“TODAY’S HISTORY COMES deodorized,” commented Roy Porter in his foreword to Alain Corbin’s path-breaking book, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination.[1] Historical studies in Europe and North America, reflecting general trends within the humanities and social sciences and the dominant tendencies of our wider culture and society, have long been resolutely visual in their focus. Thanks to studies like Corbin’s, the scent of the past has become a bit sharper. “Smelly Old History,” for example, is a popular series of children’s books from Oxford University Press. In a bid to overcome the sensory limitations of traditional print media, the “scratch and sniff” method is designed to allow youngsters to recover the rank whiff of a Roman legionnaire’s armpit (Roman Aromas) and the pungent stench of a nineteenth-century tavern’s latrine (Victorian Vapors), though, in practice, they all smell pretty much the same—like cheap perfume.

Yet from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century—how hard it is to avoid images that privilege sight over other senses—the past seems more audible than aromatic.[2] Even a decade ago, history came largely soundproofed as well as deodorized. But a welcome spate of publications over the past five years has thrust sound into the forefront of sensory history.[3] As Mark Smith, a social historian in the vanguard of the current wave of aural history, remarked in 2004: “Historians are listening to the past with an intensity, frequency, keenness, and acuity unprecedented in scope and magnitude. Once focused on just the history of music and musicology, historians of aurality now consider sound in all its variety.”[4] Yet environmental historians are absent from the emerging cadre of sound historians that is challenging the visual bias of scholarly and popular culture.

Only one of the twenty-one essays in Mark Smith’s state-of-the-art anthology, Hearing History: A Reader, which ranges over the past thirty years, represents the work of an environmental historian—an essay on early twentieth-century American efforts to combat urban noise published nearly thirty years ago.[5] Routledge’s ambitious multi-volume Encyclopedia of World Environmental History has no entries for sound or noise. It is not altogether surprising, then, that Smith, who specializes in the study of slavery, should leave environmental themes and environmental history out of his calculations, referring to how the denizens of the antebellum United States “heard the articulated and intimately related principal political, economic, and social developments.” Nor is it particularly remarkable, in view of the environmental historian’s limited engagement with auditory matters, that Smith does not specify environmental history when, in his call for a multifaceted approach to aural history, he emphasizes that “there is no compelling reason for historians to treat the history of sound as a cultural, political, or economic history project.”[6] But there could be an additional reason why Smith does not specifically mention environmental history. He may feel that social historians already are doing a decent enough job of covering the territory.

The current soundscape of historical studies is by no means bereft of attention to the things that matter to environmental historians. The initial purpose of this essay, therefore, is to review the features of recent work in aural history (mainly in the United States) that touch on our domain, but with which we may be unfamiliar. The essay’s second major aim is to consider how environmental historians can build on suggestive work on things environmental within social and urban history to produce a more explicit and sustained environmental history of sound. I seek to demonstrate how the study of sound can enrich our comprehension of some of the topics and themes that give environmental history its identity. Pricking up our ears can supply fresh insight (if you will excuse the ugly mixed metaphor) into staple subjects such as perceptions of non-human nature and the environmental impact of human activity. Not least, an aural outlook (!) can improve our appreciation of the character of environmental threats and environmentalist causes. For most of the existing work on sound history either deals with periods before 1900 or dwells on the early twentieth century—in short, before the appearance of environmental problems and environmentalist concerns as we understand them today.

Having listened to the sonic environment of social history and urban history (not an entirely neat distinction), I shall broach the following matters: how sound has influenced the ways that people have understood and responded to a range of landscapes, urban, rural, and wild (knowing nature through sound), with particular attention to the sounds of the “howling” and “silent” wilderness (the call of the wild); the notion of natural sound and its detection through outdoor recreation (picking up nature’s voices); and the impact of certain mechanically generated sounds on non-human creatures (beastly noise).[7] I also address broader issues such as the value of reconstructing past aural environments, how to go about being an environmental historian of sound (sound recordings), and, not least, how much sound matters.

Though fellow environmental historians are my primary audience, this essay is not just for them. I hope that what I have to say also will be of interest to other historians already studying sound, some of whom, as intimated, may feel that environmental matters already are receiving attention and can be comfortably subsumed within a grand, all-encompassing social history project. Some readers doubtless will feel that each of this essay’s sections merits an article in itself. I have a good deal of sympathy with this attitude. But since this is an overview aimed at two constituencies—environmental historians and historians of aurality—I have written a little about a lot and will be satisfied if readers feel they have learned a little about a lot. More questions are raised than answers provided. Again, this strikes me as entirely appropriate, given the rudimentary condition of the environmental history of sound. At this early juncture, I do not wish to claim too much for what Mitchell Snay calls the “explanatory power” of sound.[8] Being attuned to the past promotes a more subtle, richly textured historical appreciation but does not necessarily transform our understanding in a fundamental sense. I certainly do not want to posit a tension between aural and visual modes of perception; they usually work in tandem.


AT THE RISK of stating the obvious, all aural history is environmental in that it deals with sounds in physical settings, whether indoors or outdoors. One of sound’s first historians was Lucien Febvre, who wrote about it in the 1940s as part of an avant garde French cultural history of the senses.[9] Febvre belonged to the Annales school, whose members Mark Smith presents as pioneering social historians. Yet Febvre was also a proto-environmental historian who emphasized how the physical environment and climate shaped human life, events, and processes.[10] Guy Thuillier, who belonged to a later generation of Annales historians, renewed this attention to sound in the 1970s, listing the sounds that a villager in central France typically would have heard in the mid-nineteenth century.[11] “You can almost hear, as you read his book,” Corbin comments, “the ringing of the hammer on the anvil, the heavy thud of the wooden mallet wielded by the cartwright, the insistent presence of bells and the whinny of horses in an aural environment where the noise of the engine or the amplifier was unknown.”[12] Corbin himself turned to sounds in Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside.[13] The multiple meanings of tolling bells resonated on the other side of the Atlantic a few years later in Mark Smith’s work on the antebellum United States. Examining a range of sounds, Smith gives voice to the aural aspects of sectional conflict, reflecting on the plantation elite’s construction of a quiet pastoral world intimate with nature that they juxtaposed against the irksome and “puerile” “hum” of crowded cities.[14]

In How Early America Sounded, Richard Cullen Rath discusses the meaning—for seventeenth-century Indians and African Americans as well as European colonists—of the sound of bells, guns, drums, trumpets, and musical instruments. He also listens to the interior acoustical spaces, such as churches, that shaped these sounds. What environmental historians will find most directly relevant, however, is his opening chapter on the “natural soundscape” (essentially a case study of thunder and lightning). Rath defines natural sounds as “unintentional sounds, not made by humans.” But their principal significance for him derives from their socio-cultural construction rather than their material impact. To the seventeenth-century ear, he explains, powerful sounds were brimming with intention. For colonists, thunder was the voice of God and battering storms were the hellish work of the devil.[15]

Perhaps of most relevance to the environmental historian of rural locales, though, is the section on rural sounds in a literary scholar’s study of auditory landscapes in early modern England. Through a map, an engraving, and contemporary accounts of Kenilworth Castle and its associated estates in Warwickshire, Bruce Smith reconstructs this patch of countryside’s representative woods, hunting grounds, fields, and pastures with their accompanying sounds of work and leisure. Smith is finely tuned to the acoustic distinctiveness of various environments: “As acoustic spaces, forest, meadow, and fields present three different physical conditions for the production and propagation of sound. Large tree trunks without much undergrowth would form a relatively resonant space, potentially full of echoes. Meadowland, lacking any reflective surfaces, would form a relatively damped space.” He explores how different “speech communities” inhabit a shared aural space, starting out with the “keynote” sounds of nature (“environmental sound”)—notably wind in the trees, bird song, running water, and croaking frogs. To this original “speech community,” he adds the sounds of livestock and agricultural labor (plowing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting). Leisure pursuits contribute another layer: Morris dancing, the bustling throng at the ale-house at the end of the working day, and, when the hunt for deer, hares or partridges is at large, baying hounds, galloping horses, and blasting horns. The outcome is a series of “speech fields” composed of an amalgam of these natural, mechanical, and human sounds.[16]

Like Mark Smith and Rath, Bruce Smith makes liberal use of a term—soundscape—whose origin they acknowledge but that has become such common currency in the transactions of aural history that it often is used without reference to its originator. R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, coined soundscape in the late 1960s.[17] During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Schafer was a professor of communications studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and during this period also fathered the term “acoustic ecology.” He established the World Soundscape Project there in the mid-1960s to study the natural soundscape and technological impacts on it, from sociological, architectural, philosophical, and scientific perspectives, with a view to cleansing the acoustic environment of sonic pollution.[18]

The idea of “keynote” sounds that Bruce Smith and Mark Smith also employ derives from Schafer as well, and started out with an avowedly ecological meaning too. Keynote sounds are those created by natural entities such as wind, water, trees, birds, and insects that constitute a soundscape’s bedrock. “True enough,” comments Mark Smith, but rejoins that keynote sounds “may also be produced by the specific configurations of social and economic relations and modes of production.”[19] Emily Thompson similarly uses a modified, more expansive working definition of soundscape that foregrounds the keynote sounds of technology and the human realm that challenge and transform the natural soundscape’s keynotes. A historian of technology uncomfortable with the ecological and environmentalist flavor of Schafer’s term, Thompson believes that a soundscape, like a landscape, “ultimately has more to do with civilization than with nature.” She defines it—with a nod to Corbin—as an aural landscape rather than a sonic environment.[20]

Mark Smith’s work contains a number of references to the keynote sounds of wild places and the transformation of the natural soundscape, as does Rath’s book; colonial America, after all, was overwhelmingly rural.[21] But whereas social historians have raised these matters as part of their wider projects, environmental historians can give them their full attention. Environmental history takes the study of the non-human world of nature seriously; situates human experiences, events and relationships squarely within a bigger framework; and looks at the human impact on the rest of nature and nature’s influence on humans, especially human history’s ecological context. By reinvesting “soundscape” with the physical meaning that has been drained from it, we can generate a history of sound that is environmental in a more rigorously ecological, material, and earthly sense. Moreover, while environmental history and the history of environmentalism are by no means synonymous, one of the environmental historian’s major contributions has been to examine the advent, development, and permutations of one of the most important socio-cultural movements and political forces of the past half century. As such, this essay also seeks to recover and extend the environmentalist connotations of Schafer’s soundscape.


ECHOING THE ENVIRONMENTALIST tenor of the 1970s, Schafer referred to the “imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds,” “sound imperialism,” and an “overpopulation of sound.”[22] The pressures of this auditory overpopulation and imperialism clearly were felt most keenly in the cities, where, Shafer thought, noise had never been noisier. In Tuning of the World, he scrutinized official complaints registered between 1969 and 1972 from an international sample of cities to compile a fascinating set of tables that reflect distinctive local conditions.[23] Since then, the overcrowding of the urban soundscape has become even more chronic as a host of new sounds have joined and/or replaced those that Schafer mapped. Our ears are assaulted by ghetto blasters, Walkman earphone seepage, elevator music, cellular phone chatter, automobile alarms, and “boom cars.” Engulfed by what cultural critics dub “sonic exhibitionism” from the “audio-terrorist,” it’s easy to believe that we live in a world of unsurpassed noisiness.[24]

Our world is noisier insofar as more people are around to make noise and decibel levels have increased. In New York City, noise is currently the main source of complaints to city hall.[25] But there has never been a silent city. Nor have city dwellers ever been unperturbed by noise. Reactions to a bevy of pre-industrial sounds spans the spectrum from mild irritation to the incandescent rage of a tormented soul. Possessing the power to drive genteel folk to distraction were hammering tinsmiths, carpet-beating maids, whip-cracking, foul-mouthed animal drovers, and, not least, the purveyors of so-called “rough music” (charivaris). Opposition to horse-drawn carriages usually has been explained in terms of the public-health menace represented by horse dung, solid and pulverized. Yet the racket generated by iron-rimmed cart and carriage wheels trundling over cobblestones and by horseshoes striking them had been an intermittent source of complaint since colonial days. a strong argument for replacing the horse with the horseless (electric) carriage in American and British cities in the late 1890s was the alleviation of noise.[26]Scientific American warmly welcomed trams and automobiles as harbingers of a new age of urban tranquillity: “The noise and clatter which makes conversation almost impossible on many streets of New York at the present time will be done away with, for horseless vehicles of all kinds are always noiseless or nearly so.” Not that the absence of vehicles, horse-drawn or horseless, necessarily guarantees an agreeable soundscape. Conversation itself can constitute a disturbance that renders other basic human activities difficult, if not impossible.[27]

Social and urban historians studying responses to urban sounds have emphasized the socio-cultural contingency of definitions of unacceptable noise and the selective, class-bound nature of concern and efforts to tackle problems.[28] It’s not just a question, in other words, of a noise problem that has grown progressively worse over time. Changes in the sources of noise and new attitudes toward existing sounds must also be assessed. Changing attitudes to sound are as important as the changing nature of sounds themselves.[29] As Corbin emphasized in his study of rising urban antipathy toward church bells, it was not that they were becoming louder in early nineteenth-century France or that there were suddenly more of them. The explanation lies in a “new sensibility” that lowered “thresholds of tolerance.”[30] A more secular urban middle-class was rising and retiring later, setting the burgher’s chronobiology at variance with the villager’s. Once de-sacrelized, bells were relegated to the crude company of factory whistles, lumped together with the “nuisance trades” (noxious forms of industrial establishment).[31] Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, noise frequently resides in the ear of the listener. And so there’s no direct correlation between physical measurements of loudness and perceptions of noise.

Rath’s study of a largely non-urban world opens with the bold claim that “sound was more important to early Americans than it is to you.” Though he immediately qualifies this with the caveat that “their world was in many respects a quieter one,” his crucial point is that, regardless of its volume in decibels, “sound had a more immediate power that we no longer associate with it: it was a tangible force laden with intent rather than your harmless whiff of disturbed air.”[32] Try telling that to late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century city folk, for whom certain sounds packed tremendous immediate punch. The sounds they called noises amounted to far more than innocuous whiffs of agitated air.

The major contribution to date on the harmful effects of disturbed air from the environmental historian’s perspective is the work of Raymond Smilor, whose doctoral dissertation, now nearly thirty years old, was entitled “Confronting the Industrial Environment: The Noise Problem in America, 1893-1932.” Smilor demonstrated that the assault from noise was an integral component of the late-nineteenth-century environmental crisis afflicting burgeoning cities, which usually has been discussed in terms of overcrowding, air and water pollution, garbage accumulation, and traffic congestion. Smilor’s study also illustrated how the assault on noise occupied a prominent place in the spectrum of reform crusades during the Progressive era alongside better known anti-smoke leagues and sanitation improvement societies. Remedial measures in New York City included regulation of tugboat whistles, establishment of quiet zones around schools and hospitals, and the replacement of whistle-blowing traffic cops by traffic lights.[33]

Smilor’s research generated a few articles on the noise problem and abatement campaigns—but no book.[34] He concentrated on New York City and the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, the most influential American anti-noise organization, founded there in 1906 by Julia Barnett Rice, a physician. We might have expected a rash of local studies designed to test Smilor’s findings, comparing the scale and nature of the problem, the strength of organized protest, and the degree of success enjoyed by those who sought to tame noise, thereby providing relief for what Rice dubbed “our most abused sense.”[35] Yet no school of noise historians emerged to continue Smilor’s groundbreaking work.[36] Nor has his coverage been brought closer to the present. More systematic attention to the conceptualization of unwanted sound as noise pollution since 1945 would be welcome, as would an attempt to position noise on the scale of emerging environmental problems and within the hierarchy of environmentalist priorities.

Though Thompson readily acknowledges Smilor’s contribution to the study of early twentieth-century noise, she distances herself from what she sees as his ecologically driven interest in noise pollution. This, she claims, tells us more about the societal preoccupations of the 1960s and 1970s than about late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century urban soundscapes. Recognizing that contemporaries readily compared noise to smoke, and that noise abatement campaigns were modelled on previous smoke abatement crusades, Thompson nonetheless feels that Smilor exaggerated the connections between smoke and noise. In her view, the pursuit of greater efficiency was the main imperative; noise represented wasted energy.[37]

Whether it emanates from indoor or outdoor sources, awareness of noise as a health hazard has lagged behind recognition of the adverse effects of polluted air and water and efforts to mitigate them, whether in the United States, Britain, or France.[38] Noise also differs from other forms of pollution in that unwanted sound is not necessarily a permanent feature of a sonic environment. A whistle blast, for example, however excruciating, can last just one second, though it recurs every hour. And noise leaves no physical mess to clear up. If it were a garish color and had a powerful stench, would it have been taken more seriously earlier? As late as 1995, a PBS film dubbed noise the “silent problem.”[39]


A SILENT PROBLEM is one that exists but lurks unheard. This paradox is also inherent in the notion of silence when it is attached to a place. For a condition of silence does not imply the absence of sound. To Euro-American ears since the earliest colonial days, the wilderness was both silent and howling. The insufferable noise emanated from wild nature’s original denizens, human and non-human. (Howling is a term from the Old Testament that Puritan divines and settlers attached to the diabolical abode that wolves shared with equally blood-thirsty and ignoble human savages whose keynote sound was a blood-curdling war whoop.) The ring of an ax striking a tree was sweet music to their ears, an “aural victory over howling wilderness,” in Mark Smith’s words.[40] The buzz of activity characterizing isolated frontier towns came as an enormous relief to travelers, signifying what Smith calls “acoustic islands of safety … in a quiet, howling wilderness.” Yet the taming of the wilderness did not produce silence. Civilizing acts entailed the imposition of new aural forms to create a new order of quiet that was replete with pleasing sound. An onward-marching Euro-American civilization filled the great auditory void of the wilderness with sonic meaning.[41]

Not every Euro-American was enchanted. Noise is to sound what stench is to smell (and what weed is to plant)—something dissonant, unwanted, out of place, and invasive. But notions of noise, sound, and silence—like any other cultural phenomena—are invariably historically contingent, varying according to time, place, and human constituency. To the early nineteenth-century modernist ear, mechanical sounds and the noisy bustle of commerce bespoke prosperity. Quiet was synonymous with indolence, backwardness, and stagnation. For the nineteenth-century advocate of industrial progress, a place where you could hear the grass grow (or only the cartwright’s mallet and the horse’s whinny) was not somewhere you wanted to be. For a handful of disaffected literary gents, however, it had its attractions.

For mid-nineteenth-century New England intellectuals troubled by the onslaught of industrial advance, the invasion of rural tranquillity by the screech of the railroad engine was a standard literary device. Literary historian Leo Marx emphasized this forty years ago in The Machine in the Garden.[42] In his notebook on 27 July 1844, Nathaniel Hawthorne recorded the gentle, harmonious keynote sounds of nature that pervaded “Sleepy Hollow,” a place in the woods near his Concord home. After meticulously noting the sound of birds, squirrels, insects, and rustling leaves, he becomes aware of a medley of mechanical and other human sounds: the striking of the village clock, the tinkle of a cowbell, and the whetting of a mower’s scythe. To his ears, though, none of these “sounds of labor” violates the serenity. Then, all of a sudden, these dulcet strains are drowned out by an alien intrusion. “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot streets … in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”[43]

Since a locomotive in wooded and/or hilly countryside would be heard before it was seen—if it was seen at all—this scarcely constitutes a sweeping rejection of visual response to sensory phenomena. But it serves as a reminder that reactions to the non-human world of nature were more multisensory than traditional emphases on nature as a spectacle and the role of observation in nature appreciation would suggest.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has a similar passage in the chapter entitled “Sounds.” In Village Bells, Corbin explains that, by the 1870s, the French bourgeoisie was proclaiming the “right to silence.”[44] Thoreau, though, was an early riser, like his Concord neighbor, Hawthorne, and did not mind the sounds that troubled Corbin’s bourgeoisie. Despite his secular views, like the more devout Hawthorne, he easily assimilates the sound of church bells (“a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness”). The “distant lowing” of cattle in the evenings strikes him as equally pleasant and melodious. Nor is he bothered by other organic sounds such as the barking dogs and the trump of bull frogs, or even the far off rumblings of wagons trundling over bridges.

As he kept no spinning wheel, butter churn, singing kettle, pets, or livestock, Thoreau’s immediate aural environment was devoid of domestic sounds (unless you include the scrabbling of squirrels on his cabin’s roof or under its floor). There’s no suggestion that he misses these homely tones, with one notable exception. He regrets that he never heard a crowing cockerel during his sojourn at the pond and even contemplated getting one simply for the pleasure of its music: “if they could be naturalized without being domesticate, it would soon become the most famous sound in our woods,” he opined.

Then, among the trilling and warbling of birds near his cabin and of geese and loons on Walden Pond, Thoreau records the railroad’s unseemly intrusion: in this instance, the “rattle” of cars on the Fitchburg to Boston railroad that brushes the pond a hundred rods south of his cabin. Like Hawthorne, Thoreau partially naturalizes the sound “now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge,” further comparing “the whistle of the locomotive [that] penetrates my woods summer and winter” to “the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard.” But the “iron horse” is disruptive as well, an emblem of restlessness that causes the hills to “echo with his snort like thunder.” Its roar frightens the owl and fox, and the fish in the pond feel its rumblings. The railroad is also a harbinger of the predatory city that sucks the countryside into its maw: “all the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city.” Thoreau doubts there’s a place left in Massachusetts beyond earshot of the railroad whistle.[45]

Thoreau’s efforts to escape the sounds of modernity may have been fatuous (at least within Massachusetts). And when more successfully implemented by others in more remote settings than Walden Pond, the experience of escape was usually fleeting; most genteel Americans sought no more than temporary respite from urban and commercial hurly burly. Nonetheless, the desire to elude urban and mechanical noise was patently a powerful stimulant of “back to nature” urges. “Noise” derives from the Latin word nausea. During the Progressive era, reform-minded medics and psychologists identified excessive exposure to noise as a serious threat to mental and physical well-being. Experiments involving dogs indicated that when a door was slammed, pulse rates rose dramatically while sus-tained noise inhibited the growth of rats and rendered them more irritable than their counterparts who enjoyed peaceful surroundings.[46] Noise, in short, was stressful and John Muir’s famous comment about “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people” taking to the mountains for relief from “rust and disease” addressed this debilitating im-pact on the nervous system.[47]

Figure 1. Wind in Sierra Trees.

“California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900,’ American Memory Collection, Library of Congress.
In an illustration from The Mountains of California (1894), entitled ‘A Wind-Storm in the California Forests,’ John Muir depicts a grove of Sierra pines (unidentified, but perhaps Douglas spruce, one of which he climbed in December 1874) “ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.”

Yet Muir and those who followed in his footsteps sought more from wild nature than beautiful sights. True, he hailed the Sierra Nevada as the “range of light.” But re-reading his writings about California’s major mountain range recently with an ear for sound, I was astonished at the frequency of ref-erences to so-called natural sound. “Even the blind must enjoy these woods,” Muir insisted, “drinking their fragrance, listening to the music of the winds in their groves.”[48] In his chapter on Yose-mite’s birds in Our National Parks, he takes issue with the time-honored notion of the silent wilderness, remarking on the human aversion to stillness in the Sierran forests. “‘The trees,’ they say, ‘are fine, but the empty stillness is deadly; there are no animals to be seen, no birds. We have not heard a song in all the woods.'” “And no wonder!,” he retorts. “They go in large parties with mules and horses; they make a great noise … every animal shuns them.” He was convinced, though, that “Nature-lovers, devout, silent, opened-eyed, looking and listening with love,” would find the mountains and forests saturated with sound.[49] “So-called” solitude, for Muir, was a misnomer. For the silent wilderness was alive with “other people” who often made their presence heard, among them “the lively throng of squirrels; the blessed birds, great and small, stirring and sweetening the groves; and the clouds of happy insects filling the sky with joyous hum” as well as “the glad streams singing their way to the sea … shouting in wild, exulting energy over rough boulder dams.”[50] He was particularly attuned to the “wind-music” that trees composed and sang during winter storms. To immerse himself fully in the arboreal soundscape of the howling wilderness above a tributary of the Yuba River, he climbed a hundred-foot Douglas spruce that was “rocking and swaying in wild ecstasy” during a ferocious gale in December 1874. He clung there for hours, often shutting his eyes so that the visual feast would not distract him from the music composed of a rich variety of tones: the “profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf.”[51]

However lively, the sounds of nature that dominate the aural landscape of Muir’s writings were mainly made by inanimate entities. That the voices and other sound marks of animate creatures are relatively muted in his pages, more or less confined to birds (and a few squirrels), reflects the faunal impoverishment of the Sierra Nevada’s ecological communities by the late nineteenth century, however intact the mountain range’s scenic glories might have been. When Muir first roamed these mountains, virtually no grizzlies were left—here or elsewhere in the state. Whether wolves ever had been in the Sierra Nevada remains debatable, but their near-extermination across the interior West left an enormous silent vacuum in the howling wilderness. For Francis Parkman, the gentleman-adventurer and talented historian from Boston, the wolf’s howl was the keynote sound of the western wilds that he visited on a jaunt in the 1840s while a student at Harvard Law School. The silencing of the wolf epitomized the taming of the frontier. In his preface to the fourth edition (1872) of The Oregon Trail, Parkman reflected on how the wilderness had been stilled as well as emptied of its primordial inhabitants, human and non-human, lamenting how the “disenchanting screech of the locomotive [broke] the spell of weird mysterious mountains.” In an even more poignant preface to a fifth edition (1892), he rued that “those discordant serenaders, the wolves that howled at evening about the traveller’s camp-fire, have succumbed to arsenic and hushed their savage music.”[52] Half a century later, Aldo Leopold, in his best-known essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” also regretted the virtual absence from the forty-eight contiguous states of the wolf’s “deep chesty bawl,” which once echoed across canyons from rimrock to rimrock. Only a mountain, he reflected, had been around long enough to listen objectively to the howl of this keystone species within western ecosystems.[53]

On hearing the wolf’s howl in western North America for the first time, many nineteenth-century Euro-American explorers and travelers interpreted it as sorrowful at best and frightful, devilish, and utterly otherworldly at worst. The wolf’s howl remained a hallmark of the Canadian wilderness long after it was banished from much of the contiguous United States, however. Still, the pejorative associations endured. In the late 1940s, residents of Banff National Park com-plained that nocturnal wolf howling (“a most unappreciated chorus”) disrupted their sleep. By the 1960s, though, growing numbers of North Americans were inclined to listen objectively, as Leopold had exhorted. This appreciation of the wolf’s value within the wider ecological community was supplemented not only by a revival of Parkman’s admiration for the symbolic wolf but also by a more passionate response. This was the passion (equal in its emotional intensity to the rancher’s hatred) of the environmentalist’s affection. That senti-ment was anticipated by Jack London’s celebra-tion of the wolf’s howl as the ultimate expression of the primordial life force—”his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world”—in his novel, The Call of the Wild.[54] In the 1960s, the sessions at which Canadian biologists used wolf howls to pinpoint the location of wolves were transformed into public events. The first evening of “wolf listening,” held in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, in the summer of 1963, attracted six-hundred lupine aficionados. A security guard watching over the pens in which the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 were acclimatizing prior to release characterized their howl as “a truly incredible sound—not eerie or evil sounding.”[55] For most visitors lured to Yellowstone by the wolf’s renewed presence, the experience of hearing a wolf is almost as satisfying as actually seeing one. Almost inevitably, when a group of wildlife biologists, museum curators, conservationists, acoustic designers, musicians, artists, and broadcasters came together to found the Nature Sounds Society in Oakland, California, in 1984, they adopted a howling wolf as their logo.

Figure 2. Nature Sounds Society Logo.

Nature Sounds Society website
The howling wolf is one of the most familiar and haunting images associated with the wild. It was a natural choice for the logo of the Nature Sounds Society, a worldwide non-profit organization founded in the mid-1980s that is dedicated to the recording, documentation, preservation, and “creative” use of nature sounds.


THE WOLF’S HOWL in the howling wilderness is now the quintessential natural sound. Yet it is also a key ingredient of what has become known as “natural quiet.” For the nature tourists whose sensory underdevelopment Muir bemoaned, the silence of the woods was deathly. Since then, nature lovers who have entered the woods in silence, listening lovingly, defend and promote this quietude. Natural quiet is not the same thing as silence but creates aural space for keynote sounds like the wolf’s howl or the gabble of a gaggle of wild geese (Sigurd Olson referred to the latter’s all-engulfing “clamor”).[56] These are the sounds that today’s advocates of natural quiet characterize as those “native” or “indigenous” to a particular sonic environment. Natural quiet involves the absence of noise, and noise, following this sensory logic, is synonymous with sounds generated by people and their machines, sounds that are, by definition, alien to the natural world.[57]

This juxtaposition of natural sound and human-generated noise was anticipated by early twentieth-century Britain’s leading anti-noise campaigner, Dan McKenzie. In his book, The City of Din, the Glasgow doctor remarked that “unlike the world of men, the world of Nature is not noisy.” What about crowing cockerels, braying donkeys, barking dogs, and wailing cats? McKenzie conceded that, under certain circumstances, all these natural sounds could be annoying, irritating and even a “weary nuisance.” (As far as dogs were concerned, he insisted—doubtless half in jest—that it all boiled down to proper training: “My own dogs are lively, cheerful, protective, when they bark. Other people’s dogs, however, may be, and generally are, even to a lover of dogs, noisy, ill-tempered, badly-brought-up brutes.”) For McKenzie, though, when all was said and done, every sound of nature—including its “loudest and grandest,” thunder—was essentially “pleasant and therefore not noise.”[58]

Nineteenth-century cities on both sides of the Atlantic teemed with so-called natural sounds irrespective of whether we categorize braying and barking as sound or noise or as an attribute of nature or culture. The crowing of cockerels, the braying of donkeys, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting of pigs was not confined to the countryside. Cities incorporated backyard farms and slaughterhouses; pigs in particular often roamed the streets. These animal noises have been irritants too. In one week in 1914, Baltimore’s anti-noise policeman dealt not only with bawling fishmongers but also three roosters and numerous cats. As a young doctor living in an insalubrious part of Glasgow, McKenzie also had his sleep interrupted by the cat’s “love serenades in the silence of the night,” and fondly recalled his first ear-syringe—not because it brought him patients but—”far more wonderful”—because it brought him sleep far more effectively than hurled slippers and lumps of coal. He kept the device on his bedroom dressing table, filled with water, and, when occasion demanded, squirted a jet far into the trees to quiet the yeowling (“many a romantic elopement, has that syringe foiled and brought to nothing”).[59] The most famous cats in the history of noise, however, are indisputably those that prowled the roofs of the printing shops of Paris in the 1730s. Robert Darnton immortalized these rowdy felines in a riveting essay that places wailing cats at the foreground of the class struggle and reveals a good deal about their socio-cultural significance (cats were deeply associated with witchcraft, devilry, and sexuality). Two dog-tired apprentices are prevented from sleeping by the authentic version of merciless katzenmusik that plays all night long on the roof of their hovel.[60] That the master and mistress to whom many of the tormenting cats belong are still enjoying the “sweetness of sleep” at the crack of dawn when the apprentices have to rise rubs salt into their wounds. One of them takes revenge by crawling with cat-like agility onto the roof of his master’s and mistress’s bedchamber, where, through skillful imitation, he can “ambush them with a volley of meows.” He keeps up this performance for a number of nights. Driven to sleepless distraction and fearing that some satanic spell has been cast over them, the mistress finally gives the order to kill the offending cats. The boys gleefully hunt them down and slaughter as many as they can.[61]

Like McKenzie’s dogs, cats can make sounds and noises. They can drive proletarian and bourgeois alike crazy with their screaming and yowling but also purr in the laps of wealthy printers’ wives. Nor has birdsong invariably been music to the human ear. The “English” (house) sparrow, a species introduced in the United States in the 1850s, was a source of considerable consternation in late-nineteenth-century American cities, not only on account of its allegedly filthy habits and apparent displacement of native birds. The bird’s “disagreeable chatter” irritated middle-class city folk increasingly sensitive to noise as well as dirty water and air and the accumulation of garbage. In Washington, D.C., a leading sparrow critic reckoned that the feathered Cockney’s interminable prattle nearly obliterated “the Comanche yell of the milkman,” not to mention the “black newspaper imps who screech every one deaf on Sunday morning.”[62] The first objection to the sparrow that a prominent female author of popular bird books registered was its marring of the dawn with its “indescribable jangle of harsh sounds” that “harmonizes perfectly with the jarring sounds of man’s contriving; the clatter of iron-shod wheels over city pavements, the war-whoop of the ferocious milkman, the unearthly cries of the vendors.” Here was clinching evidence of an unnatural status, since the “harshest cries” of “our” native birds, “if not always musical in themselves,” invariably were judged congruent “in some way with sounds of nature.”[63] The sparrow’s status as a generator of unearthly noise thus allowed its opponents to evict it from the natural world and lump it together with tainted humanity.

The din of non-native sparrows in the cities was bad enough. But their disturbance of the peaceful groves of suburbia was intolerable. Moving beyond barking dogs and jabbering sparrows that did not know their place, a greater sensitivity to sound on the part of environmental historians could enhance our understanding of the flight to the suburbs. In Roman times, the phenomenon of the villa suburbana was about escaping the hubbub of the city as well as summer heat and dust. How important was the search for tranquillity in the postwar American stampede to the suburbs? And how far has that desired quiet proved attainable? What emerged as the distinctive sounds of the suburbs? Contenders that spring to mind are the drone of the power lawnmower and a different kind of profound bass to the one that Muir thrilled to in storm-tossed mountain forests—the heavy beat of the unspeakable music blaring from a teenager’s bedroom window. In 1979, a British punk rock band, The Members, put out their most successful single, “The Sounds of the Suburbs,” which included the lines
Same old boring Sunday morning,
Old men out washing their cars …
Johnny’s upstairs in his bedroom sitting in the dark,
Annoying the neighbors with his punk rock electric guitar.
This is the sound of the suburbs.

Attention to the sounds of work and play in the suburbs can rectify the bias of sound historians of the past century toward the noises resulting from production processes in an urban setting. Listening to the sonic by-products of increasingly mechanized outdoor recreational activities also will help achieve greater balance. Silence is an implicit ingredient of solitude and contemplative recreation, central to the definition of wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act refers to “outstanding opportunities for solitude” and to “the earth and its community of life untrammeled by man.” Benton MacKaye, one of the Wilderness Society’s founders, was sensitive to the encroaching sounds of modernity, issuing an injunction in 1932 to “interest the folks in the inexpensive joys of nature in lieu of the jarring jams of jazz.” MacKaye’s proposed Appalachian ridgeline trail was designed to provide a sanctuary from the sights and sounds of mechanized modernity. In the inaugural issue of The Living Wilderness, he announced that: “One function of true wilderness is to provide a refuge from the crassitudes of civilization—whether visible, tangible, audible—whether of billboard, of pavement, of auto-horn. Wilderness in this sense is the absence of all three. Just so the wilderness footpath; it is unadorned; it is foot-made; it is noise-proof. Such are its qualities in essence. The advertising sign … the graded way … the auto-horn (or its refrain the radio)—all of these are urban essences; all are negations of the wilderness.”

Another society founder, Bob Marshall, also was alert to the invasive noise emanating from the automobile. In a 1925 letter to his family back east about a recent trip to a national forest in Idaho he wrote: “In days to come, when all of the once wild places of the country are dissected with highways and the honk of the auto horn on one road can be distinctly heard on the next … I will … tell my grandchildren about this past week.” When the Wilderness Society met on an official basis for the first time in January 1935, its members fleshed out a mission statement that cited noise as one of the major threats to wilderness and quietude as one of its prime attributes: “Scarcely a month passes in which … some quiet glade hitherto disturbed only by birds and insects and wind in the trees does not bark out the merits of ‘Crazy Water Crystals’ and the mushiness of ‘Cocktails for Two.'” They placed freedom from mechanically generated sounds on a par with freedom from mechanical sights and smells.[64]

The quotations in the preceding two paragraphs are from Paul Sutter’s book Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement.[65] Yet Sutter does not identify quietude as a keynote of a primeval environment or noise emission as an integral part of the disturbing package of automotive intrusion that drove wilderness enthusiasts wild in the half-century preceding the Wilderness Act. In inviting historians of what Edward Abbey labeled “industrial tourism” to pay more heed to sound, I am not claiming a higher importance for aural responses to wildlands or positing a tension between aural and visual modes of perception.[66] They operate together to provide a holistic appreciation of nature that draws on all the senses. The member of the pioneering generation of American wilderness preservationists who offered the most inclusive of sensory responses was Sigurd Olson, whose books included The Singing Wilderness and Listening Point. Olson’s “Listening Point” on Burntside Lake, Minnesota, in the north woods of the Quetico-Superior country, was a place where he could “hear all that is worth listening for.” For Olson, that pleasure required the right spirit in the listener: “only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard.” Pondering the precious “silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness that comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds … when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than with our senses,” Olson recalled the four words etched at the base of a stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral, burial place of the most famous angler in British-American history, Izaak Walton: “Study to be Quiet.”[67]

For Olson, silence was more than just an attribute of a wild place. Silence was its essence: “without it the vision of unchanged landscape means little more than rocks and trees and mountains.”[68] Studying to be quiet in the outdoors has become even more difficult since the passage of the Wilderness Act. Places that Olson treasured may have been protected from the roar of the internal combustion engine. But the roar of the airplane engine offered a new order of threat.[69] Roderick Nash examined tensions between unregulated aircraft access and wilderness preservation during the early 1980s with reference to the “ultimate” American wilderness: Robert Marshall’s beloved Brooks Range in northern Alaska.[70] Nash showed some sensitivity to the actual noise generated by aircraft, recommending the imposition of minimum altitude levels and the adoption of quieter propellers. Yet sound, he observed, was an ephemeral problem. “The real trouble with planes,” he argued, “is that they are products, indeed symbols, of the highly sophisticated technological world that people seek wilderness areas in order to escape.” Planes cheapened the wilderness experience by making it too easy to get to wild places and by depriving the self-propelled visitor of the “thrill” of discovery. They were a “disturbing visual presence” as much as a dissonant aural presence.[71]

Figure 3. Noise Abatement Society Cartoon.

Richard Jolley cartoon, from
The din of automobile traffic traditionally has been one of the main sources of irritation for urban ears. The purpose of street protest is usually to make your presence heard as well as felt. Noise abatement campaigners—as this cartoon suggests—face the problem of how to make an effective protest in an appropriately quiet fashion.

With an ear more alert to noise per se, Mark Harvey has investigated controversies over hydroplanes and motorboats in northeast Minnesota’s boundary lakes region during the immediate postwar decades. (Olson, not surprisingly, was a leading advocate of air reservations over wilderness.)[72] Intensifying disputes about flights over the Grand Canyon and snowmobiles in Yellowstone are simply the best known of a growing number of confrontations that pit contemplative recreationists against the mechanically assisted pleasure seeker. J. B. Priestley, a British writer who visited the Grand Canyon in the 1930s, remarked that “there was in this immensity, although the weathers of four seasons and several climates seemed to chase one another down there, a silence so profound that soon all the noises from the life about us on the Rim were lost in it, as if our ears had been captured for ever, drowned in these deeps of quiet.” Its “blue immensities,” “enormous depths,” and “sense of timelessness” would be irretrievably compromised, warned Olson in the late 1950s, “with a helicopter roaring the length of it.”[73] By 1987, though, there were fifty thousand flights a year over the canyon. The National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 mandated “substantial restoration of the natural quiet” at the Grand Canyon and, on Earth Day in 1996, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order instructing the park service to work to restore the canyon’s natural quiet. But little has been achieved. In 1998, the annual number of over-flights had climbed to 132,000—a volume comparable to that of a major airport.[74] Another flashpoint has been the persistence of military flights in protected areas designated under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

Studying conflicts over noise in the wilder parts of the outdoors takes us into the territory of “wise use” environmentalism. Forget the right to silence. In 1990, future Interior Secretary Gale Norton argued for the “right to make noise” in an objection to environmental regulation based on the Takings Clause of the Constitution. As part of a case for the “reasonable right” to use private property, she speculated that “we might even go so far as to recognize a homesteading right to pollute or to make noise in an area.”[75] This highly provocative proposal—enthusiastically seconded by those Yellowstone snowmobilers who have no interest in a new generation of snow machines with quieter engines—was brought up during her confirmation hearings.

Removing an individual’s right to make noise arguably gives a far greater number of people the right to experience natural quiet. Leading the search for quiet is Gordon Hempton, who set up a lobby called One Square Inch of Silence in 1989. This hunter and gatherer of sound—the ultimate “Quiet American”—is searching for a place in each American national park that harbors “just the sounds of nature.”[76] In 2000, the National Park Service formally identified wild soundscapes as park assets worthy of protection and launched a program to raise public awareness of natural sounds. The University of Colorado at Boulder hosted a conference on noise and national parks, cleverly entitled “The Silence of the Lands,” in February 2003.[77] Like Dan McKenzie and the Quiet American, the park service defines natural quiet as the absence of man-made sounds. This conflation of man-made and technological sounds is common practice among today’s crusaders for natural quiet. The problem, of course, is that this reinforces the uncompromising divide between humans and the rest of nature.

Are there no human sounds compatible with natural quiet? What about the human voice? The human voice, a natural force, arguably becomes man-made when speaking into a mechanical device. In parks and wilderness areas, hearing and answering the call of the wild are increasingly joined by the experience of hearing someone answer or make a call in the wild. In 1997, one of the Sierra Club magazine’s “Last Words” discussion forums asked: “is it appropriate to carry radios and cell phones in the wilderness?” The controversy gathers momentum. “The last thing you want to hear as you’re rounding a bend out here is a cell phone ring or some guy talking to his broker or ordering pizza,” exclaimed a hiker heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the fall of 2004. The infrastructure that makes it possible to call a broker, satisfy your craving for fast food, or share your exaltation at nature’s glories with a loved one—or summon a helicopter if you break a leg—now looms above thirty national parks: One cell phone tower in Yellowstone pierces the sky to a height of a hundred feet within view of Old Faithful. Denunciations of this latest source of visual pollution, which builders increasingly disguise as giant trees in an effort to blend into the scenery (protestors call them Frankenpine), are growing louder.[78]

Figure 4. Snowmobiling in Yellowstone.

National Park Service, photo by Jim Peaco, 2000
A fleet of mechanically powered pleasure seekers roars into Yellowstone’s winter wonderland. The noise that they generate is one of the major reasons for intensifying controversies since the late 1980s over snowmobile access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. In Yellowstone, recreational snowmobiling on “groomed” park roads began in the late 1960s, encouraged by the National Park Service as a means for visitors to experience the park’s winter splendors. In Yellowstone, regulations currently permit snowmobile use on park roads that automobiles use in summer. Daily numbers are capped and users must be commercially guided on machines that meet park service mandated standards.

Are singing and music more appropriate than talking into a cell phone? Singing German wanderlieder or hiking songs of northern English derivation such as “The Manchester Rambler” (which celebrates the factory operative’s status as a freeman roaming the moors untrammelled on his day off) is surely acceptable to all but the sternest of wilderness purist. But what about a boom box belting out “The Sounds of the Suburbs” in a backcountry campground? And is Mozart any less jarring? [79]


A BEHAVIORAL PSYCHOLOGIST somewhere has doubtless conducted experiments to gauge the relative effects of punk rock and classical music on the stress levels of laboratory rats. Smilor referred in passing to the involvement of New York City’s humane organizations in the 1903-1916 Campaign for a Safe and Sane Fourth of July: The societies were concerned about the debilitating effects on household pets of traditional holiday firework extravaganzas. Otherwise, though, historical studies of soundscapes, whether urban, rural, or wild, have not extended to the impact of noise on non-human creatures. Like Thoreau, the first investigators of urban noise relied on animal sounds as a point of reference. In the late 1920s, New York City’s Noise Abatement Commission conducted tests at the Bronx Zoo. Readings from a new device (the audiometer) indicated that “a lion, whose roar is generally regarded as among the most terrific and awe-inspiring of sounds, could roar his loudest in a busy city street and not be heard for a distance of more than 20 or 30 feet.”[80] Though the lion’s roar was eclipsed by the growl of traffic, the investigators were not concerned with the humiliated lion’s pride (nor the soundness of his sleep).

Yet noise affects animals in four main ways: direct hearing loss; other physiological effects such as increased heart rate and respiratory difficulties; masking of important sound signals; and territorial displacement and interference with reproduction.[81] Humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska were visibly harangued by a growing barrage of cruise ships in the late 1970s, seeking out “quiet shadow zones” behind icebergs.[82] Eco-tourist activities aggravate the problem. Recent research at the University of Durham (UK) comparing the length of calls that orcas (killer whales) off the coast of Washington state made between 1977-1981 and 1989-1992 on the one hand and during 2001-2003 on the other reinforces these findings. Orcas are having to lengthen these calls (essential to the coordinated location of food) to make themselves heard above the commotion from the engines of a burgeoning number of whale-watching vessels and other tourist boats, which increased five-fold between 1990 and 2000.[83]

Schafer was particularly agitated by the emblematic northern North American sound of the snowmobile, citing studies from the early 1970s indicating hearing impairment among Native peoples in the Canadian Arctic.[84] In the meantime, the impact on health of the infernal machine’s screech has broadened to include native creatures, with exacerbated stress levels among Yellowstone National Park’s wolves and elk. The jaunty English sparrow still rules the roost in North American cities, but many Britons are worried about the mysterious disappearance from British cities of this hard-bitten urban essential with its trademark cheerful chirp. In downtown Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, ornithologists have detected a silent spring rather different than the one that Rachel Carson envisaged. A century after Hawthorne and Thoreau, Carson harked back to their preoccupation with the sweetly synchronized sounds of nature and the disjointed blare of industrial culture. Inspired by a line from John Keats’s poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”—”The sedge is wither’d from the lake, And no birds sing”—she hit on a winning title for her landmark book about the fallout from chemical pesticides. The preface to Silent Spring evokes an imaginary small town in a bucolic setting recently afflicted by a “strange stillness”: “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins … and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.”[85]

One explanation for Edinburgh’s silent spring is that the constant din of traffic interferes with the sparrow’s acquisition of communication skills, particularly mating calls. Environmental historians working on the effects of beastly noise on creatures great and small could advance our understanding of the evolutionary development of species under human impetus within historical time, a subject area whose importance Edmund Russell has flagged.[86] William Wordsworth’s poem, “On the Power of Sound,” features a lion whose roar—unlike that of the hapless denizen of the Bronx Zoo—remains peerless within the world of sounds: “That roar, the prowling lion’s Here I am, How fearful to the desert wide!”[87] The bellow of beasts (or chirp of birds) announces “Here I am.” One of environmental history’s major contributions, after all, has been the restoration of non-human entities to their rightful place within an expanded conception of human history and wider community of beings. So we should heed that roar (and whimper) more literally too.


WE STILL CAN hear the roar of a lion at the Bronx Zoo and the chirp of a streetwise sparrow (just as we still can have the aural experience of a horse and cart trundling over cobblestones if we visit a “living” museum). But some natural sounds are no longer available. Thanks to the artistic flair of John James Audubon, we have a pretty good idea of what a passenger pigeon looked like. We can only imagine, though, how a flock sounded as it tore through the sky. The technology for the electromagnetic recording of sound (the telegraphone) arrived too late (1898) to capture that particular one.

The telegraphone (effectively the first telephone message-recording machine) captured sound on a thin steel wire that rotated around cylinders. During the 1930s and 1940s, steel wire and tape were replaced by plastic tape coated with iron oxide (a refinement that brought superior sound quality and allowed for erasure and re-recording). Perhaps the first non-military use of the new magnetophone technology in the United States was the recording and playback of a Bing Crosby performance in 1947. Beyond the world of popular entertainment, Carson was in the vanguard of publicizing the capabilities of what was becoming known as the tape recorder. In October 1951, after her recently published book, The Sea Around Us, had shot to the top of the best-seller lists, she was the featured speaker at the New York Herald Tribune Book and Author Luncheon at the Astor Hotel. Carson embellished the talk she gave to an audience of fifteen hundred by playing tapes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s latest recordings of marine sounds by hydrophone (an underwater microphone invented during the First World War and deployed to detect submarines and icebergs). Carson’s biographer, having consulted some of those in the audience, reflects that “her remarks may not have seemed especially memorable, but her underwater recordings of shrimp clicking and snapping their claws made an impression.”[88]

Bernard Krause, one of a new breed of bio-acoustician, has elevated this art to wondrous heights. The compact disc that accompanies his book, Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World, contains examples of what he calls biophony (the sounds made by various living organisms in a particular habitat) and geophony (the sounds of inanimate entities such as volcanic eruptions, avalanches, and thunderstorms). One of the well-known biophonic “sound signatures” he records is the bugle of elks in Yellowstone; glaciers calving in Glacier Bay are a renowned example of geophony. But this CD also features quirkier sounds, such as ants singing, barnacles shifting around in their shells, and crabs falling out of trees. Krause demonstrates his conviction that we inhabit a much noisier world than the generation that grew up before the 1960s by referring to the increasingly difficult task he faces carrying out his work as a bio-acoustician. In 1968, when he began, he could gather one hour’s worth of natural sound suitable for a professional recording in fifteen hours. Now it takes him two thousand recording hours to get that one hour. As a result, he argues, we are “losing sensitivity to the voices of the natural world.”[89]

Krause insists that sound is more evocative than any other sense—even smell. Not everyone will agree—and that includes historians of sound. Indeed, we may well feel that any attempt to privilege one of the senses over the others is an unproductive exercise. Nonetheless, we can surely concur with Krause that our capacity to understand the natural world through its sounds and locate ourselves within the physical environment through sound is underdeveloped.[90] As such, recording the sounds of nature on tape and CD should be on a par with recording the look of nature on canvas and camera. To this end, Wild Sanctuary, an organization Krause founded to promote the cause of natural sound, maintains an archive.[91] We have studies galore of nineteenth-century landscape painters and their schools, and of celebrated nature photographers like Ansel Adams, as well as more recent work on wildlife and motion pictures.[92] But, as yet, no historical study of the preservers of nature’s sound archive has emerged.

No matter how full and resounding that particular archive becomes, however, environmental historians who listen to the past, especially before 1898, in common with other historians of sound, are likely to remain reliant on written sources. We all find ourselves in the ostensibly paradoxical position of listening for sound in non-aural sources. Yet does it really matter that we cannot faithfully recreate the sound of a flock of passenger pigeons? If the telegraphone had arrived earlier, or we could somehow simulate this sound, the enormous pleasure this would bring to an ornithologist is self-evident. But what have we gained as historians? Bruce Smith feels that reconstructing the sounds of the past helps us “re-educate” our senses to “recapture” the sensory past.[93] To become more fully immersed in the past in this way is thrilling and poignant and satisfies the craving for closer contact with the foreign country that is the past. But even if we could listen directly to aural worlds we have lost, unmediated by written accounts, how much better an understanding of relations between humans and the rest of the natural world would we achieve?

The availability of the roar of the lion, the chirp of the sparrow, and the tumultuous sound of a passenger pigeon flock is less germane than the availability of the context in which they were heard at different times and places by various people. It is possible that a wolf’s howl in Yellowstone today is materially identical to the howl of a wolf there when the first Euro-American explorer showed up or when the first human of any kind was around to hear it. But even if it is, we cannot recreate how that howl sounded to a range of human listeners. As Mark Smith cautions, we can replicate the production of sounds, but not their consumption.[94] We cannot literally borrow the ears of people in the past in our quest to become what Schafer called earwitnesses. This applies to wind and rain as well as bells and horses’ hooves. In his study of seventeenth-century America, Rath points out that “natural sounds stayed more or less constant over time: thunder now sounds much as it did then.”[95] This observation is valid only to a point. The sounds generated by the storm that Muir earwitnessed in the forests of the Sierra Nevada in 1874 would have been somewhat different in a nearby mining town. There, the wind would have made its presence heard through a creaking store sign that swayed to and fro. Rain would have sounded different too—noisier—when cascading off roofs that lacked guttering and drainpipes. Moreover, the reception of natural sounds, however constant their quality over time, is far from constant at any given time. Perched precariously at the top of his tree, Muir’s reaction to the tempest was filtered through his knowledge of the classics: He wanted to bathe his ears in the Aeolian music of the “topmost needles.”[96] (His fellow-Scot, McKenzie, was just as enraptured by the “ineffable” music of “that grand old harper,” the wind, in the woods, that not even the most skilled of orchestral strings could re-create in all its glory.[97]) Far from being soothed, a pioneer who had built a precarious cabin in a clearing would have heard only menace.

Figure 5. Nature Sound Recordings from Nature Magazine.

Nature Magazine 44 (June-July 1951)
Compact discs devoted to a variety of nature sounds are widely available today. This advertisement from the inside front cover of a 1951 issue of a popular bimonthly nature magazine published by the American Nature Association suggests the growth of an audience for nature sounds in the United States after 1945. The collection of bird songs advertised here was first released in 1942. But the Albert R. Brand Bird Song Foundation had issued the first bird song recordings for public sale in the mid-1930s.

As well as accepting the limitations of our earwitnessing, we should not underestimate the ability of gifted writers like Audubon and Muir to evoke past soundscapes. Audubon’s eyewitness account of the arrival of a massive flock of passenger pigeons in a Kentucky wood is so vivid you can almost hear the “continuous buzz” of their wings as they pass overhead “with a noise like thunder.” Approaching a roosting place, they reminded him of a “hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”[98] As for Muir, he seems to have escaped the tension between the visual and the aural that so many champions of sound posit as a given since the advent of the printing press. Olson often articulated visual and aural reactions in the same breath too.


THIS EXPLORATORY ESSAY has tried to recover some of the original, ecological meaning of the term soundscape by attending to the sounds of non-human nature. Environmental historians have the opportunity to make a contribution to the wider enterprise of aural history that, while acknowledging a substantial debt to social history and recognizing our affinity with social historians, has its own tone and taste. There was a time when many other historians regarded us as interlopers from biology, botany, and geography. Now, as we increasingly tackle subjects long associated with social historians (cities, human living conditions, non-whites, non-elites, and women) and wield the analytical tools of the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, our fellow historians may be under the impression that if you scratch our surfaces, there are social historians underneath and that our much vaunted field is essentially a subfield of an all-encompassing social history. Meanwhile, terms like nature have arguably become denatured through emphasis on their socio-cultural construction.

Mark Smith contends that the attempt to retrieve the sounds of the past is a project “best served by examining historical soundscapes’ cultural, economic, and political meanings, complexities, and interrelatedness—what Hobsbawm has called a genuine social history.”[99] The virtues that Smith claims for social history—working on topics that cut across traditional disciplinary lines and adopting perspectives “from the bottom up”—also are possessed by environmental history.[100] In fact, the environmental historian might claim to be more virtuous in these respects. Environmental history is even more ambitious in interdisciplinary terms by being receptive to insights, approaches, and data from the natural sciences. And it goes one better than social history in two respects. First, with regard to inclusiveness by giving voice to the silent (or silenced) constituencies of non-human creatures and other biota. A bottom up perspective, argues Smith, promotes sensitivity toward the “lower” senses of smell, sound, taste, and touch. Environmental history, in turn, rehabilitates the “lower” elements, the non-human biota—large and small, animate and inanimate—that occupy humbler positions in the hierarchy of life forms whose apex we humans occupy (the ultimate form of history from below, surely, is the history of the earth and its denizens). Second, environmental history outstrips social history by stretching the notion of the human experience to embrace our dealings with the rest of nature (thereby unearthing an enormous additional range of protagonists). Telling how the past sounded and was heard will be even better served by tossing the lions and the sparrows into the mix and by probing environmental meanings, complexities, and interrelatedness as well as political, economic, social, and cultural ones. This promises to yield a vociferous history (and not only of sound) that is more genuine and total than social history can manage, however far-reaching and tuned in.

Peter A. Coates is a reader in American and environmental history in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol, UK. His books include Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and Southern Africa, co-authored with William Beinart, (Routledge, 1995), and Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times, recently issued in paperback (California, 2005). His next book, Salmon, will appear in Reaktion Books’ “Animal” series. Current interests—in addition to aural history—include non-native species.


I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their valuable suggestions for improvement, Adam Rome for his additional insights, and Eve Munson for her skillful editing. I’m also grateful to the British Academy for an Overseas Conference Grant to attend the joint annual conference of the American Society for Environmental History and the National Council on Public History (Victoria, B.C., Canada, March-April 2004), where I gave a paper in which some of the issues addressed in this essay were first aired.
1. Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination (Leamington Spa, England: Berg, 1986), v.

2. On the near-ubiquity of visual metaphors in western thought and language, see Bernard J. Hibbitts, “Making Sense of Metaphors: Visuality, Aurality, and the Reconfiguration of American Legal Discourse,” Cardozo Law Review 16 (1994), on-line at

3. Mark M. Smith, “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America,” Journal of the Historical Society 1 (Spring 2000): 65-99; Mark M. Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Mark M. Smith, “Making Sense of Social History,” Journal of Social History 37 (Fall 2003): 165-86; Mark M. Smith, ed., Hearing History: A Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004); and Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003). See also Michael Bull and Les Back, eds., The Auditory Culture Reader (Oxford: Berg, 2003), Part 2 (“Histories of Sound”).

4. Mark M. Smith, “Introduction: Onward to Audible Pasts,” in Hearing History, ix.

5. Raymond W. Smilor, “American Noise, 1900-1930,” in Hearing History, ed. Smith, chapter 20, is an abridged version of “Cacophony at Thirty-fourth and Sixth: The Noise Problem in America, 1900-1930,” American Studies 18 (1977): 23-38. Hearing History, published after I submitted the original version of this essay, includes abridged versions of some of the articles and book extracts that I discuss here, notably works by R. Murray Schafer (1994), Peter Bailey (1996), Alain Corbin (1998), Bruce Smith (1999), Mark Smith (2000; 2001), Emily Thompson (2002), and Richard Cullen Rath (2003).

6. Shepard Krech, III, J. R. McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant, eds., Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, 3 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2004); Smith, “Heard Worlds of Antebellum America,” in Hearing History, ed. Smith, 137, 160.

7. For “sonic environment,” see Barry Truax, ed., Handbook for Acoustic Ecology (Vancouver, B.C.: A.R.C. Publications, 1978), 126. The phrase “knowing nature through sound” follows in the footsteps of “knowing nature through labor” and “knowing nature through leisure.” For these two phrases, see the relevant chapter titles in, respectively, Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); and Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

8. Mitchell Snay, “Cultural History and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Mark M. Smith, Mitchell Snay and Bruce R. Smith, “Coda: Talking Sound History,” in Hearing History, ed. Smith, 388.

9. Lucien Febvre, “Smells, Tastes, and Sounds,” in The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, trans. Beatrice Gottlieb (1942; reprint, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

10. Lucien Febvre, A Geographical Introduction to History (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1925). This book remains in print, the most recent edition appearing in 2003.

11. Guy Thuillier, Pour une Histoire due Quotidien au XIX Siècle en Nivernais (Paris: Mouton, 1977), 230-44.

12. Alain Corbin, “A History and Anthropology of the Senses,” in Time, Desire and Horror: Towards a History of the Senses, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1995), 183.

13. Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside, trans. Martin Thom (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

14. Bells instructed plantation slaves when to get up and announced night-time curfews for their urban counterparts; yet in abolitionist hands, the tolling bells served as a metaphor for freedom. See Mark Smith, “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America,” 73; Mark Smith, Listening, 35-37, 86-87, 177-78.

15. Rath, How Early America Sounded, 11.

16. Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 43, 76-77, 73, 82, 37.

17. “Soundscape” made its first formal appearance in R. Murray Schafer, The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher (Don Mills, Ont.: BMI Canada, 1969). Schafer also published The Book of Noise (Vancouver, B.C.: Price Print, c. 1970); and The Tuning of the World (New York; Knopf, 1977). The latter was republished as Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1994).

18. The World Soundscape Project left an archive of three hundred tapes of sound environments across Canada and Europe, and produced publications such as the Vancouver Soundscape (1974), European Sound Diary (1977), and Handbook for Acoustic Ecology (1978), as well as two compact disc recordings of Vancouver’s soundscape in 1973 and 1996. Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp continued R. Murray Schafer’s work in Simon Fraser University’s Department of Communication after he left in 1975. See Truax, “Soundscape Studies: An Introduction to the World Soundscape Project,” Numus West 5 (1974): 36-39.

19. Smith, “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America,” 92; Smith, Listening, 93, 267.

20. Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1930 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 1-2. For “auditory landscape,” see Corbin, Village Bells, 292.

21. See, for example, Smith, Listening, 130-31. Peter Charles Hoffer’s coverage of the sensory aspects of environmental transformation (“sensory imperialism”) dwell on sight: Hoffer, Sensory Worlds in Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Noise receives just six index entries, three in connection with the Great Awakening and witchcraft trials. Sound fares somewhat better with fifteen entries—though most are connected to preaching and worship.

22. Schafer, Soundscape, 3, 71, 77.

23. Traffic was by far the leading cause of complaint in London. In Johannesburg, however, animal and bird noises were streets ahead of any other sound. Air-conditioning units topped the table in Chicago, while in Vancouver, British Columbia, though trucks and motorcycles headed the list, chainsaws and lawnmowers occupied fifth and sixth places respectively. Ibid., 187-88.

24. Peter Bailey, “Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Historian Listens to Noise,” Body & Society 2 (1996): 63; and Garret Keizer, “Sound and Fury: The Politics of Noise in a Loud Society,” Harpers’s Magazine (March 2001): 39-48.

25. Jennifer Steinhauer, “Bloomberg Seeks to Toughen Code for Noise in City,” New York Times, 8 June 2004.

26. Joel A. Tarr, “The Horse–Polluter of the City,” in The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1996), 323-26.

27. “The Horseless Carriage and Public Health,” Scientific American 80 (18 February 1899), 98. One of the most disturbed nights I ever spent was in Venice. The nearest motorized vehicle was far away, but sporadic outdoor conversation in the alley below my bedroom window (not to mention the clicking and clacking of heels on flagstones) effectively murdered sleep.

28. Immigrant Italian organ grinders on the streets of Victorian London were more likely to be targeted by middle-class noise abatement campaigners than noise producing entities in which their interests were at stake, such as factories and delivery carts. Noise was part of the manufacture of “otherness.”

29. See Hillel Schwartz, “Beyond Tone and Decibel: The History of Noise,” Chronicle of Higher Education (9 January 1998): B-8.

30. Corbin, Foul and Fragrant, 57, 59.

31. Corbin, Village Bells, 304-5.

32. Rath, How Early America Sounded, ix.

33. Raymond Smilor, “Confronting the Industrial Environment: The Noise Problem in America, 1893-1932,” (PhD diss., University of Texas, Austin, 1978).

34. Raymond Smilor, “Cacophony at 34th and 6th,” 23-28; Raymond Smilor, “Personal Boundaries in the Urban Environment: The Legal Attack on Noise: 1865-1930,” Environmental Review 3 (1979): 24-36. Smilor also contributed to a pioneering collection of essays on urban environmental history edited by Martin V. Melosi: Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980). Without reference to Smilor’s work, Jon Agar, a British historian, has conducted comparable research on noise abatement campaigns in Britain between the 1860s and 1930s. Agar reflects on the connections between anti-noise initiatives and anti-urbanism as well as industrialized warfare’s role as an impetus for reform, indicating that letters to home from the front commented on the traumatizing aural environment of the trenches as well as lice, mud, and rats. See Agar, “Bodies, Machines and Noise,” in Bodies/Machines, ed. Iwan Rhys Morus (Oxford, England: Berg, 2002), 197-220. See also Karin Bijsterveld, “The Diabolical Symphony of the Mechanical Age: Technology and Symbolism of Sound in European and North American Noise Abatement Campaigns, 1900-40,” in Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Bull and Back, 191-222. For a longer version, see Social Studies of Science, 31 (2001): 37-70.

35. Mrs. Isaac L. Rice, “Our Most Abused Sense—The Sense of Hearing,” Forum 38 (April 1907): 560. Emily Thompson argues that the most effective solutions to public noise problems were private ones—the design and application of improved construction materials: Soundscape of Modernity, 168. The accent was firmly on the eradication of unnecessary noise.

36. The only additional study that I am aware of is a master’s thesis by Warren Bareiss: “Noise Abatement in Philadelphia, 1907-1966: The Production of a Soundscape,” (University of Pennsylvania, 1990). For a study of the German counterpart to New York’s Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise (Deutscher Lärmschutzband), founded in 1908 by the author, Theodor Lessing, see Lawrence Baron, “Noise and Degeneration: Theodor Lessing’s Crusade for Quiet,” Journal of Contemporary History 17 (January 1982): 165-78.

37. Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity, 122-23. Soundscape of Modernity is mainly about the evolution of architectural acoustics. It investigates changing interior design, especially that of concert halls, coverage culminating with the 1932 opening of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall—a showcase of the latest advances in electro-acoustic science. Thompson writes about sound meters, reverberation equations, microphones, echo chambers, and sound-absorbing acoustical tiles and about places such as Boston Symphony Hall and the lecture hall at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. Her perspective, in short, is very indoors (like the tennis courts owned by John Jacob Astor that acoustics expert Wallace Sabine cleared of a loud echo).

38. For a detailed examination of the emergence in the United States of the notion of pollution as now understood—if without reference to noise—see Adam W. Rome, “Coming to Terms with Pollution: The Language of Environmental Reform, 1865-1915,” Environmental History 1 (July 1996): 6-28. One of the cases that Christine Rosen examines in her study of the tensions in the mid-nineteenth-century United States between traditional conceptions of nuisance and an inherited body of nuisance case law on the one hand and new forms of industrial pollution on the other is a complaint against the noise generated by steam locomotives and railroad machinery. In Bell v. Ohio & Pa. RR Co. (1859), the presiding judge stressed the acute subjectivity of characterizations of noise and conflated the lowing of cattle and pealing of church bells with more recent industrial sounds. His attitude demonstrates how hard it was for the suffering public to get noise taken seriously as a genuine source of grievance. See Christine Meisner Rosen, “‘Knowing’ Industrial Pollution: Nuisance Law and the Power of Tradition in a Time of Rapid Economic Change, 1840-1864,” Environmental History 8 (October 2003): 565-97.

39. Michel Bayan, Noise Pollution: The Silent Problem (PBS Educational Communications Film, 1995).

40. Smith, “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America,” 67.

41. Smith, Listening, 30-31, 105-8.

42. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 11-16.

43. As quoted in ibid., 13.

44. Corbin, Village Bells, 304-5.

45. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” (1854; reprint, New York: New American Library, 1980), 81-90. On Thoreau’s naturalization of mechanical sound and mechanization of natural sound, see also Smith, Listening, 127.

46. Smilor, “Confronting the Industrial Environment,” 146-47.

47. John Muir, Our National Parks (1901) in The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books (London: Diadem Books, 1992), 459. All subsequent citations from Muir’s book are from this compendium.

48. Muir’s temporary bout of blindness following an accident with a file in an Indianapolis wagon wheel works (March 1867) is generally reckoned to have been the seminal turning point in his life, fully opening his eyes to wild nature’s glories and providing the immediate spur for his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico. How far this terrifying experience (he spent four weeks in bed in a darkened room before his sight returned) also heightened his appreciation of nature through the act of listening bears further investigation. I would like to thank the member of the audience who attended the session at the American Society for Environmental History’s annual conference (2004) in Victoria, B.C., at which a preliminary version of this essay was delivered as a paper, for raising this matter.

49. Muir, Our National Parks, 497, 499, 544.

50. John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), in Eight Wilderness Discovery Books, 247-48.

51. John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894), in Eight Wilderness Discovery Books, 399-400.

52. Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1846; reprint, Boston: Ginn, 1892), xxxii, xxxv.

53. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 129.

54. Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903; reprint, New York: Lancer Books, 1967), 141.

55. Karen R. Jones, Wolf Mountains: A History of Wolves Along the Great Divide (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2002), 19-20, 143, 137, 52.

56. Sigurd F. Olson, The Singing Wilderness (1956; reprint, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972), 147.

57. See Jim McCarthy, “The Power of Place and the Importance of Natural Quiet at Grand Canyon National Park,” Boatman’s Quarterly Review 14 (Spring 2001), on-line at . “Natural quiet” entered the lexicon of sound and noise in the 1960s. Section 8 of the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act of 1975 contains an early official reference. For details, see Helen Fairley, “The Sound of Silence: Historical Perspectives on Natural Quiet at Grand Canyon,” Boatman’s Quarterly Review 14 (Winter 2001-02), on-line at .

58. Dan McKenzie, The City of Din: A Tirade against Noise (London: Adlard and Son, 1916), 1, 4-15. In a foray into evolutionary history, McKenzie speculated as to whether barking was an “artificial” sound, indicative of the corrupting influence of domestication. Did dogs make noise in a state of nature? (11).

59. Thompson, Soundscape of Modernity, 126; McKenzie, City of Din, 12-13. The job of the Baltimore policeman, the nation’s first of this type, was to enforce quiet zones around hospitals.

60. Katzenmusik, a delightfully expressive German term—literally cat’s music—denotes one of the best-known forms of the concocted animal noises that were a popular manifestation of rough music’s improvised sounds.

61. The mistress admonishes the apprentices not to upset her prize pet, a haughty creature that disdains the scraps fed to the wretched employees. But the first they seek out and kill, of course, is her favorite. See Robert Darnton, “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin,” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage, 1985), 75-104. The quotations are from an account by one of the apprentices that forms an appendix to Darnton’s essay (102-4).

62. Thomas Gentry, The House Sparrow at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, and Haffelfinger, 1878), 27; “The Sparrows Again,” Forest and Stream 7 (July 1877): 380.

63. Olive Thorne Miller, “A Ruffian in Feathers,” Atlantic Monthly 55 (April 1885): 490.

64. As quoted in Sutter, Driven Wild, 181, 192, 205, 241-42.

65. Sutter, Driven Wild.

66. For “industrial tourism,” see Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New York: Ballantine, 1968), 45.

67. Sigurd F. Olson, Listening Point (1958; reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 7-8; The Singing Wilderness includes chapters entitled “Silence,” “Wild Geese” and “Wilderness Music.”

68. Olson, Singing Wilderness, 130-32.

69. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, supersonic aircraft and airport expansion provoked a loud debate in the United States and Britain. See Melvin Horwich, Clipped Wings: The American SST Conflict (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982).

70. Roderick Nash, “Ideal & Reality in ‘Ultimate’ Wilderness: Aviation and Gates of the Arctic National Park,” Orion (Spring 1983): 5-13.

71. Ibid., 8-11.

72. Mark Harvey, “Sound Politics: Wilderness, Recreation, and Motors in the Boundary Waters, 1945-1964,” Minnesota History 58 (Fall 2002): 130-45. An air-space reserve (banning flights under four thousand feet) was fully implemented in 1952 and legally confirmed in 1956.

73. J. B. Priestley, Midnight on the Desert: A Chapter of Autobiography (London: William Heinemann, 1937), 286; Olson, Singing Wilderness, 132.

74. For these figures, see McCarthy, “Power of Place.”

75. Gale A. Norton, “Takings Analysis of Regulations,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 1 (1990): 88-89. Norton was at the time a senior research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, an arch-conservative think tank.

76. Hempton started in Olympic National Park (in his view probably the quietest). See Jane Braxton Little, “Desperately Seeking Silence,” Audubon 102 (Jan/Feb 2000): 70-73.

77. This conference was sponsored by the National Park Service and the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West and Natural Resources Law Center. For an earlier use of this phrase, in an article about the development of quieter snowmobile, helicopter and airplane engine technology for use in wildlands, see Bruce Barcott and Jason Paur, “Silence of the Lands,” Outside Magazine, October 2001, on-line at .

78. “Last Words,” Sierra 82 (May/June 1997): 88; Mark Clayton, “Call of the Wild: Is It Cellular?,” Christian Science Monitor, 30 September 2004. See also Claudia Rowe, “Ah, Wilderness! Ah, the Sound of Cell-Phones Gossip! Ah, Nuts!,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 20 April 2004; Reed McManus, “The Ring-Tone of the Wild,” Sierra 90 (January-February 2005): 12; Eleanor Randolph, “The Cell Tower Blight: Text-Message Calder, ASAP,” New York Times, 26 February 2005.

79. Almost thirty years ago, Roderick Nash pondered the question of the compatibility between music and wilderness in an article about a group of professional musicians who played a series of classical concerts with a full range of instruments during a two-week float trip through the Grand Canyon–a place full of fantastic natural amphitheaters and acoustics. Instruments and musicians were roped and hauled up cliffs and floated across pools on air mattresses. See Nash, “Mozart on the Rocks: A Grand Canyon Experiment in the Relationship Between Wilderness and Civilization,” Western Wildlands (Fall 1977): 39-44.

80. As quoted in Niles Carpenter, The Sociology of City Life (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1932), 207.

81. U.S. authorities investigated the effect of aircraft sound on milk production levels in the late 1950s. Concern for livestock—as well as horses and pheasants—had been a major element in early nineteenth-century British apprehension regarding the coming of the railroad.

82. Bernard Krause, Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World (Berkeley, Calif.: Wilderness Press, 2002), 31.

83. Paul Rincon, “Orcas Boost Call Amid Boat Noise,” 28 April 2004, on-line at

84. Schafer, Soundscape, 84-85.

85. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

86. Edmund Russell, “Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field,” Environmental History 8 (April 2003): 204-28.

87. William Wordsworth: The Poems, Vol. 2, ed. John O. Hayden (London: Penguin, 1977), 665.

88. Obituary, New York Times, 15 April 1964; Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (London: Allen Lane, 1998), 214-15.

89. Krause, Wild Soundscapes, 3.

90. According to David Garrioch, sound “formed part of people’s way of navigating in time, space and in the social world of the city.” “This is easiest to imagine,” he explains, “if we think of the way blind people navigate the streets: work noises marked particular shops, the clinking of beer mugs a tavern, the traffic noise a major intersection”: Garrioch, “Sounds of the City: The Soundscape of Early Modern European Towns,” Urban History 30 (2003): 6-7, 14, 20. These propositions could be usefully tested in a rural context and with reference to wild places.

91. Another impressive natural sound archive is the California Library of Natural Sounds in the Natural Sciences Department at the Oakland Museum, which also hosts the web site “Listening to Nature: A Sound Walk across California.” On-line at

92. Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Films (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

93. The big question, for Smith, is how a Shakespearean play would have sounded when performed in the wooden Globe Theatre in 1599, a time when people spoke of going to hear rather than to see a play: Sensory Worlds, 8, 17.

94. Smith, “Making Sense of Social History,” 179. For lively discussion of these methodological matters, see Smith, Snay and Smith, “Coda,” 365-404. These exchanges originally appeared in the Journal of the Historical Society (Summer/Fall 2002).

95. Rath, How Early America Sounded, 42.

96. Muir, Mountains of California, 399.

97. Ibid.; McKenzie, City of Din, 20.

98. John James Audubon, from Ornithological Biography (1831-38), in Sunshine and Smoke: American Writers and the American Environment, ed. David D. Anderson (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1971), 169, 171.

99. Smith, “Heard Worlds,” in Hearing History, 160. Also see Smith, “Making Sense of Social History,” 165-86.

100. Smith, “Making Sense of Social History,” 177.