- Ear to the BattlegroundNew Books on Hearing What Is Lost
Of the five senses, vision tends to get the glory. We hail great innovators as visionary, praise writers for their insight, and thank friends for offering perspective. We call prophets seers, but also admire daily perspicacity and seek to avoid myopia and blind spots. Just consider the words spectacles and spectacular, and you catch a glimpse—not a whisper, a glimpse—of the divergence between vision in the optometrist’s office and vision in our cultural construction of it. But while vision gets the glory, hearing has our trust. We want justice to be blind during court hearings. In times of crisis, more than to the insightful friend, we turn to the good listener. Perhaps this is because hearing is our most social sense, the sense we have the least control over, the sense that is the most democratic. It’s easy enough on the subway to look away from someone, but it’s almost impossible to hear away, to filter out one particular voice.
Yet perhaps because hearing has our trust, it doesn’t receive our scrutiny. Two thought-provoking new books, Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes by Bernie Krause and Made to Hear: Cochlear Implants and Raising Deaf Children by Laura Mauldin, argue that the social constructs guiding our tacit assumptions about hearing have significant consequences for how we relate to one another and to the natural world. Krause, a soundscape ecologist, makes a kind of summary statement on his nearly fifty years of making field recordings in remote and sometimes endangered habitats. Mauldin examines what has become common practice, and the normative script in response to babies born deaf. A sociologist at the University of Connecticut, she spent six months doing fieldwork at a cochlear implant (CI) clinic in the New York City metropolitan area, interviewing staff workers, observing meetings, [End Page 215] and following ten parents whose children were at different stages of the implantation process. Both books highlight the cultural pressures that condition hearing, criticize the often reductive and misleading authority of science, and help us to hear how we’re hearing or not hearing, to consider what we’re attuned to and why.
Early on in his slim volume (184 small pages of not-so-small print), Krause explains the nature of his vocation, which is recording nature’s vocalizations. He seeks “new ways of evaluating the living landscapes” through the “multiple sources of sounds that reach the human ear.” Those multiple sources he divides into three parts: geophony refers to nonbiological natural sounds, for example, water in a brook; bio-phony refers to “the collective sound produced by all living organisms that live in a particular biome”; and anthrophony refers to the sounds humans make, whether without machines, like through voices and footsteps, or with machines, like through snowmobiles and military jets. As for Krause’s “new ways of evaluating,” he means listening to all three types of sound together, rather than isolating just one, or even part of one, as “recordists” often do with one species. For his entire career he has staunchly resisted “a reductionist view of the acoustic world that embraced fractured and incongruous acoustic signatures—distorted snapshots of solo animals in a kind of bioacoustic zoo—[which] remained the dominant field-recording ideal.”
One reward of his resistance is his “niche hypothesis,” a term proposed by his colleague Ruth Happel. Krause explains: “In order to be heard, whether in urban, rural, or wild habitats, vocal organisms must find appropriate temporal or acoustic niches where their utterances are not buried by other signals.” Basically, every creature has to find its own spot on the ambient radio dial, by adjusting either its pitch or the schedule of its vocalizations, or it won’t be heard.
Oddly, this very problem seems to have afflicted Krause, as he...