The Sound of 6 Million Acres

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

DAVYD BETCHKAL was soaking wet. It wasn’t quite raining, but the Alaskan air was heavy with mist so thick that it dripped from Betchkal’s fingers as he fussed with the tent stakes and nylon rope that were holding a pair of small solar panels in place. The panels were there to recharge a hefty battery that supported the pile of electrical equipment in the device on the rocks beside him: a tripod-mounted and alien-looking contraption featuring a sound-pressure-level meter, a digital sound recorder, and an omnidirectional microphone. We were crouched on the side of Fang Mountain, a jagged and inhospitable peak in the backcountry wilderness of Denali National Park, and we had spent the last few days hiking out to this machine.

Betchkal is the lead— and, at present, the only— soundscape scientist at Denali. Denali, like most national parks, is in the early stages of deciding how best to protect its soundscapes, which in this case mostly involves collecting enough data about what the park already sounds like. As a unit of the National Park Service, Denali is obligated to keep its 6 million acres preserved “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” with any pollutants (acoustic ones included) held to an absolute minimum.

The unit installed at Fang Mountain was one of eight that Betchkal was monitoring in the year I visited. The sites he monitors are drawn from a grid of sixty locations overlaid on a map of the park’s 6 million acres, and all of these locations’ soundscapes would be scrutinized over a period of ten years.

One of the great joys of his job, Betchkal says, is the act of taking months’ and years’ worth of the sounds heard throughout Denali and elegantly rendering them into clean, intelligible, and immediate visual displays. Lacking the immediacy enjoyed by visual information, sound can be easy to miss. A view is there in an instant; it can be captured in a flash, put on a postcard, burned into one’s brain in a split second. Sound, however, by its very definition, takes time. Therefore, one of the great challenges for soundscape scientists such as Betchkal lies in converting heaps of audio data into the charts and graphs that make it possible to see what a place sounds like. Even a place the size of Denali.

Back on the side of Fang, Betchkal finally got the solar panels rerigged and began to check the data the unit had collected over the last month. He threw on a soggy pair of headphones and listened to a few recordings. He smiled at one, offered me the headphones, and when I put them on, I was treated to the sound of a thunderous rockslide.

This is an interesting quality of the recordings he collects out here: most of what they capture is ambience; events like a rockslide are notable, even startling. And among the few noise events, even fewer are made with any intent. Most are the unintended consequences of discrete physical events: a rushing river, a thunderclap, a rustling leaf, a howling wind, a falling tree. A footstep. An engine.

“Sound is really one of the most tangible and objective measures that you can have of environmental conditions in the backcountry,” said Guy Adema, then the natural resource team manager for the regional Park Service office. “Other than visitor reports, acoustics are really the only measurable data set that you can get.”

What seems to complicate almost everything in parks management is the infinitely fine line officials must walk between accessibility and preservation. With millions of people visiting national parks every year, management must strive simultaneously to sustain that level of visitorship and to keep human impact on these landscapes—and soundscapes—to an absolute minimum.

There was a moment in my hike with Betchkal when we came upon a high ridge that looked over a big gorge. It was an angular hunk of scree coated in neon moss that thrust gently up from where we stood. “Sometimes,” Betchkal said, “I like to stop and just listen for a bit. Would you mind if we did that now?” I didn’t, of course, and we stood for a little while and listened, not to anything in particular, just to the occasional bird noise, the hiss of a distant stream, and the ambient sound of light winds.

The grassy bluffs and walls of scree filtered the noise between them into something that felt recognizable, even familiar. You couldn’t categorize the nature of the resulting sound on Betchkal’s chart, and you certainly couldn’t adequately capture it with any microphone. It was an acoustic sensation that was somehow more than the sum of its parts, and an experience of precisely the type the Park Service ultimately hopes to preserve. What I was hearing was all of that space.

Ben Cosgrove is a musician and writer based in northern New England. He travels the country writing and performing instrumental music about landscape and place; his latest record, Salt, will be released this spring.

Comments

  1. Ben, like Davyd, gets it. That ability to capture the unique sound of a place but in the transform of music, his latest album, Salt, does this for locations in transition.

  2. Fantastic story. Just the tip of the iceberg of great writing Ben has associated with his name.

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