by Erik Ness
(Wisconsin Trails, May|June 2004)
Early morning on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage is a peaceful spectacle. As the cool light of late spring fills the basin of our new day, my son and I sit in silence, watching for loons and turtles offshore. A breeze rustles the leaves of the big oak above us, a kingfisher calls, a grasshopper trills. Yesterday we saw otters and heard an eagle call. A solo loon preened and dove endlessly at a distance of only 50 feet. It is our own little sea of tranquillity, and reminds me of many mornings in the vastness of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its cross-border kin, Quetico Provincial Park.
Then we hear the drone: a motorboat, flying at top speed from points south. As it rounds the corner of our island and comes into full view, the rough noise shatters the morning calm. We may as well have started up a lawn mower.
Lukas, not yet 3, points and waves, but I’m not feeling so friendly. We are in the northeastern corner of the flowage, an area delineated on the map by a thick red line supposedly set aside for those interested in a quieter experience. The fishing boat is not breaking any law, because the official designation for this gorgeous backwater is “voluntary quiet area.” But the voluntary spirit appears comatose on the Turtle. Throughout the course of this week in June, we never leave the confines of this area, and hear dozens of motorboats come and go. Only one respects the quiet zone.
My friend Woody emerges from his campsite across the island. An early riser, he reports that the boats have been running since well before dawn. Fishermen, after all, like the morning calm.
There is an impolitic irony here: In their motorized pursuit of peace and quiet, they disrupt it for the rest of us. When they reach the area they want to fish, they’ll cut the outboard and switch to the silent electric trolling motor. But getting there, they are content to shatter the stillness.
There is virtually no corner of the state where one can escape noise. Surely there are quiet pockets, acoustic hermitages where accidents of landscape set up shelter from the human storm. But for all the rolling miles of forest and water and fen, there is no tract of silence where one can traverse the landscape and reasonably expect to hear nature’s subtle and divine chorus.
Noise is, increasingly, at the center of our lives. Census data tells us that Americans rank noise as their principal complaint, over traffic, crime, and other ills for neighborhoods. Noise is also, increasingly, an issue in the wild. Controversies in northern Wisconsin over ATV use center in part on the racket, while noise concerns bedevil natural institutions ranging from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, from the Everglades to the Appalachian Trail.
Of course, the commotion is all relative. Technically speaking, noise is a very modern concept. In an essay on how the once-sacred tolling of church bells grew to be perceived as noise, cultural historian Hillel Schwartz notes that between 1860 and 1930 there was “a change in the very notion of noise. Where before noise had been defined vaguely as the failure of certain tones to cohabit peacefully, and where before noise had been felt as something intermittent, soon it would be defined psychologically as unwanted sound and it would be felt as something constant.”
The consequences of this unwanted sound do not appear to be relative. A wide range of research shows that noise raises human blood pressure and changes our blood chemistry by releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones. Scientists hypothesize that because we evolved amid nature’s relative quiet, noise is a biological signpost for danger. And though we grow accustomed, even acclimated, to noise, our bodies do not; noise still elevates blood pressure and triggers a stress response. Even noise we don’t consciously hear—noise that happens around us as we sleep—affects us. It happens to wild things, too: A study in Yellowstone and Voyageurs parks found that changes in snowmobile traffic corresponded with increases in stress enzyme levels in elk and wolves.
Nature, of course, is not shrouded in silence. Animals use their ears to avoid predators, obtain food, and communicate. We are captivated by the calls of individual animals—the howl of the wolf, the cry of the loon, the warble and trill of songbirds. An animal chorus has an even more mystical allure. There’s even a name for it: biophony.
Bernie Krause has been traveling the globe, recording natural soundscapes, since 1968. “In undisturbed natural environments, creatures vocalize in relationship to one another very much like instruments in an orchestra,” he reports. “On land, in particular, this delicate acoustic fabric is almost as well-defined as the notes on a page of music. . . . For instance, in healthy habitats, certain insects occupy one sonic zone of the creature bandwidth, while birds, mammals, and amphibians occupy others.”
With luck, you’ve experienced biophony. It’s the original surround sound, like being wrapped in music. In fact, this blanket of song serves as auditory camouflage. “Many types of frogs and insects vocalize together in a given habitat so that no one individual stands out among the many,” Krause writes. The effect inhibits predators from locating any single performer. Loud noises, alien noises, break the biophony. When individuals attempt to reestablish the unified song, they momentarily stand out to predators.
Krause documented this while recording rare spadefoot toads in California. A military jet made a close pass, breaking the symphony. It took 45 minutes to re-establish the protective chorus, during which time two coyotes and a great horned owl were seen actively feeding pondside.
Such disruptions are increasingly common in the natural world. When Krause began recording, he captured one hour of usable sound for every 15 hours spent recording in the field. “Now it takes nearly 2000 hours to record 1 hour:’ he writes. In 1998, another recorder, Gordon Hempton, toured 5 states west of the Mississippi. He found only two areas—the Colorado mountains and the Minnesota Boundary Waters—where he could record free of interruption from motors, planes, guns, and other human noise for more than ]5 minutes during daylight. Even in the vastness of the Dakotas or Montana, interruptions occurred every 90 seconds or so.
“This biophony, or creature choir, serves as a vital gauge of a habitat’s health,” writes Krause. “Yet, this miraculous biophony—this concerto of the natural world—is now under serious threat of complete annihilation. Not only are we moving toward a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well.”
I should be clear: I do not hate motorboats. I enjoy water-skiing, and the signature odor of exhaust from a marine motor always triggers a pleasant array of childhood memories.
But after the disappointing din of the Turtle, I began to look around. The first thing I learned, from a pamphlet compiled by the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse: “No state boat noise regulation is as stringent as the federal truck noise standard. Remarkably, our lakes would be quieter if we could magically replace the powerboats with diesel trucks that float. Many boats are so noisy that the captain would be required to wear earplugs or earmuffs if he or she was on a factory floor.”
The silent sports do not get their fair share of landscape or respect in Wisconsin. There are likely hundreds of thousands of paddlers in the state, and many more skiers and bikers. Wildlife watching is probably more popular than any other single tourist activity, and everybody knows that noise scares away animals. Even hunters are becoming upset by the increasing background roar of mechanized hunting: What was once a sport noted for silence is now almost constantly accompanied by grinding gears.
Two things need to happen. First, we need more stringent noise standards governing the many kinds of mechanized transportation used for recreation. Soundscapes are yet another of our precious commons, and no one group should be able to have its fun at the expense of everybody else.
Second, we need to begin creating silent spaces within our landscape. This can be done through use regulation—for example, one weekend a month when motorboats are not permitted. And we shouldn’t rule out using a combination of government and private funding to create a larger preserve somewhere in the state where silence is a virtue.
Wisconsin has spent the last 50 years cashing in on its reputation as a wilderness escape. It’s time to stitch some last bastion of wild silence from the ragged patchwork that remains. The task is daunting, but it will not get any easier. Michigan has Sylvania and yet wild stretches of the Upper Peninsula. Minnesota has its Boundary Waters. We need to hear a wild heart beating in our own north.
On a warm day last fall, our family and another set out for the Wisconsin River near Spring Green. Upstream and downstream, the sound of truck traffic and Harley herds are common background noises, but here the road curves away from the river. When we reached the Arena put-in, we discovered the water was so low that the motorboat landing was effectively closed.
We saw plenty of people that day. They were all in canoes and kayaks, and they drifted by on the far side of the river like silent ghosts. And for five hours we saw not a single motorboat. More important, we didn’t hear one. The silence turned a beautiful day into an extraordinary one. The spell was finally broken by a low-flying plane close to Peck’s Landing, but by then we had been so swallowed by sand, sun, and water that it felt almost like we were on a remote Alaskan river, awaiting our floatplane pickup.
The day was a wonderful accident, a confluence of low water, a big game for the Packers, the lateness of the season, and the start of the turkey hunt. There’ll not be many more like them unless we make plans now.
Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness