboretum so a day set aside to read from A Sand County Almanac was a fitting way to remember the great writer and naturalist.
Leopold paid attention to the world around him. He took fastidious field notes about the things he observed. Getting up before dawn at the shack near Baraboo he would sit and listen to the call of birds in that early hour. Birds we can still hear today including robins and indigo buntings.
Aldo Leopold recognized that you can get a pretty good sense of land health by listening to the soundscape,” Temple says. “If sounds are missing and things are there that shouldn’t be, it often indicates underlying ecological problems.” Stan Temple
Professor Temple and Christopher Bocast, a Nelson Institute graduate student and acoustic ecologist, took Leopold’s 70 year old notes and recreated a “soundscape” using bird songs and calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. But the soundscape Leopold heard during his pre-dawn sessions in 1940 no longer exists. Changes in landscape along the Wisconsin River near Leopold’s shack have also changed the bird community.
The difference between 1940 and 2012 is overwhelmingly the anthrophony – human-generated noise. That’s the big change. In Leopold’s day there was much less of that.” Temple
Take a listen:
This soundscape project was the first of its kind. For more information read Terry Devitt’s piece.
I take certain comfort in the knowledge that scholars are recreating the sounds that Leopold scripted.
These folks are paying attention. They are making connections between what has been and what is. What’s been lost and what can be restored – if we listen.