By Erin Sherbert
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The sun rises quickly as Bernie Krause steers his SUV decisively around the corners of a road winding up the Mayacamas Ridge that separates the Sonoma and Napa valleys. It is just after 6 a.m. on a below-freezing morning in March, and Krause has the seat warmers on in the car as he drives higher and higher, until the oak trees give way to redwood conifers.
He passes through the gates of Sugarloaf State Park and stops the car near a trailhead. He removes a blue backpack from the trunk and puts it on. He is careful with the pack -- it contains thousands of dollars of recording equipment that Krause, a renowned sound recordist, will use to capture the music of what he calls the "wild natural."
Immediately, he hits the trail, the dirt crunching underneath his hiking boots. As he walks, he keeps his ears cocked for a good spot to record. He listens for wildlife, and follows the coarse and eerie call of a lone crow perched on a treetop. He hears the chuckling gobble of a wild turkey and stops to appreciate it.
Then, and much to his chagrin, he also hears the low roar of an airplane overhead.
"Hear that jet?" he says, shaking his head. "You just can't get away from it."
By "it" Krause means the ubiquitous and frustrating racket made by humans and their technological inventions. Krause, a trim and photogenic 63-year-old, has made a living and a lifestyle out of capturing unadulterated wild habitats on audiotape, and he is sensitive to even the slightest man-made noise.
Over the years, Krause has spent much of his time searching for quiet, and his quest for silence has taken him to remote areas of Africa, Antarctica, Alaska, and Borneo. Krause's copious recordings from the last 30 years comprise the largest private collection of natural sounds in the world, and excerpts have been used in Hollywood blockbuster movies and museum exhibits worldwide.
But natural sound is not merely a profession for Krause. Aural wonders are Krause's obsession, and he has become a veritable missionary of naturalism and sound. He equates the loss of a vibrant soundscape with the loss of a natural habitat, and he says that nowadays he has to record about 2,000 hours to produce one hour of usable sound; when he first started three decades ago, it only took 15. And, he adds indignantly, 25 percent of the habitat in his audio library no longer exists because of environmental degradation by humans.
So Krause doesn't exactly expect to find spectacular sound at Sugarloaf State Park, but he does hope he'll get something. After trudging past an open meadow and a rushing, melodic stream, Krause stops on a trail thick with scrub oak trees, attracted by the hollow, rapid knocking of a pileated woodpecker banging on a utility pole. He mounts a large, zeppelin-shaped mike to a tripod, connects it to a DAT recorder, presses the record button, and dons a headset.
The world suddenly opens up. The babbling stream and the trills of birds in the distance sound immediate and crisp. The woodpecker's hammering is so sharp and percussive the creature could be sitting on Krause's shoulder.
And then, the drone of an airplane defiles the headphones.
"Do you hear how much noise there is?" he demands. "You don't realize until you put a set of headphones on and listen. I'm amazed. I'll think I've found a place that is sacred, but then it's invaded by this terrible noise. Even between 6:30 and 7 in the morning, there is never a moment without a plane flying by."
But for all his frustration that morning, when the recording is good -- such as in the Amazon or on the Corcovado Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica -- he is transformed. "I select a spot for quiet, away from human noise," he says. "It's quiet, Zen-like. I'm there for hours at a time, no action, there's nothing to see. But I'm never bored. It's life-engaging. You teach yourself to be quiet, shut your mouth, and not do anything. You just be in the present."
A parrot flies by -- whoosh! -- and lets out a series of staccato squawks. The melodic whistle of a screaming piha and the curt shriek of a great potoo erupt one after another as they sit in distant trees. Flies buzz past in a swarm, droning like a chain saw.
Krause is still as he listens to the recordings he made some years ago, sitting in the "sweet spot" of the speakers in his cozy Glen Ellen office just steps from his salmon-colored house. Every buzz and twitter transports him back to the Amazon and reminds him of the intense heat, humidity, and beauty of the Brazilian jungle.
The recordist is often sitting between these speakers, absorbing and manipulating sound, sometimes for 18 hours a day. It is from this office that Krause runs his business, Wild Sanctuary, which provides tailored "soundscapes" to museums, zoos, aquariums, or films, all produced from Krause's natural sound library. Krause estimates that his 3,500-hour, 15,000-species audio archive is worth several million dollars, and he hopes that a benefactor will purchase the archive from him and then donate it to a university.