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Over his long career, Gordon Hempton has mastered the art of truly listening. He’s known as the Sound Tracker. Some people call him an acoustic ecologist. His recordings and books have made him an international expert on the beauty and importance of undisturbed, natural soundscapes—and the ways human beings have changed them.
Now, Hempton is losing his hearing. But with that loss has come an intense urgency to share his life’s work—and his passion—with as many people as are willing to listen.
So, Hempton and BirdNote have teamed up to bring you a truly unique audio experience. Over the seven episodes of this podcast, we’ll be immersed in soundscapes that Gordon hand-picked from some of the most wild, beautiful and sound-rich places he’s visited.
And, he’ll give us a crash course in the art of truly listening—something that he says is a dying art, constantly under threat in our noisy, modern lives.
Sound Escapes, Episode 1: Relearn the Art of Listening
Hempton says children are the best listeners. "There's nothing we need to teach a preschooler about listening." But as people grow older, listening gets schooled out of us. We learn to filter sights, sounds, and information in order to keep the world managable. Now, adults need to re-learn how to listen. Hempton had to do it, and you can, too.
Sound Escapes, Episode 2: The Song of the Big Island
This soundscape comes from the western shore of Hawaii's Big Island. It was recorded on beaches and lowlands, where today live many non-native species—Northern Cardinal, Zebra Dove, and Common Myna, among others. "It's almost as if the birds aren't listening to each other; they're like singing on top of each other," Hempton says. "This is a convention of street musicians gathered from all over the world that are all playing at the same time to their own preferred genre." (Download a bird list for this episode.)
Sound Escapes, Episode 3: The Auditory Horizon
Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park is one of the least noise-polluted spaces in North America. It has a large sound horizon, which means Hempton's microphone can pick up sounds eight miles away in every direction—and 15 miles away in some places. This recording was made in the early morning, as the stars just began to disappear, and night's insects faded into morning birdsong. "As the light gets a little brighter on the horizon, things really come alive," he says. (Download a bird list for this episode.)
Sound Escapes, Episode 4: Land Between the Lakes
Located on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee is Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. In the late 1900s, as part of the New Deal, people dammed rivers, which had the effect of submerging towns and farms—and over a century later, it's a haven for migrating and resident birds. Hundreds of species visit here in the spring, when this recording was made. Listen closely to hear the whirring of insect wings. (Download a bird list for this episode.)
Sound Escapes, Episode 5: Riot of Music
The Mississippi River is a busy highway. It has train tracks and roads on both sides, towns up and down the river, and then you have boat traffic. It was challenging for Hempton to capture the natural soundscape, and he managed to record a rare moment when the river was still before dawn. "This is almost like the symphony when they're tuning the instruments," he says. "At one point even the woodpeckers get in there with the percussion session. As it begins to build and build, it develops a voice of its own." (Download a bird list for this episode.)
Sound Escapes, Episode 6: Cold Lake Amphitheater
The geography of the Methow Valley in eastern Washington, with steep slopes funneling down to waterways below, makes for a perfect amphitheater. This recording, made on a lake in early morning, captures minute sounds—like tiny splashes from lake trout catching insects—from a great distance. "We are hearing a much larger area than we would normally because all sound that enters the surface of the lake continues to travel across the surface rather than normally radiate out and become faint," Hempton says. (Download a bird list for this episode.)
Sound Escapes, Episode 7: Nightfall on the Zabalo
For this episode, Hempton brought a binaural microphone on a boat ride down the Zabalo River in Ecuador, capturing the aural journey as if you were in the boat with him. "This is a completely undisturbed ecosystem," Hempton says. "It's an opportunity for us to wonder about life." Hear trogons, tinamous, motmots, and a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl. (Download a bird list for this episode.)