Finding the big quiet in Great Basin National Park

A writer revisits the acoustical landscape of the National Park system.

 

A double exposure of a bristlecone pine in Great Basin National Park, Nevada, and its bark. Can you imagine the wind blowing through the branches, or the creaking of the slowly growing bark?
David Muench

I wake at dawn, and before my eyes even open, I’m drenched by the creek. Not the water but the song, the liquid harmony braiding and unbraiding 10 feet beyond the tent’s thin wall. No need for the blindfold yet, I tell myself. Just stay warm in the sleeping bag, listening to this music.

Coffee calls to me, though, and soon I’m at the picnic table, firing up the stove, hearing the hiss of propane, the grinding flick of a lighter. For a while there’s just my boots stomping heat into numb toes, the occasional dark-eyed junco clicking in the snowy underbrush. Then it’s the percolator’s oh-so-sweet gurgle and a first sip that pricks up my ears.

Getting here, to this day of uninterrupted focus, was a chore — six hours of tires whumping over old pavement, six hours of pop-country radio and ranting talk-show hosts. Great Basin National Park is located south of Route 50 in Nevada, the nation’s so-called “Loneliest Road.”  Since 1934, the park has welcomed a total of 3.5 million visitors, which is about how many people flooded Zion National Park’s sandstone canyons in 2015. Where better than the Big Empty to practice walking the land with ears in your feet?        

Actually, the plan isn’t to walk, that proving tricky once you’re blindfolded, but to sit. To explore the uncharted micro-topography of snaps, grumbles, chirrs, buzzes and burbles. To stage a quiet revolt against the tyranny of eyesight, the dominant and mostly unquestioned belief in our culture that nature is a visual spectacle, nothing more.

Years ago in Grand Teton -National Park, on what had to be the most postcard-perfect autumn weekend of all eternity, I tied a bandanna across my eyes — blacked out the vistas, deposed the tyrant. My friends were incredulous: Why conduct your little sensory deprivation experiment now, in the presence of these crazy toothy peaks?  I told them that it wasn’t deprivation I was after, but the opposite. Enrichment. A nuanced sense of the terrain. The hidden park inside the park.

At that exact moment, or so the story goes in my memory, a bull elk bugled nearby, sending harmonic overtones rushing through the forest. Countless aspen leaves rattled on their stems. The bones in my body whistled like so many flutes. For an instant that felt more like an hour, nobody made a peep.

See, I said.

Then I quickly corrected myself, cinching the blindfold tighter: Hear.

 

That nature is more than scenes and scenery, more than a movie to watch or some image to capture and upload, is hardly a new thought. George Catlin, the frontier painter who in 1882 proposed “a nation’s park,” included in his vision (excuse that sneaky ocular metaphor) a prairie refuge characterized by “desolate fields of silence.”  John Muir could supposedly identify every tree species in the Sierra Nevada simply by listening to its “wind-music.” 

Natural sounds don’t just provide listeners with a sense of place — they are the place, no less so than dirt and grizzly bears. Wilderness fragmented by human din is not wild, and even keeps ecosystems from functioning as they should. Frogs need quiet to discuss potential dangers. Birds need to court. Quite simply, land conservation, to deserve the name, must include the conservation of soundscapes.

The National Park Service picked up on this in 1972, when the Noise Control Act was passed. The law requires the federal government to regulate, among other things, commercial helicopter and airplane tours over national parks. But it wasn’t until 2000, with the creation of a natural sounds division, that the agency got serious about “protecting, maintaining, and restoring acoustical environments.”  Tasks range from baseline audio sampling at front- and backcountry sites to tracking threats such as growing crowds and industrial development beyond park boundaries. But public outreach, educating and inspiring the masses — that’s arguably most important of all.          

Intrusive anthropogenic noise, while a serious issue, is only half the problem. The other half is under-hearing — disregard. A failure on the part of hikers and picnickers and photographers to open themselves to potential opportunities. Can we climb El Capitan’s immaculate granite with our ears?  Can we appreciate a Yellowstone wolf’s howl cutting across the face of the full moon without ever lifting our gaze?  These questions should be asked and answered by experts and regular park-goers alike. They should be engaged with playfully, in the field.

As pioneering soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause puts it, writing of the Grand Canyon: “The pictures of the park really do only convey a fraction of the experience.” If you’re not hearing the ancient stratigraphy crumbling grain by grain, you might as well be sitting on the tour bus, looking out the window.

 

This resulting geospatial sound model shows estimates of how places would sound naturally, without human influence. Generally, there are higher natural sound levels in wetter areas with more vegetation. This is due to the sounds of wind blowing through vegetation, flowing water, and more animals (especially birds and frogs) vocalizing in more fertile locations.

After a strong cup of coffee and 20 minutes of close listening — the juncos, I realize without looking, have taken to the piñon pines, their voices mapping in my mind the precise location of perches — an annoying rumble rises in my gut. Nope, not hunger. The other morning rumble, the one that comes 12 hours after a dinner of baked beans and hotdogs, like a rockfall in the echoey alpine cirque of my belly.

Strolling to the bathroom, I work on parsing the various sounds within a single footstep: First the crush of loose surface snow, then the creak as the sole flexes and compacts the base, and last the tinkle of crystals thrown ahead by the push-off. It’s November, a squall forecasted to arrive this morning, and the campground is vacant — not that I would expect anything less. On my first trip here, I climbed 13,064-foot Wheeler Peak, the park’s centerpiece, and had the entire summit to myself, along with a sizeable chunk of the Basin and Range. And the whining of my nervous system, the pulse of blood in my temples.

Today, I’m hoping to hear nothing, or close to nothing. The approaching storm’s invisible edge. My breath within the heave and sigh of some larger elemental breath. It’s hard to describe the way our world knits itself into wholeness one whir and rustle at a time without getting all cheesy and metaphysical. But it’s true, very real.

A Clark’s nutcracker cuts by with a whoosh of wings, arresting me mid-step. The sky almost audibly re-gathers itself in the bird’s wake. Then the moment’s gone, dissolved, which is a good thing, as it’d be dangerous to delay any longer my rendezvous with the “comfort station.”            

Misnomer? You bet your frigid fanny. And you can throw in the icy seat as well! Never fear, I’m a pretty tough guy, and moreover, I’m beginning to get lost in aural reveries. I experiment with the concrete walls and the ping-ponging resonance, humming for a few minutes, chanting some bass notes. Boy, if only I could get a corvid in here, I think, then we’d really be jamming.

Back outside, the mountain slope above the campground is beginning to moan, a lenticular cloud forming around Wheeler Peak’s summit. Channeling John Muir, I hike into the piñon-juniper woodlands — pausing, crouching, trying to distinguish between the thrum of sagebrush and the thrum of cliffrose. Personalities emerge. Mormon tea is whispery, delicate. Mountain mahogany is coarse, gruff. Prickly pears have little to say, though they do nip at the ear when I lean in too close. I’m reminded of other natural history pursuits — sorting seashells, identifying lichens with a hand lens — and how the ecological community starts to resemble just that: A community, a neighborhood of individuals.

The nondescript forest is suddenly described. A snag and a living tree speak the same language but different dialects. Even the growing wind comes across as a gang of many.

As far as I can tell, the sounds we absorb — a mountain lion’s scream, a glacier’s groan — become landmarks in our personal sonic geography. Capitol Reef National Park is for me the back-and-forth of raven calls inside slickrock alcoves. Rocky Mountain National Park is an electric crackle and the slam of thunder against an exposed ridgeline. Of a solo backpacking trip on the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, the only color I remember is gray — foggy gray, relentless gray. But the push and pull of waves, that was strange, unforgettable. By day, the ocean laughed like a schoolyard of happy children. By night, it bellowed like a tortured monster. And it never stopped. It was always speaking, even when it wasn’t.

Hiking along, I ruminate. Maybe it’s not so much what we hear as that we try to hear, that every once in a while we approach a landscape delicately, on tiptoes, alert to possibilities. Maybe it’s this effort and intention that drops a pin flag into our life. Maybe park rangers should hand out complimentary blindfolds as a way of encouraging toddlers and grandparents and everybody between to take it easy, quit the chitchat. Maybe once our ears are tuned, once the practice has become ingrained, we can do away with the blindfolds and enjoy a synesthetic wonderland, our senses working in concert to perceive an infinitely layered world.

Maybe. But not today.    

After a few slow miles, a soughing draws me over to a particular piñon pine. I lie down in a crunchy patch of exposed duff on the leeward side of the trunk, boughs just inches above my forehead. Out comes a thick cotton bandanna, soft on the bridge of my nose. I cinch it tight.        

Stories unfold beneath the pine, all without beginning, middle or end, all without plot or character. Branches clatter against branches. A million needles sift fast-moving air. I want to rip the bandanna away, find the source of a specific sound, but the fun is hanging in there, taking the ride, letting the tension build. Sometimes the wind is almost too intense, as if an 18-wheeler is about to smash me into oblivion. I brace for impact, tensing every muscle, only to relax seconds later into an unexpected lull.            

Bernie Krause again: “When the sound of wind is hushed and subtle, it sometimes reminds me of the breath of living organisms; it becomes the crossover between animals and an alive-sounding earth.”          

This is my last thought before thinking stops altogether, before I disappear. Where do I go?  Far, that’s all I can say. I travel far, return, emerge from a state of consciousness that resembles dreaming yet involves no sleep. Pulling off the blindfold, I try to stand but only manage to stumble. I can barely see, barely walk, barely pick up the journal that falls from my pocket — and when I do, there are no notes to write. Words fail. There is only the day’s eloquence pressing against me from all sides.           

I’m out of it. By which I mean in it. Way deep.         

And then I’m in my jacket’s hood, the storm’s first snowflakes scratching perfect tiny poems — haiku — against the nylon.

Leath Tonino’s writing appears in Outside, Men’s Journal, Orion, The Sun and other magazines. He edits poetry for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.