Early one morning this past March, amid the rust-colored rocks and branching cacti of Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument, a man carrying two microphones approached a Scott’s Oriole calling from a thicket of blooming mesquite. As he crept forward, he noticed that the desert blossoms had attracted dozens of bees, whose buzzing threatened to drown out the oriole’s song. He contorted himself to circumvent the insects, but scrub brush blocked his every turn. Frustrated, he left the scene certain his recording was worthless.
The man was Lang Elliot, a seasoned nature-recording artist, and when he listened to the tape later on he was surprised by what he heard: the melodic rising and falling whistle of the oriole, peppered with softer calls from other nearby birds and an undulating buzz of bees. It wasn't anything like the recordings he'd been making for decades, but that was the whole point of his stop at Organ Pipe—to experiment with new ways of capturing whole environments, or what Elliot calls soundscapes. That morning he'd just fallen back into his old, tried-and-true recording mindset.
“I loved it,” Elliot says. “It was sort of wallowing in the soundscape.”
For 30 years, Elliot has recorded the sounds of the outdoors by capturing the isolated calls of animals. His nature recordings—including hundreds of North American bird species, as well as frogs, toads, insects, and other wildlife—have accompanied field guides and books used by ornithologists and novice birders alike. (His avian recordings also appear throughout Audubon’s website and on the Audubon Bird Guide App.) More recently, though, Elliot has transitioned to producing his more artistic soundscapes. And now he has taken to the open road, driving across the West while recounting his journey in a new podcast, The Music of Nature, while uploading dozens of soundscapes onto his Soundcloud page, all edited and produced on his own.
The idea of sharing his personal experiences as “a wandering poet of the American West” came to Elliot after a two-year battle with throat cancer. Months of radiation and surgery changed him; they even changed his voice. The illness kept him confined indoors, and he longed to immerse himself in the wilderness again. He also craved the freedom to travel transiently. So when it came time to get back to recording, he decided to throw himself into the soundscapes he'd played with in the past. “I was almost in need of an adventure,” he says. He came up with a plan to travel the West for at least six months starting with spring migration. As he uploaded his podcasts and soundscapes, he would also keep an updated an interactive map so that people could follow his audio journey.
For the last three months, he’s been road-tripping in his Subaru Forester from the marshes of Louisiana, through the forests and river valleys of Texas, and then onto the deserts of Arizona. While Elliot knows the types of habitats and species he wants to highlight in his recordings, his itinerary is loose, and he prefers to improvise when selecting his recording spots. He moves on if it’s too crowded with tourists, but he will stick it out through windy, messy weather until it’s better to record. He may hike up and down hills before dawn to find the best spot to place his recording equipment, planning ahead for an early morning bird symphony.
His recordings come in two types: pure soundscapes and narrated podcasts. The soundscapes, which Elliot compares to Japanese Haiku, are snippets of his time that usually focus on a single subject, like the overnight calls of the Elf Owl or the “Oriole and Bees” at Organ Pipe National Monument. Each piece captures the ambient noise in a place over a short period of time with no narration or description. "I'm capturing these brief encounters," he says. "They're all different. Every one is unique."
The longer podcast episodes focus on one location—a park or a river valley, for instance—and take the listener on an auditory journey the area. Though narrated, the talking is kept to a minimum. Elliot often starts with a cheerful “hi, friends.” Then he floods his listeners with ambience, adding a few optimistic notes along the way. "Oh my," he laughs in one episode, while describing how bad weather impeded his work in Louisiana, “just about the worst conditions possible for a nature recordist.” Elliot tends to give a brief description of the habitat type or note which bird species is calling loudest, “but you can find the rest in a field guide,” he says.
The ambient sounds are rich and full thanks to Elliot’s use of binaural microphones. First used by radio dramas nearly a century ago, the setup—two microphones placed seven inches apart with a shield in between—is meant to mimic hearing inside the human head. It provides a sense of realism to the pieces that produce an engrossing effect, whether you’re listening to the calls of coyotes at night in Pena Blanca Lake near the Arizona-Mexico border or Common Pauraques in the Lower Rio Grande River Valley of Texas.
So far, Elliot has produced four podcast episodes over three months of traveling through the coastal marshes of Louisiana and across Texas to Big Bend National Park. He’s faced a series of flat tires, hiked under cougar warnings, and even witnessed migrants crossing the Mexican-American border. In the coming months, he’ll move up toward Idaho and Oregon in the Rockies and Cascade Mountains. But he’s also in no rush. Elliot originally planned to visit more spots on his westward journey, but he’s chosen to skip trips that would take him hours out of the way so he can focus and enjoy one place at a time.
“It’s just like, ’Settle down, Lang,’ ” he says. “Sink your teeth in and enjoy what’s happening here.”
Elliot Lang’s next podcast episode on Organ Pipe and his travels in Arizona will be available soon with his previous episodes in the Apple Podcast App and Stitcher, but his shorter soundscapes are available on Soundcloud. You can donate to support his project on his website.