Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Solastalgia and Soundscapes

Solastalgia and Soundscapes

I have solastalgia at the fading of natural sounds in the environment ... our soundscape is changing. We are in fact experiencing an aural invasion … the sounds of the natural world are slowly being silenced by the noise pollution of industrial society. If it is not the cacophony of air conditioners, road and air traffic, it is the digital roar inside the earphones … cancelling out the symphony of nature.

Bernie Krause (Wild Soundscapes 2002) has created a division of soundscapes into Biophony, Geophony and Anthrophony. The term ‘biophony’ has been used to describe the noises produced by, for example, birds and insects in a natural environment. Perhaps we should add Ecophony (see Peter Russell Crowe) since the interrelationships of the physical (wind) and the biological (trees) in the total ecosystem is a source of sounds in a landscape). Geophony is the noise from natural landscape features such as moving water while Anthrophony is the total soundscape produced by human societies.

In the US people are recording the natural soundscape in parks in order to document it before it is completely lost to the Technophony or that part of Anthrophony that consists of the noises produced by human technology (see: http://ltm.agriculture.purdue.edu/ear/default_files/Page424.htm ).

The now ubiquitous noises of modern technologies such as aircraft wipe out the possibility of listening to the natural world and its ecophony. I recently listened to a resident of Salt Spring Island (West coast of Canada) tell his story of life on Ganges Harbour being forever changed by the constant traffic of float planes into and out of the island. He came to SSI for its beauty, peace and serenity. Now he lives right next to a busy airport that was never planned and approved and he experiences acute solastalgia as the floatplanes roar past his home and cancel the sounds of gulls, loons, turkey vultures and the hum of the hummingbird.
I wonder how many other people lament the deafening of a once loved soundscape?

As an academic, I work on campuses that have become battlegrounds of technophony as each building competes with the one next door to overwhelm the environment with the noise of fans, compressors and pullies. It is a dull roar, but one that makes contemplation in quietude impossible. The irony is that one has to close a window and shut out fresh air and the ‘outside’ in order to have silence in a room! The birds and animals that inhabit the campus must have to yell at each other to be heard. The subtleties of territories and communication are trashed in a cacophony of competition from technosounds. I have read about how the noise of ships propellers, sonar and other technophony in the oceans has made communication for the creatures of the sea difficult, if not impossible (See: http://www.acousticecology.org/oceanreports.html ).
The silence of the whales,
the deafness of the dolphins.
Drowning in an ocean of noise?

I am even beginning to find the hum of the refrigerator annoying … it is denying me access to that interior silence of night thoughts. Our heads are filling up with the subtle, but pervasive tinnitus technophony of hard drives that play digital tricks on our ears. A wall of noise hits us inside and out. Who knows what damage the earphone is causing to our aural sense? Excessive noise damages ecosystem and human health.
The warnings about deafness go unheard.
Sorry, I can’t hear you …

We must defeat negative technophony and overcome the solastalgia produced by fading soundscapes. As well as the loss of loved physical landscapes, we are losing their sounds. It is time to turn the I-Pod off and give voice to this loss.


  1. Thank you for noticing these soundscape aspects of sustainability. I would like to make you aware of the following:

    Per Hedfors (per.hedfors@sol.slu.se)

  2. Hi there. I just stumbled across your blog, and am enjoying catching up on your archive.

    I found this post about soundscapes especially interesting. The issue of ubiquitous technological noise is not one I've heard discussed before, nor is it something I've given much thought to.

    However, your post evoked a number of very strong sound-related memories for me. The first was of Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring" (obviously the sounds of nature in Spring meant a lot to Carson).

    The second memory was of the profound silence out at Uluru, which I found surprisingly noticeable, and very moving.

    The third was a memory of going to sleep in a remote village in Vanuatu, surrounded by the murmur of the villagers' voices as they chatted around the fire. It was a profoundly pleasant and comforting sound.

    Now you've got me feeling all nostalgic (in the modern sense of the word).

    Incidentally, I live in small town in NSW near a cement works which makes so much white noise all the time that I simply don't notice it at all, except on the rare occasions when it stops. But I'm happy to add that sometimes the frogs in our creek are nearly deafening - in the cheeriest possible way.

    One last sound memory before I get completely carried away: what happened to the cicadas of my childhood summers? I used to hate their noise. Now I miss it.

    Thanks for this bitter-sweet trip down my aural memory lane.


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