Three-thirty-seven a.m. is not the best hour of the night in which to be awake. The mind chews not just on the events of the day, but also on the events of years past and the worries of years to come. Sleep seems to be something just on the edge of consciousness yet the damn brain keeps it at bay. The other night when I found myself in this unpleasant state, sound came to my rescue. From a distance came the murmur of high-tide waves rolling up and back across a cobble beach. It’s hard to accurately describe a sound so ineffable, so delicate and soothing. By focusing on the words of the waves and not the clatter of my restless mind, I eventually returned to sleep.  

Human beings have a relatively limited range of hearing, typically between 20 and 20,000 Hz. People start to lose the ability to hear at the higher frequencies sometime after the mid-20s; men suffer from greater hearing loss in age than do women. If you are curious about the range of sound a human being can hear, watch and listen to a video on You Tube (of course) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAsMlDptjx8.

Sound is highly evocative of place and time. Think of the sounds of late summer in Maine. I hear an osprey’s keen peeping as it circles above me while I am out in the garden monitoring the tomato crop. In the afternoon, grasshoppers’ piercing hum wafts as an undercurrent of sound. A lobster boat chugs its way along the shore, leaving deep bass echoes of its engine behind. On a foggy day ferries to Vinalhaven and North Haven boom a reverberating warning as they leave Rockland Harbor. Any one of these sounds would make a person familiar with the Maine coast remember the hot days of August. 

These sounds comprise a soundscape. The term soundscape was created by the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer to define sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place.” In the late 1960s Schafer began a project at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia he later called the World Soundscape Project. He and his colleagues recorded the natural and human sounds of, first, Vancouver, then other areas of Canada, and finally ambient sounds in different parts of the world. The goal was to document what the world sounded like at a time when automation and technology had begun transforming society. His work led to a new field of inquiry, acoustic ecology. Acoustic ecology studies the relationship between living things and their environment facilitated through sound. 

Gordon Hempton, who calls himself the Sound Tracker, is an acoustic ecologist. He has traveled around the world for the last 35 years recording the sounds of nature. Hempton, who lives near the Olympic National Park in Washington, says that he is a professional listener. Right now he is in pursuit of silence. Silence is not the absence of sound, he says, but the absence of noise. In his quest, he has sought out places in the United States that are essentially quiet. When he finds a site that remains noise-free for 15 minutes or longer during the daylight hours, he adds it to the list he’s been collecting for 30 years. Thus far he has found twelve such places.

Imagine the soundscape of midcoast Maine in the summer of 1900. The fishing boats of that time were largely powered by sail, although steamers and other large vessels used steam combustion. No Cape Air planes passed overhead, no automobile tires tore over pavement, no unmuffled motorcycles ripped along Route 73. Noise was not absent, and certainly some sounds, such as those emanating from the limestone quarries and trains operating in Rockland, were loud. But in terms of acoustic ecology, the sound environment of 1900 must have been markedly quieter than that we experience today.  

Perhaps in another hundred years, the melody of late August — the sea breeze rustling maple and poplar leaves in the afternoon, the putter of a lawn mower in the distance, the ever-present murmur of the ocean around us — will be an antiquated memory as well.