Gordon Hempton, an American acoustic ecologist and the founder of Quiet Parks International (QPI), studies the last places on Earth that are free of man-made sound pollution. PRZEKRÓJ Foundation invited him to come to Poland at the end of April. Together, we planned to explore whether the Białowieża National Park could become the first certified QPI noise-free zone in Poland. However, Gordon’s visit to Białowieża had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, the ecologist prepared an audio presentation of his recent trip to Ecuador, where he recorded the sounds of the Amazon rainforest by the Zabalo River. In 2019, Gordon’s organization certified this area as the first Wilderness Quiet Park.
We are listening to the evening light at the world’s first International Quiet Park – a place celebrated for its natural sonic wonders, with nearly a complete lack of noise pollution. The Zabalo River is located in the northeastern corner of Ecuador, deep within the Amazon rainforest, where the indigenous Cofan people have invited outsiders to visit and enjoy listening to what the Earth has to say.
During this audio presentation, we listen to several species of tropical birds loudly proclaim their territorial rights, then whacks of water drops from the forest canopy dripping with moisture, and the faint medley of insects that will grow as the light fades. It is evening. We are near the Equator at a low elevation; low enough to be warm and humid. We know this from the behaviour of the sounds, because the ambience is loud and diverse, which requires lots of solar energy to power the bioacoustics system. Likewise, the ambience is clear, which requires an elastic atmosphere only provided by warm humid places.
As the evening light dims further, we segue to wooly monkeys, who bark and rattle branches, causing debris to fall into water. We can’t see water, but there is water, because sound is information. This river is smooth flowing and must be gracefully meandering, because steeper rivers with obstructions would make rushing sounds.
As night arrives, something wonderful happens; we are all ears. Every detail of the jungle is revealed in the myriad of insects and frogs that weave intricate patterns, which, to the informed Cofan, allow them to navigate at night. Human ears are perfectly tuned to hear the sounds of nature; so well, that hearing can serve as a biological flashlight not just to humans, but bats, dolphins and most mammals, who, as a rule with few exceptions, are nocturnal.
It is important that we preserve places free of noise pollution, not just for our own enjoyment and study, but also because clean acoustic habitats are as necessary for wildlife survival as food, water and shelter.
Could it be that the Białowieża Forest is speaking to us, too? What would we hear when listening there? What does Białowieża tell us about the time of day, season, sunlight, habitat health and air quality? When we listen closely – truly listen – we find that each place has a music of its own.