A 10 hour continuous durational field recording taken in the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, released originally on 3LEAVES in 2011, re-issued on a dedicated playback device in 2019.
As a species, we have begun deliberately preserving natural history, supplementing genes and fossils with artifacts – some of our own choosing. It is possible that this tendency to record is not directly in the service of man, as we might assume, but rather done so on behalf of nature herself. Perhaps it is an extension of a more natural and deeply biological force of memory. In fact, our recordings were not historically always so self-conscious as they are today. The earliest cave paintings, such as those at Chauvet, are rarely of the recordist – they are of aspects of the recordist’s natural environment. These are the original field recordings.
While recording at Shangri-La, I wondered if the residents saw the conspicuous microphone arrays as anything besides an intruder, or perhaps a benign curiosity. I wonder if had they known that those objects could remember that day for them, to bear witness to their existence, what they might have wanted to say or do. How would they have wanted to express themselves, how might they have wanted to be remembered?
There is perhaps nothing particularly special about the sonic events at Shangri-La on the evening of June 1st, except that a machine was dutifully holding vigil. It was the second time in about as many days – the first were Greg’s devices, deployed at roughly the same location a couple of nights before. The recording captures a scene almost at random, like a fossil. The location was selected by rumor, the microphones positioned by intuition, and the duration dictated by weather conditions and the necessity to make a flight departing from Green Bay at 6PM the following day.
The recording and it’s setting
The recording frames a scene taken during the Midwest Nature Recordists Campout at Seney Wildlife Refuge, which lies in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every year for nearly a decade, amateur and professional recordists have gathered to share their practice, their microphone rigs, and ultimately to record together. Richard Peet, Rob Danielson, Greg O’Drobinak, Paul Dickinson, Paul Gaudynski, and I attended the 2011 session. Sara Hollerich of the Fish and Wildlife Service facilitated the visit, granted us conditional access to the Refuge, and gave us space to recharge our machines.
After several days of frustratingly quiet conditions in the primary area of the Refuge, Greg returned to camp quite late one night from a very long excursion out to C3 Pool on the Northern boundary exclaiming that he had found “Shangri-La”. He better have. We were about to send out a search party. For days after his return I obsessed about visiting this location and was finally given a chance on the last night of recording with the assistance of Paul Dickinson and his brother’s bike.
Reaching Shangri-La is not easy. Once you get to the gate at C3 Pool, the location is a little over three miles down a gravel road. The road soon turns to grass and sand, slowly merging with the surrounding environment. A half a mile past where the road ends, the dike and channel that create the boundary of the pool meet a small winding creek. Here at Shangri-La the remnants of road border a transition between at least four discrete habitats: forested woodland, open water, sedge marsh, and bog.
The contrast between Shangri-La and the rest of the Refuge could not have been more exaggerated. Each of us at the Campout has dozens of recordings of near silence from the Refuge, punctuated only by the engines of passing tourist vehicles. Yet the scene at Shangri-La is lush and cacophonous, void of nearly every trace of machine noise.
It is a scene of abundance, alive with a flurry of activity at this confluence of habitats during the most productive time of year. Facing a beaver's dam, we hear a beaver making adjustments to control flow, sheering the surrounding vegetation, and occasionally giving the surface of the water a slap of the tail meant to ward off the intruding microphones. Behind the microphone array is an enormous sedge marsh, host to huge choruses of Mink and Green Frogs, as well as Virginia Rail, Sedge Wren, and unnamed others. As the sun sets, a huge cloud of mosquitoes becomes audible, buzzing together, swarming every living thing within reach.
The long twilight and short summer night blurs the sounds of day and night. The avian chorus at dusk mixes with the calls of frogs and toads. Trumpeter swans duet throughout the short night alongside the persistent calls of Whip-poor-wills from the adjacent woodland. Alder’s Flycatchers nesting in the scrub call to one another, advertising “free beer”. The wind blows in ahead of the dawn, moved by the yet unseen sun, sparking a dense dawn chorus – even as the residents of the night have yet to retreat for the day. Sandhill Cranes and a Black-Billed Cuckoo join the songbirds in sporadic bursts as deer forage for fresh leaves and the beaver rearranges logs. American Bittern are barely audible in the distance marshes.
Time is an important aspect of the recording at Shangri-La. The slow unfolding transitions that follow changes in light and temperature cannot be captured in five-minute clips, nor do they fit nicely in the time constraints of the Compact Disc. The ten-hour recording frames a continuous period beginning at about 8 PM, just before sunset after the winds have died down and ends in the morning after a few hours of sunlight.
The presence of man
The soundscape of Seney also includes the activities of man. The entire refuge is framed by roadways, which huge logging trucks use to transport their quarry. A freight train runs across the northern border of the land. While air traffic over the area is pleasantly rare, aircraft can occasionally be heard overhead.
The recording location at C3 Pool was sufficiently far from each of these sound sources so that the recording features the biophony of Seney, yet the sensitivity of the microphones guaranteed that some anthrophony was also recorded. Some effort has been made to minimize the sounds of the distant roadway, passing aircraft, and the rumble of the freight train, but it has not been completely removed. This was an aesthetic choice made primarily so that the drones generated by these sources did not distract from the primary subject of this recording.
A more persistent source of sonic grief, surprisingly, was the wind. It kicked up strong enough to create a whooshing sound through the tripod.
The recording was made using Audio Technica AT4022 microphones mounted in a custom partially baffled boundary array based on the PBB2N designs by Rob Danielson. The microphones and mount were placed on a tripod and fed to a Tascam DR-680 recorder. The rig was left on location overnight, unattended and powered by battery.
Post-production of the recording was extensive and included equalization, compression, and the removal of some unwanted noise generated by the mic covers and the wind. As mentioned, environmental drones created by distant vehicles and aircraft have been equalized and/or removed from the spectrum. In the full recording, frequencies below 200Hz have been cut by 10 – 15 dB to reduce the audibility of the wind.
I would like to thank the Seney National Wildlife Refuge for hosting the Midwest Nature Recordists Campout and Sara Hollerich of the Fish and Wildlife Service for facilitating our visit. Additionally, I would like to thank Ákos Garai and 3LEAVES for sponsoring this release. This recording would not have been possible without the various contributions of each member of the Midwest Nature Recordists, thank you.
I was fortunate to meet David during his days working with the Bioacoustics division of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. I was immediately taken by his great enthusiasm and soon discovered that he was already a talented nature soundscape recordist.
David is a member of a new cadre of nature recordists springing from the mileu of "soundscape art" and "acoustic ecology." Informed by soundscape pioneers such as Murray Schafer (who coined the term soundscape) and strongly influenced by contemporary soundscape artists such as Francisco Lopez (who emphasizes his own brand of profound listening), David approaches nature recording from many different perspectives.
Not only are his artistic sentiments well-honed, but he also demonstrates a strong interest in natural history. David pays great attention to the myriad creatures that contribute to the soundscape, their habitats, and the seasonal and circadian rhythms of the soundscape.
Like a true sound artist, David carefully chooses recording locations and pays great attention to the placement of his microphone so that the resulting mix is easy on the ears. His binaural microphone setup attests to his attention to detail. Derived from Rob Danielson's PBB2N design (which is based on Mike Billingsley's Stereo Ambient Sampling System), the setup produces richly spatial recordings that sound superb over speakers and headphones alike.
All this attention to detail shines through in David's stunning new production, Shangri-La (an earthly paradise), presented both in short-form (a one hour "Twilight" excerpt) and long-form (a full ten hours from dusk through dawn). The setting is the edge of a northern marsh in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The Shangri-La soundscape features a pleasant mix of species, accompanied throughout by the gentle trickle of water passing over a beaver dam. Keynote amphibian sounds are the rattling calls of gray treefrogs, the throaty gunks! of green frogs, and the occasional peeps of spring peepers. Every so often, an American Toad graces the soundscape with long, dreamlike trills.
Bird sounds are diverse, especially at dawn, and include the spirited songs of Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds, Swamp Sparrows, American Robins, Yellow Warblers, and more. Periodically throughout, one hears the resounding honks of Trumpteter Swans, a western species introduced to the refuge in the 1990s. Swans can also be heard flapping their wings as they scoot from here to there on the water surface.
At night, the frog and toad calls are complemented by the gentle, mesmerizing songs of distant whip-poor-wills. Perhaps my favorite night sound of all is the hollow winnowing of Common Snipes, caused by air passing through spread tail feathers as they fly overhead in the darkness. And then there are the mosquitoes, buzzing by the microphone in the darkness, though never so loud as to be annoying.
Altogether, I am quite impressed by this production. As I compose this review, I have the long-form recording playing in the background. It makes it easy to write, and encourages me to think pleasant thoughts and relax into the beauty of nature. Periodically, I shut my eyes and wander to that northern marsh, momentarily forgetting all the tasks at hand. The sounds of nature are a healing force, and Shangri-La begs you to enter into nature's magic, where you will soon forget all your cares and woes.