Capturing Nature for The Sound Reserve
George Vlad has provided The Sound Reserve with incredible recordings from jungles all around the world. In this guest blog, he tells us about the highs and lows he’s faced out in the field.
One of the most difficult subjects to record these days is natural soundscapes free of man-made sound. Road traffic, aircraft, industry, people, domesticated animals, diesel generators, drones etc. make up the man-made or anthropophony part of the soundscape. These elements carry for long distances, sometimes for many miles and are almost impossible to escape.
A depressing statistic has recently made the rounds: the end of wild and remote places in Britain. Apparently, “we are never further than 6 miles from a road anywhere on the mainland”. What does this mean for soundscapes? Sadly, it means that wherever you go on the mainland, chances are that you will be within hearing distance of road traffic, one of the most pervasive elements of anthropophony.
If you manage to find a dip in the landscape where road sounds do not reach, don’t celebrate too early, keep in mind aircraft noise travels much further. My experiences attempting to record nature in the UK have certainly been mixed. Some 10 years ago I was trying to record dawn choruses around Edinburgh where I lived, and my nemeses were farm animals. Once I moved south to England, I realised how spoiled I was to have long lulls in between flights overhead.
Living close to Heathrow, Gatwick, City and a few smaller airports means I can count from 4 to 8 aircraft in the sky at any given time of day. That translates to a virtually constant aircraft noise background.
In 2020 all of this slowed down for a short while. I couldn’t go on expeditions for 9 months, so I decided to give local soundscapes another go. While air traffic was indeed reduced, it was still present. After months of attempts I finally found a location that sounded better than anything around it – a wooded valley nestled between two hills in the English countryside, with a creek at the bottom. I managed to make a handful of beautiful recordings there, from lush dawn choruses to calm creek babbling and even thunderstorms.
This did not last for too long though. Going back the following spring, I noticed that the aircraft noise had gone back to pre-pandemic levels. I have since explored many parts of southern England, but the best I can do here is give up clean nature and focus on countryside atmospheres. These will include birdsong and wildlife calls, but not exclusively. Farm animals are part of this soundscape too, along with occasional distant farm traffic. It’s a compromise I’ve made reluctantly, but I enjoy these recordings and the process of capturing them. Listeners also seem to find them interesting and worth the effort.
In 2016, about 6 years into my sound recording journey, I decided to join a sound art workshop in South Africa. My aim was to get an introduction to the continent while capturing some good recordings and exploring new land (and soundscapes) in the process. What I did not know back then is that the experience would ignite a fascination with Africa for me. I’ve gone back to the continent on my own expeditions many times since, and I now feel a deep connection with its wildlife, nature, landscapes, cultures, people.
You may think that going to a remote part of, say, Senegal or Kenya would be enough to get away from man-made sound. That was my plan, but the reality in the field was very different. While it was much better than the UK, I still had to work hard to find pockets of natural quiet. It turns out people are noisy, and there’s not much you can do about it. Places like national parks, that have solar power and are very conservation-minded still need vehicles to patrol. Tourism, ideally the sustainable kind, is one of the few ways to fund conservation but comes with its own man-made noise.
On my expedition to the Congo Basin Rainforest in 2018, I managed to record for more than 24 hours without capturing any man-made sound. That is unheard of in other, more developed parts of the world. It was not easy to reach that location though. We had to fly into Libreville, Gabon’s capital, and from there it took two days of driving, one midnight train and another day of hiking in thick jungle to reach Langoué Baï, one of the most remote places I’ve ever visited.
The main reason this part of Africa has so far survived is because of its remoteness. It’s also probably because Gabon is around the size of the UK but it’s home to just over 2 million people who mostly live in coastal urban areas.
At the other end of the spectrum, my trips to the Amazon and Borneo rainforests were incredibly challenging. In the Amazon, my night-time recordings were full of distant boat engine sounds. To my surprise, I found out that a whole suite of illegal activities takes place under the cover of darkness in the tri-border area of Peru, Brazil and Colombia. Poaching, gold mining, coca cultivation and even piracy are commonplace in this part of the Amazon basin. Extreme poverty pushes people to do crazy things and to endanger their lives while only a select few profit from these activities. Quiet and beautiful soundscapes are understandably on no-one’s mind.
In Borneo the situation isn’t as bad, but it was still disheartening. Much of the island’s primal rainforests have been cut down to make way for oil palm plantations. I had to drive for days to reach pockets of rainforest, and even then, I wasn’t too far from roads or the plantations themselves. This meant there was always distant noise to deal with, from diesel generators to employees patrolling in cars or on mopeds. What’s worse, the local people don’t seem to get much benefit from the big business of palm oil, while their livelihoods are destroyed along with the forests themselves. When I did manage to get away from man-made sound, I found amazingly rich and lush soundscapes though.
A much better example of nature and humans coexisting sustainably is Costa Rica. This central American country is not without its problems, but thanks to consistent investment in education and sustainability, this incredibly biodiverse country is a leader in green policies. More than 30 percent of its territory is marked for conservation. Tourism and local businesses coexist with environmental initiatives and protected areas.
It is perfectly possible to drive away from busy towns and into primary rainforest in half a day. I’ve found excellent natural quiet in these areas, even though Costa Rica is a relatively small country.
It would no doubt be easier to focus on recording vehicles, aircraft, or some other, more accessible subject. I’m not one to avoid difficulties though, and I find overcoming these challenges extremely rewarding. Worst case scenario, I am preserving these soundscapes for future generations in case they won’t be there anymore. I like to be optimistic though and to think they will still exist in 50 or a hundred years.
Working with locals, exploring wild places, bringing back recordings and sharing them with people who otherwise would never be able to hear them makes all the effort worth it. What’s more, I’ve noticed a very positive response from listeners along with unprompted calls to action. I’ve also managed to raise money for a handful of NGOs by offering my recordings as prizes. There are lots of ways I can help, and I feel like I’m just starting to make a difference.
George Vlad – Mindful Audio
Follow George’s journey as he captures nature sounds from some of the most remote parts of the planet.