Biophony

An excerpt from my book

Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack. . . . As Morula’s ears hit her shoulder, they sound like heavy canvas sails snapping in a high wind.

Insects sizzle in the underbrush.  A bleating warbler cries out Help-me, Help-me, Help-me, Help-me!  The trickling call of a coucal drops like large beads into an empty wooden bucket:  Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo . . . doo.  . . doo . . . doo. .   Francolins scatter into the underbrush, a tiny mob of cackling maniacs.

Standing on a termite mound, face-to-trunk with an elephant, I place the palm of my hand against her fluttering forehead, a forehead as cool and rough as tree bark.  Morula is burbling, a contented rumble that resonates like water gurgling down a hollow pipe.

She is also making sounds I can feel, but not hear.  Right at the top of her trunk, where her bulging nasal passage enters her skull, her skin pulses beneath my hand, vibrations that reverberate in my chest cavity, drum against my heart.  Muscular ground swells of sounds roll full and luxuriously out in the bush, bumping into hippos, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, birds, snakes and tsetse flies.

But it is only elephants who raise their heads and listen.

Every desert, river, forest or sea on earth has a mix of sounds biological in origin – birds, mammals, fish – mingled with non-biological sounds – wind, rain, waves, or the blanketing silence of snow.  The symphony of a place is dependent upon night, day, weather, time of year and the creatures within it.  John Muir always said he could tell exactly where he was in the Sierra Nevadas just by the pine needle music.  Few of us are that familiar with our home ground.

Every animal’s voice has its own aural niche within its home ground.  When an ecosystem is altered, when trees are cut, ponds drained, soils covered with concrete, and structures built, the orchestra of the land and its chorus of animal voices are silenced.

Wild sounds disappear as fast as habitats disappear.

Bernie Krause, an American bio-accoustician, notes that 25% of the North American natural soundscapes in his archives are now extinct.  Habitats that no longer exist.  Sounds we will never hear again.  Silent summers, silent autumns, silent winters, silent springs.

In this part of the Delta, in this season, the soundscape around me is filled with dry cracklings.  With crickets who rasp their legs together and listen to each other with ears on their tibias.  With rattling grass.  With the scrape of our footsteps.  With the buzz of small flies seeking moisture at the corners of my eyes.

Those sounds will soon be joined with new animal voices once the Okavango River floods into waiting channels.  For Delta inhabitants, the river also serves as a unique measurement of time.  Rumor has it, Doug tells me, the river is two weeks away.

When it arrives, the symphony of the Delta changes.  The delicate tink-tink, tink-tink of reed frogs will join the rasp of crickets.  Hippos will jostle for elbowroom, grunting and burbling like a band of drowning tubas.  Wildebeest will question their daily survival from the jaws of lions with overlapped musings: Hmmmmh?/Hmmmh.   Hmmmmh?/Hmmmh.

And as fields of grass submerge in the returning river, ground hornbills will stride to and fro in front of the water’s many tongues.  Hornbills are satiny, Satan-y black birds, bigger than fattened geese, with inflated air sacs red as bleeding throats, and beaks like a pickaxes – executioners stalking mice and snakes in advance of the tide.  Their tympanic calls sound like thumbs rubbed across a kettle drum:    Hmmmmph . . . . . . hmph-hmph.   Hmmmmph . . . . . . hmph-hmph.

And intersecting each sound, in each season, the quaking air of elephant calls.

Bernie Krause created a new word for the soundscapes of animal voices: “Biophony” –  the combination of sounds which living organisms produce in their particular biome.  And for each biome, evolutionary complexity reverberates in the music of that particular place.  Millions of years condense into the current symphony I hear as I place my hand on an elephant’s forehead.  Wind rustles leaves, birds teer, insects zzzzzz, a palm weevil drones by and the skin under my palm flutters on and on.  Without the low bass tones of elephants, without their soft rumbling regards, the animal orchestra of the Delta would not be complete.

Soft, rumbling regards - Morula

 

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