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The last word: Listening for the past
Two acoustic ecologists let a reporter tag along as they record a symphony of endangered sounds.
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synthesized cell phone melody pulls Jeff Rice from his sleep: De-de da-de-de da-de-de da-de. De-de da-de-de da-de-de da-de.

Rice hits the alarm. It’s 4:30, still dark. He clicks on his headlamp and dresses in the confines of his tent. The nylon zipper shrieks—zzzzzzzzzzzpp—as he opens the flap and steps outside.

A few clouds have rolled in. The remaining stars poke through the sky like shards of light. Beyond the cottonwoods, the creek is a steady babble, the crickets nonstop, and the bats an occasional tcheee, tcheee, tcheee.

But these are sounds Rice knows, captured two nights ago with the microphone and recorder he set up outside his tent. Now he’s eager to head somewhere new, and the morning about to break is promising: no wind to keep the birds down. “Kenning,” he calls out. Kenning Arlitsch climbs out of his own tent. “I’m up,” he says.

By title, both men are librarians at the University of Utah. Typically, Arlitsch works behind a desk, managing technology for a project the partners call the Western Soundscape Archive. Rice spends his time in the field, using sound-recording equipment the way a photographer uses a camera: to hold on to a fleeting moment. Instead of images, Rice collects sounds caught in the brief intervals of modern life before the cacophony of airplanes and jets, air conditioners and automobiles, music machines and gardening equipment kicks in.

This week, Rice and Arlitsch are camping in Utah’s Range Creek valley, on a former ranch that occupied a now carefully protected, isolated sliver of land hidden behind a fortress of rock known as the Book Cliffs. As Rice knows, isolated means quiet, and quiet—or more precisely, sounds without the interference of man-made noise—means endangered.

Standing now near the Chevy Trailblazer that brought them to the campsite, Rice pops open the trunk and double-checks his gear: parabolic dish, Sennheiser microphones, Sound Devices 50-gig recorder, portable recorder, lapel mikes, Sony recorder, bat detector, hydrophone for fish, and plenty of AA batteries.

Then he gets behind the wheel—Arlitsch riding shotgun—and points the SUV down a washed-out, rutted road.

If a stretch of land ever promised to be haunted, it would be Utah’s Range Creek. Not only might a visitor expect to run into the spirits of ranchers from this century and last—most notably Budge Wilcox, who took possession of these 1,600 acres in 1951. There were also Indians who lived in the canyon, so far as anyone can know, from A.D. 800 to A.D. 1350. No wonder that when Wilcox’s son sold his holdings to the Bureau of Land Management in 2001, archaeologists were eager to explore the property. Its semi-mystical reputation has proved justified during the last eight years, as 400 sites—including rock art, granaries, and pit houses—have been identified as belonging to the northern neighbors of the Anasazi, the Fremont Indians.

Though recovering the past matters less to Rice and Arlitsch than making sure that the present isn’t lost, this morning they plan to record something a little less tangible than the chatter, twitters, and trilling of the canyon. They are heading to a rock-art site where they hope to capture an aural understanding of the world that the Fremont inhabited.

First, though, Rice stops at a place where the road skirts the creek. This is one of the places he scouted the previous night for recording ambient sounds. The ground is soft and sandy from flash floods. Dust hovers in the headlights.

Rice gets out, grabs his gear, and, just off the road, extends the legs of a tripod and fastens to the top a large, zucchini-shaped microphone. He pulls a wind sock around it. White and hairy, it looks like a plump Pekingese. In the surrounding trees, a few whistles and squawks have begun. “You can hear them starting up already,” Rice says. There is no saying what bird or insect they might be or how far the sounds have traveled; Utah and the Southwest are prized among recordists for minimal atmospheric attenuation, the humidity or air turbulence that alters and mutes sound waves. Rice plugs the microphone into the recorder. He puts on his headphones and listens, making sure that the creek isn’t too intrusive. He likes what he is hearing, and so begins his recording by establishing the setting.

“5:02 a.m. ... July 1 ... Range Creek ... 70 degrees ... Calm ... 4,890 elevation.”

Rice programs the recorder and lightly steps away from the microphone. Often he will record for hours at a time, editing the results when he gets home.

In the east, Venus shines through a break in the clouds as Rice gets back into the SUV, and he and Arlitsch continue down the road.

Rice, who is 42, got the idea for the Western Soundscape Archive after working as a radio journalist. He had material left over from pieces he had produced—interviews, background sounds—and he thought of creating and curating an archive on the Internet. He made a cold call to the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library and found himself talking to Arlitsch, who immediately understood the value and potential of the project. There are other libraries in the country gathering sounds—the Macaulay Library at Cornell, the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics in Ohio, and the Florida Museum of Natural History—but none focuses solely on the West.

The virtue of putting the archive on the Internet is that it is available to anyone who wishes to explore the recordings. With initial funding of about $15,000, the archive started up in 2007, and in the early stage, Rice focused on recording sounds in Utah and soliciting the work of other recordists. Today the archive is funded by a $350,000 federal grant that was matched by the university; the money is expected to last until the end of next year. So far, the website has about 1,500 recordings representing 90 percent of the birds in the 11-state Western region, 95 percent of the frogs and toads, about two dozen reptiles, and nearly a quarter of the mammals. “The archive is as important as the photographs of Edward Curtis,” the great chronicler of the American West, says colleague Gordon Hempton, himself an “acoustic ecologist” who, with 30 years of recording experience, knows how quickly natural soundscapes are being lost. “We can look at those images and even though we’re not in that moment, in a way we are.”

Recently, Rice was asked by the artist Maya Lin to provide audio for her “What Is Missing?” memorial in San Francisco that focuses on biodiversity and habitat loss. She wanted audio of the Yellowstone River, and Rice visited the park in May, rising at 4:30 each morning and working for 45 minutes before the voices of birds and coyotes were trampled upon by automotive traffic.

To the extent that Lin is a memorialist, commemorating the vanishings—people, places, animals—that have taken place around us, so is Rice. But if his work is elegiac, it is also exuberant. Its appeal is visceral: a moose stomping across a stream in Utah, thunderclaps in Oregon. His recording of boreal chorus frogs captures a distant train, and if you listen carefully to the waves at Nye Beach, Ore., you will hear the jingling leash of a dog running by.

On the southern edge of Range Creek, Rice and Arlitsch arrive at a gate. They climb underneath it and start walking down the road beyond.

During his three days in Range Creek, Rice has documented one night, two dawns, eight wild turkeys, and hundreds of cicadas that hid one late afternoon inside a row of sunlit box elders. The cicadas’ unrelenting tssssss suggested the rhythmic intensity of a Philip Glass score. But it is the call of the nocturnal poor will, captured late one night in the woods beside a meadow, that graces Rice’s most exquisite new track: Poor-will. Poor-will. Poor-will.

Rice and Arlitsch turn off the road and start scrambling up a steep grade. Loose rocks shake out from under their boots. Ahead of them, a large sandstone boulder creates a pulpit on the hill, and in the shadows is a large painted figure, red from mountain mahogany. Neither man nor animal, this anthropomorph stands, broad-shouldered, facing the east with horns (or possibly ears) rising above its head and between them, a faint emanation of color like a tongue of fire. White handprints mark the ceiling. They stop beneath it.

Archaeoacoustics is a new discipline, and its premise is simple: that artifacts have acoustic properties that can help shed light on their cultures. One researcher has studied the role that echoes played in the creation of cave painting and petroglyphs, and Hempton finds it plausible that fire rings are situated where noises converge from surrounding cliffs.

Such theories are highly speculative, but here, beneath this pictograph, the sounds of the dawn rise up from the gentle bow of the river, the narrowing of the canyon: the ebbing stridulations of the crickets, the incipient bird song, and the gravelly purr of the creek: Chrrr, chrrr, chrrr. Tsip, tsip, peew, peew. Wzzzzzzzzzz.

Rice starts the recorder. Suddenly the past and the present meet. He knows that the sounds he is about to preserve are the sounds that the Fremont might have heard when they climbed to this rocky canvas centuries ago, and as surely as they disappeared from this region—in one of the great mysteries of the Southwest—so too will the quiet they experienced. “We live on such a small scale,” says Rice, considering the last 100 years that put these sounds in jeopardy.

Planes and jets tear across the sky, and not far from Range Creek, ATVs scour the hills and plateaus. Moments of silence in the canyon, however, provide a deeper connection to its ecology beyond what can be merely seen in the rocks, the pinyons, junipers, and sky. To listen here is to step into the heat-seared, frostbitten, sun-blasted timelessness of the Fremont. It means exercising a deeper sentience, letting go of all expectations, to be thoughtless and anticipatory.

“You don’t know what you’re listening for because you haven’t heard it,” says Hempton with the simplicity of a koan.

Across the road, by the gate and a stand of cottonwoods, a Cooper’s hawk is suddenly alarmed. Loud, brusque, its song is all staccato, and Rice treks down to the road to track it with the parabola dish as it flies from snag to cliff and back, reddish-brown chest and white flashes under the wings.

Kek. Kek. Kek.

A yellow-breasted chat flits from cottonwood to greasewood.

Chirrr-tweee. Chirrr-tweee.

This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Times. Used with permission. © 2009 by the Los Angeles Times.

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