Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sounds of Silence

There’s a book out now. I haven’t read it but I think I should, and I think you should, too. It’s written by a professional musician, Bernie Krause, whose work on the soundtracks of iconic movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Apocalypse Now” as well as his regular work with iconic musicians like Bob Dylan, the Byrds, George Harrison etc. have made him a household name in households that hold professional musicians. He knows his way around recording equipment, in other words, which flags his other work of recording natural sounds in pristine habitats as particularly poignant and important. His book is about how the natural world is demonstrably and unequivocally quieting down due to environmental degradation and resultant extinctions. What stands out are some numbers: over the last 40 years, Mr. Krause has collected 4,500 hundred hours worth of sounds emitted from 15,000 species. He now estimates that half of those recordings are unique archives, impossible to repeat due to extinctions of habitat, species or both. 

Eminent scientists have been telling us for a long time. Eminent social malcontents even longer. Now it's our eminent musicians’ turn. It’s about time. Read about Krause’ book here, and see what you think. Thinking’s good, I think.

Speaking of thinking, I was driving home from town the other day, making my way west up Bear Creek Road where I usually get a good look at one of the clear and majestic Bitterroot canyons that remind me why I’ve chosen to live in Montana on short wages for so long. This time, however, I couldn’t make out the canyon a mile and a half away due to poor visibility from the smoke belching out of the giant fires to the west of us, in the wilderness, and to the south of us, from the Salmon River drainage in Idaho. The whole visible world was cloaked in an eerie, greenish-orange sunset. Quite weird and, in a perverse way, very beautiful. All I needed was a Bernie Krause soundtrack to cap it off, cinematographically-speaking.

But of course, this is no specially-effected movie of a future, fictional, degraded world a future, fictional, degraded society is struggling within like we throng to theatres to horrify ourselves with these days (“Hunger Games” just for example). My family, including our six-year-old daughter with still-growing lungs, has been breathing this off-color smoke for the last month. It’s become commonplace and expected this time of year now. I’ve lost count, but for the fourth or fifth time the Lost Trail ski hill on the Montana-Idaho border will be saved by the government the owner of the hill hates. Eventually, the deafening sound of extinction will waft over that hill, too, and for all his anti-government posturing, the well-meaning owner won't be able to stop the government from saving him, or find anyone else to blame when the ski hill finally burns other than himself and his tea-soaked cronies. Nice guy that he truly is, he’s willfully provincial. Been here too long to really understand, I guess, or to give a damn where all the meadowlarks went.

We talk much of future calamities caused by a heating world and, as a corollary, we like to scare ourselves with movies about bleak worlds that we don’t think apply to us. But we in Montana and throughout the West are just like that frog in the slowly boiling pot, who doesn’t notice she’s being boiled to death until just before the final degree kills her, and it’s far too late to jump out. Indeed, by that time, she’s quite forgotten how to jump.

These times are when Wilderness shines as the enlightened concept that it has been right from its early-20th Century start. Because we preserved some wild areas, a lot of people developed a yearning to go and see them. And because a lot of people heeded that yearning here in the Northern Rockies over the past decades, there's now a critical mass of people who might understand when someone like my humble self asks you to visualize those delicate, fairy-land tairn-ponds and wet areas up in the high country in August, fringed with pink elephant-head and purple gentian, whose primary late-summer contribution to the Whole is to ooze out the last of the melting snows into the headwaters of our creeks, which in turn are the headwaters of our rivers. Imagine now twenty years hence, more or less, when those high-altitude sponges dry up because all the snowfields disappeared in July, and there is forevermore no snowmelt to feed the creeks and rivers we paid so dearly for to call home. Imagine what’s left of our trout-laden rivers, slowing and warming to the no-return point where they can no longer support cold-water-dependent trout populations. Then ask yourself: will those living here in fifty years accept the resultant sucker holes to be the norm, and will they therefore find them beautiful. Or will they realize that there is some huge piece of themselves missing, that they are living in a horribly degraded world, forevermore? And then what?

I have a background in forestry, native-plants restoration and living large parts of my life outdoors, which doesn’t make me any kind of an expert. Just savvy enough to tell you definitively—and with profound sadness--that this is not only going to happen. It’s happening. To us. Right now.

We are living in the slowly-boiling pot. Living through our lungs in this case, viscerally, just like the frog does with her skin. We just refuse to admit that we are so confined, that we have so confined ourselves. Egocentric critters that we are—and I’m no pschycologist either--I’m guessing our degraded day-to-day reality is too much like being the star in a scary movie where the screenwriter goes on strike due to poor working conditions and refuses to save us from impossible odds. Too scary to look at.

I’ve often said that Denial is a great human tool for getting ourselves out of the woods with a broken leg, but it's also a tool that devolves into dented monkey wrenches used inappropriately as hammers when applied to politics and other social disciplines where you actually have to acknowledge the Pain in order to do anything about it.

We have all the information on Global Warming we need to compel us. Our leading scientists have been warning us for a quarter-century that it’s an observable, replicable and therefore-scientific fact that we are living far beyond our means, that catastrophes and gothic-cloaked, degraded environments await us all, rich and poor.

Now it appears even our leading musicians are willing to speak with the same irrefutable authority. And yet here we are, a quarter century after scientific officialdom felt comfortable enough with its data to declare to political officialdom that we simply must quit shitting in our nest or else, and political officialdom has not only done nothing, but has willfully shifted the state vehicle in reverse, causing the first dire predictions to become either increasingly more dire, or true. In the course of human evolution, this reversal is predictable, significant and worth examining by every one of us. The fact that bigotry—racism, religious zeolotry, apocalyptic teabaggery, war, you name it--blends so seamlessly with earthly destruction is one of the huge and impossible Pains we must acknowledge if we’re going to get ourselves out of these woods. To put it even more bluntly, our current pathetic behavior is a Pain that every single one of us denies at great peril to our children, our grandchildren and to ourselves.

Poor frogs. Poor us.

How about we evolve or something?