How to Find Silence in a Noisy World

“Take a walk at night,” wrote avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros in her 1974 “Sonic Meditations,” a set of instructions for what she called deep listening. “Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.” Listening to silence opens up rich new worlds of sound. It can be a life-changing experience.

"It's hard to imagine that a sound can transform someone's life, but it happened to me,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in the short 360-degree documentary above, “How to Find Silence in a Noisy World.” Hempton learned to walk silently while carrying a microphone, documenting his listening journey through remote places like the Hoh Rainforest in Washington state, considered one of the quietest places in North America.




“By holding a microphone, I became a better listener. I learned that the microphone doesn’t listen for what’s important, it doesn’t judge, it doesn’t interfere.” The microphone, that is, has no ego. Recorded and amplified, the silence of the Hoh becomes cacophony, or a symphony, depending on how we describe it. Maybe any description gets in the way of listening. “Just listen,” says Hempton. “Silence is the poetics of space. What it means to be in a place… Silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything

If silence is full of sound, why might we crave it when we're stressed? Because we are bombarded by noise pollution, “sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” These sounds have been encroaching on places like the Hoh Rainforest for many decades, and Hempton has documented their incursion over the past 30 years, building a collection of over 100 recordings “equipped with a 3-D microphone system that replicates human hearing,” notes Brain Pickings.

“Emanating from his collection… is the idea that ‘there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat’—a tonal quality that shapes the sense of place and quality of presence.” Hempton’s work complements the nature recordings of Bernie Krause, former musician turned renowned expert on natural sound, whose theory of biophony describes how natural sounds work together to fill in the spectrum, each one establishing its own specific bandwidth so as not to drown out the others.

Natural sounds create a kind of self-regulating harmony. In order to fully inhabit the space we’re in, we must be able to hear them. But as the recordings made by Hempton and Krause show us, humans have a unique ability to feel ourselves deeply immersed in other places, too, by listening to recordings of their silences. Hempton implies that recordings may soon be all we have left.

“Silence,” he says, “is on the verge of extinction. There is not one place left on planet Earth that is set aside and off limits to noise pollution.” It interferes with the cycles of mating animals, disrupts call and response patterns ecosystems use to coordinate themselves. Silence is part of a global biofeedback system, telling us to quiet down, slow down, and become part of all that's happening around us. We ignore it to our great detriment.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Interactive Map That Catalogues the 700,000 Trees Shading the Streets of New York City

It may sound odd, but one of the things I miss most about living in New York City is the ability to hop on a bus or train, or walk a few blocks from home, and end up lounging in a forest, the cacophony of traffic reduced to a dim hum, squirrels bounding around, birds twittering away above. Such urban respites are plentiful in NYC thanks to its 10,542 acres of forested land, “about half as much as the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina,” notes James Barron at The New York Times, in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country.

“Most of the city’s forest is deep in parks”—in Central Park, of course, and also Prospect Park and Riverside, and dozens of smaller oases, and the lush Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. The city’s forests are subject to the usual pressures other wooded areas face: climate change, invasive species, etc.




They are also dependent on a well-funded Parks Department and nonprofits like the Natural Areas Conservancy for the preservation and upkeep not only of the large parks but of the trees that shade city streets in all five boroughs.

Luckily, the city and nonprofit groups have been working together to plan for what the conservancy’s senior ecologist, Helen Forgione, calls “future forests,” using big data to map out the best paths for urban woodland. The NYC Parks department has been busy compiling figures, and you can find all of their tree stats at the New York City Street Tree Map, which “brings New York City’s urban forest to your fingertips. For the first time,” the Parks department writes, “you have access to information about every street tree in New York City.”

Large forested parks on the interactive map appear as flat green fields—the department has not counted each individual tree in Central Park. But the map gives us fine, granular detail when it comes to street trees, allowing users to zoom in to every intersection and click on colored dots that represent each tree, for example lining Avenue D in the East Village or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. You can search specific locations or comb through citywide statistics for the big picture. At the time of this writing, the project has mapped 694,249 trees, much of that work undertaken by volunteers in the TreesCount! 2015 initiative.

There are many more trees yet to map, and the department’s forestry team updates the site daily. Out of 234 species identified, the most common is the London Planetree, representing 12% of the trees on the map. Other popular species include the Littleleaf Linden, Norway Maple, Pin Oak, and Ginko. Some other stats show the ecological benefits of urban trees, including the amount of energy conserved (667,590,884 kWh, or $84,279,933.06) and amount of carbon dioxide reduced (612,100 tons).

Visit the New York City Street Tree Map for the full, virtual tour of the city’s trees, and marvel—if you haven’t experienced the city’s vibrant tree life firsthand—at just how green the empire city’s streets really are.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chill Out to 70 Hours of Oceanscape Nature Videos Filmed by BBC Earth

Those who harbor a deep-seated fear of the water may want to look for other methods of stress relief than BBC Earth’s relaxing 10-hour video loops, but everyone else is encouraged to take a dip in these stunning natural worlds, presented without commentary or background music.

All seven 10-hour playlists are salt-water based: coral reefscoastlinesdeep oceanopen ocean, frozen seasocean surfaces, and sea forests.

As in most compelling nature documentaries, non-human creatures loom large, but unlike such BBC Earth offerings as Creepiest Insect Moments or Ants Attack Termite Mounds, there’s a benign, live-and-let-live vibe to the proceedings.




Unsurprisingly, the photography is breathtaking, and the uses of these marathon-length portraits are manifold: meditation tool, sleep aid, child soother, social media decompressor, travelogue, and—less calmingly—call to action.

Science tells us that many of these life forms, and the ocean in which they dwell, are in serious danger, thanks to decades of human disregard for the environment. This is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in what we stand to lose while it’s still possible to do something about it.

If that thought seems too depressing, there’s also strong scientific evidence that nature documentaries such as these promote increased feelings of wellbeing

What are you waiting for?

Click here to travel the oceans with polar bears, jellyfish, dolphins, seahorses, brightly colored tropical fish and other creatures of the deep, compliments of BBC’s Earth’s Oceanscapes playlists.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watching Nature Documentaries Can Produce “Real Happiness,” Finds a Study from the BBC and UC-Berkeley

Hollywood science fiction films imagine future humans in worlds that are no longer green, or never were—from Soylent Green’s dying Earth to that of Interstellar. And from Soylent Green to Ad Astra, humans in the future experience plant and animal life as simulations on a screen, in hyperreal photography and video meant to pacify and comfort. Maybe we live in that world already, to some extent, with apocalyptic films and science fiction expressing a collective mourning for the extinctions brought on by climate change.

“Over the course of my lifetime—I’m 46,” writes Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee, “the planet has lost more than half of its wildlife populations, according to the World Wildlife Fund.” Surely this brute fact explains the immense popularity of high production-value nature documentaries, the antidote to apocalyptic futurism. They have become “blockbuster events,” argues Ed Yong at The Atlantic, with fandoms as fierce as any.




Viewed “from the perspective of the future,” writes Smee, nature documentaries “are great art. Maybe the greatest of our time.” But can viewing film and photographs of nature produce in us the feelings of awe and wonder that poets, artists, and philosophers have described feeling in actual nature for centuries? BBC Earth, producer of several major blockbuster nature documentary series, undertook some psychological research to find out, partnering with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.

The team examined the effects of watching the BBC’s Planet Earth II documentary series relative to other kinds of programs. “It is a deep human intuition that viewing nature and being in nature is good for the mind and body,” they write in the study, titled “Exploring the Emotional State of ‘Real Happiness.’” (Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe the evolved preference for natural beauty.) Does screentime equal physical time spent outdoors? Not exactly, but nature documentaries can lower stress levels and, yes, produce feelings of "real happiness."

There have been several previous such studies. The authors cite one in which a few minutes of the original series Planet Earth “led people, compared to control participants, to feel 45.6% more awe and 31.4% more gratitude, but no shifts in feelings of negative emotions such as fear and sadness.” The Planet Earth II study may be the largest of its kind, with almost 3,500 participants in the U.S., around a thousand in the U.K., India, and Australia, each, and around 500 in both South Africa and Singapore for a total of approximately 7,500 viewers.

Participants across a range of age groups, from 16 to 55 and over, were shown short clips of a variety of TV programs, including clips from Planet Earth II. They were surveyed on an array of emotional responses before and after each viewing. The study also measured stress levels using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and used a facial mapping technology called CrowdEmotion to track physical responses. The researchers aggregated the data and controlled for population size in each country.

The findings are fascinating. Across the scale, Planet Earth II clips generated more feelings of happiness and awe, with clips from news and entertainment shows causing more fear. In most of the study’s measures, these good feelings peaked highest at the lower demographic age range of 16-24. Younger viewers showed greater positive emotional responses in facial mapping and survey data, a fact consistent with BBC ratings data showing that 16-34 year-olds make up around 41% of the audience share for Planet Earth II.

“This younger group,” note the authors, “was more likely to experience significant positive shifts in emotion.” They also started out, before viewing the clips, with significantly more environmental anxiety, scoring highly on the stress scale. 71% described themselves as “extremely worried about the state of the world’s environment and what it will mean for my future.” A smaller percentage showed the lowest level of agreement with the statement “I regularly get outside and enjoy spending time with nature.”

For nearly all of the study’s viewers, nature documentaries seemed to produce at least fleeting feelings of “real happiness.” For many, they may also be a way of countering fears of the future, and compensating in advance for a loss of the natural beauty that remains. Unfortunately, the study did not measure the number of participants who viewed Planet Earth II and other “blockbuster” nature documentaries as a call to action against environmental destruction. Maybe that's a subject for another study. Read the full Planet Earth II study results here. And if you're feeling stressed, watch thirty minutes of "Visual Soundscapes," presented by Planet Earth II, above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Download 435 High Resolution Images from John J. Audubon’s The Birds of America

In our experience, bird lovers fall into two general categories:

Keenly observant cataloguers like John James Audubon …

And those of us who cannot resist assigning anthropomorphic personalities and behaviors to the 435 stars of Audubon's The Birds of America, a stunning collection of prints from life-size watercolors he produced between 1827 and 1838.

Our suspicions have little to do with biology, but rather, a certain zestiness of expression, an overemphatic beak, a droll gleam in the eye.

The Audubon Society’s newly redesigned website abounds with treasure for those in either camp:

Free high res downloads of all 435 plates.

Mp3s of each specimen’s call.

And vintage commentary that effectively splits the difference between science and the unintentionally humorous locutions of another age.

Take for instance, the Burrowing Owl, as described by self-taught naturalist Thomas Say (1787-1834):

It is delightful, during fine weather, to see these lively little creatures sporting about the entrance of their burrows, which are always kept in the neatest repair, and are often inhabited by several individuals. When alarmed, they immediately take refuge in their subterranean chambers; or, if the dreaded danger be not immediately impending, they stand near the brink of the entrance, bravely barking and flourishing their tails, or else sit erect to reconnoitre the movements of the enemy.

The notes of ornithologist John Kirk Townsend (1809 – 1851) suggest that not everyone was as taken with the species as Say (who was, in all fairness, the father of American entomology):

Nothing can be more unpleasant than the bagging of this species, on account of the fleas with which their plumage swarms, and which in all probability have been left in the burrow by the Badger or Marmot, at the time it was abandoned by these animals. I know of no other bird infested by that kind of vermin. 

The Common Gallinule, above, suggests that there's often more to these birds than meets the eye. His somewhat sheepish looking countenance belies the red hot love life Audubon recounts:

… the manifestations of their amatory propensity were quite remarkable. The male birds courted the females, both on the land and on the water; they frequently spread out their tail like a fan, and moved round each other, emitting a murmuring sound for some seconds. The female would afterwards walk to the water's edge, stand in the water up to her breast, and receive the caresses of the male, who immediately after would strut on the water before her, jerking with rapidity his spread tail for awhile, after which they would both resume their ordinary occupations.

Being that we are firmly planted in the second type of bird lover's camp, this ornithological cornucopia mainly serves to whet our appetite for more Falseknees, self-described bird nerd Joshua Barkman’s beautifully rendered webcomic.

Yes, Audubon’s Indigo Birdaka Petit Papebleu, “an active and lively little fellow” who "possesses much elegance in his shape, and also a certain degree of firmness in his make” was separated by a century or so from "Mood Indigo"—we presume that’s the tune stuck in Barkman’s bird’s head—but he does look rather preoccupied, no?

Possibly just thinking of mealworms…

Explore Audubon’s Birds of America by chronological or alphabetical order, or by state, and download them all for free here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 7 for her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Free: Download the Sublime Sights & Sounds of Yellowstone National Park

Moments before writing these words I was feeling a little stressed—a not uncommon experience for most everyone these days. Then I watched the 25-second video of a bighorn sheep, above, and something happened. Not an epiphany or moment of Zen. Just a momentary suspension of human woe as the animal silently munched, a creature so unlike myself and yet so motivated by the same basic needs.

How much better to observe the sheep firsthand, in its home at Yellowstone National Park? But perhaps we can, through our computers, touch into a little of the remedy Oliver Sacks suggested for our modern traumas. Nature gives us “sense of deep time,” the neurologist wrote, which “brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies of daily life… a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.”




Research has found that watching nature documentaries can bring on real contentment, confirming what millions of National Geographic devotees already know. Now, at the National Park Service’s site, you can immerse yourself in virtual visits with not only our silent bighorn sheep friend, but the song of a mountain bluebird, or choruses of howling wolves. The audio library contains dozens more such melodious and haunting sounds from Yellowstone’s biophony.

The video library is replete with not only short clips of animals doing what animals do, but also video tours like that above, in which we learn how park rangers capture and handle bison in their conservation efforts at the park. Then there are stunning landscape videos like that below of Lower Falls viewed from Lookout Point in the spring of 2017, with soothing natural white noise from the rushing water and blowing wind.

All of this content is available for download and free for anyone to use. Remix the sounds of falling snow, geysers, and mountain lions; make as many nature gifs as you desire. As you do, bear in mind that while humans might greatly benefit—both psychologically and culturally—from the digital preservation of the natural world, the true purpose may be to help us understand why we need to step back and preserve the real thing.

Just above see a (nondownloadable) video from Yellowstone on the importance of listening to and conserving the land’s natural soundscapes—a feature of the world that best thrives in the near absence of human involvement.

Enter the sound library here, and the video library here.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Do Octopi Dream? An Astonishing Nature Documentary Suggests They Do

With regard to the sleeping and waking of animals, all creatures that are red-blooded and provided with legs give sensible proof that they go to sleep and that they waken up from sleep; for, as a matter of fact, all animals that are furnished with eyelids shut them up when they go to sleep. 

Furthermore, it would appear that not only do men dream, but horses also, and dogs, and oxen; aye, and sheep, and goats, and all viviparous quadrupeds; and dogs show their dreaming by barking in their sleep. With regard to oviparous animals we cannot be sure that they dream, but most undoubtedly they sleep. 

And the same may be said of water animals, such as fishes, molluscs, crustaceans, to wit crawfish and the like. These animals sleep without doubt, although their sleep is of very short duration. The proof of their sleeping cannot be got from the condition of their eyes-for none of these creatures are furnished with eyelids—but can be obtained only from their motionless repose.

-Aristotle, The History of Animals, Book IV, Part 10,350 B.C.E

2,369 years later, Marine Biologist David Scheel, a professor at Alaska Pacific University, witnessed a startling event, above, that allowed him to expand on Aristotle’s observations, at least as far as eight-armed cephalopod mollusks—or octopi—are concerned

Apparently, they dream.

Scheel, whose specialties include predator-prey ecology and cephalopod biology, is afforded an above-average amount of quality time with these alien animals, courtesy of Heidi, an octopus cyanea (or day octopus) who inhabits a large tank of salt water in his living room.




Scheel's usual beat is cold water species such as the giant Pacific octopus. Heidi, who earned her name by shyly sticking to the farthest recesses of her artificial environment upon arrival, belongs to a warmer water species who are active during the day. Very active. Once she realized that Scheel and his 16-year-old daughter, Laurel, were instruments of food delivery, she came out of her shell, so to speak.

The hours she keeps affords her plenty of stimulating playtime with Laurel, who’s thrilled to have an animal pal who’s less ambivalent than her pet goldfish and outdoor rabbit.

Meanwhile, the co-housing arrangement provides Professor Scheel with an intimacy that’s impossible to achieve in the lab.

He was not expecting the astonishing nocturnal behavior he recorded, above, for the hour-long PBS Nature documentary Octopus: Making Contact.

As Heidi slept, she changed colors, rapidly cycling through patterns that correspond to her hunting practices. Scheel walks viewers through:

So, here she's asleep, she sees a crab, and her color starts to change a little bit.

Then she turns all dark.

Octopuses will do that when they leave the bottom.

This is a camouflage, like she's just subdued a crab and now she's going to sit there and eat it and she doesn't want anyone to notice her.

It's a very unusual behavior to see the color come and go on her mantel like that.

I mean, just to be able to see all the different color patterns just flashing, one after another.

You don't usually see that when an animal is sleeping.

This really is fascinating.

But, yeah, if she's dreaming, that's the dream.

As dreams go, the narrative Scheel supplies for Heidi seems extremely mundane. Perhaps somewhere out on a coral reef, another octopus cyanea is dreaming she's trapped inside a small glass room, feasting on easily gotten crab and occasionally crawling up a teenaged human’s arm.

Watch the full episode for free through October 31 here.

via Laughing Squid/This is Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC tonight, Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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