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Spring Soundscapes

Along with photo albums and boxes of memorabilia, my personal archives contain some priceless recordings of sound. A 16mm audio film shows my grandmother narrating a walk among family gravestones in Big Grove cemetery. The constant prairie wind of western Minnesota blows over her smoky voice, rendered breathless by decades of puffing Pall Malls. An audiocassette tape holds my daughter's first laughter, captured as she was lying in her crib and looking up at her father. He sneezes and she giggles. Rounds of sneezing and hilarity ensue. And I have an audiotape of night noises I heard on a naturalist-led hike in the Monte verde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica. The calls, croaks, and chirps of invisible amphibians, insects, birds, and other creatures resound like so many heartbeats in the moonless night.

Sounds -- in memory or in the moment -- make the world come alive. Seasons, time of day, people, and wild creatures can be recognized by their characteristic sounds. So too can places, which serve as stages for certain sound makers. Therefore, protecting lands and waters can become a way of preserving a soundscape.

The motorless Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness epitomizes the ideal of preserving wild sounds. Advocate Sigurd Olson wrote: "Far more important than the places I have seen or what I have done or thought about is the possibility of hearing the singing wilderness and catching, perhaps, its real meaning."

If you were to visit the proposed new state park at Lake Vermilion (see story on page 8), what would you hear? This 3,000-acre soundscape reverberates with listening possibilities for Minnesota visitors. Not far from Sigurd Olson's celebrated "singing wilderness," this mix of north woods and waters promises bioacoustical space for howling wolves, grunting porcupines, gnawing beavers, yodeling loons, and countless other critters. And it promises plenty of room for the sounds of people -- paddling or motoring on the 40,000-acre lake, skipping rocks along shore, treading paths in the pines, telling stories by a campfire.

As you read this March-April issue, keep an ear tuned to the natural, cultural, and historical sounds suggested by the stories.

Also near Lake Vermilion, Soudan Underground Mine State Park holds the echoes of human labor and industrial history. Reading "Drop Into History," imagine not only the depth and the darkness of the mine but also its interior acoustics. The ring of hammers hitting iron ore. The clang of coupling ore carts. The grind of loaded ore carts on iron rails. The voices of miners eating lunch in a tunnel at a long wooden table.

In "King of the Forest," essayist Birney Dibble sets the stage for a ruffed grouse's repeat performances of his courtship drumming. A "gust of wind swooshes," "a small branch cracks like a pistol shot," and "a deep boom resounds through the brush." Hunters and birders know where to listen. If you want to hear the whirrrrrrrr, you can listen at trackseventeen.com.

Near the same beaver pond where he recorded the drumming grouse, freelance audio engineer Curt Olson also captured the buzzing of an American woodcock. More difficult to spot than most shorebirds (see story on page 26), the woodcock often requires birding by ear. In spring the courting male takes flight at dusk, twittering on his way up and whistling as he plummets to the ground.

Spring, perhaps more than any other season, awakens the aural sense. What sounds mean spring to you? What's the sound you would most like to hear that you've never heard? If you could bring back a sound from childhood, what would it be? When I asked my husband these questions, he said the backyard cardinal announces spring. He'd like to listen in a jungle at night and to once again hear crickets chirping at night in the Catskill Mountains.

Some spring evening, step out on your porch and listen. If you can, escape to a wild place and hear a priceless soundscape.

Kathleen Weflen, editor
kathleen.weflen@state.mn.us

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