If you had a chance to see the movie Walking Out at the Sundance Film Festival last week, you would have 1. been pretty lucky (the tickets were sold out far in advance), and 2. heard an incredibly rich mix of audio recordings from Montana’s backcountry. We’re proud to say that the library’s Acoustic Atlas contributed many of those recordings to the film.
Walking Out was shot mostly outdoors near Montana’s Crazy Mountains, and the filmmakers wanted the right sounds to match their epic cinematography. They knew that by coming to us, they would not only get great sounds, but also recordings of the actual places and species in their movie.
The movie adapts David Quammen’s short story of the same name and is written and directed by Montana filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith. It’s the story of a father and son hunting trip that turns into a struggle for survival. Variety called it a “lyrical and moving exploration of both the Montana backwoods and the human soul.”
I was able to visit Park City for a showing of the movie, and it was a thrill to see it all come together in the theater. Even though the movie is a work of fiction, those elk bugles and bird calls weren’t recorded on a Hollywood sound stage. The sounds are as real as it gets.
Keep an eye out for the movie later this year. Want to hear some of the sounds? Visit acousticatlas.org.
A curious lamb examines some recording gear. Photo by Jeff Rice.
The library celebrates the launch of the Ivan Doig Archive later this month and the Acoustic Atlas is pairing audio recordings with some of the collection’s digital content. This summer we have gathered everything from the sounds of birds and coyotes to haying equipment, all relating to the late author’s novels and other writings.
As the summer comes to a close, we have saved the best for last. Our collection wouldn’t be complete without a nod to that staple of Montana ranching, the sheep.
Sheep ranching was central to Doig’s life and stories. His father and his Scottish relatives herded sheep across the high meadows around White Sulphur Springs, and for a while at least, central Montana was wild and woolly.
“All the places I liked best had the sounds and smells and feels which came one way or another from the herds and flocks out on the leathered slope of grassland,” Doig wrote in his memoir This House of Sky.
When I visited White Sulphur Springs this summer, I assumed that finding sheep would be the least of my worries. I half expected the town to be overrun with them.
Surprisingly, there are actually few sheep left in the area. For years, cattle have been more profitable and far more popular. One small flock of sheep stood on the edge of town just off the highway, but I was told that if I wanted to find a larger herd I would need to go about 30 miles down the road. That meant the Bair Ranch near Martinsdale.
Luck was with me when I called there. “Sure,” they said. “We’re going to be driving about 3000 sheep up the road to a new pasture tomorrow.” A good sheep drive doesn’t happen every day, even in Montana, so I jumped at the opportunity.
I showed up at 5:30 AM just as the herders were arriving. Many of them were from Argentina and spoke mostly Spanish. Off-road vehicles took the place of horses, but other than that there seemed to be little difference between modern sheep herding and Doig’s era. The foreman was expecting my arrival and directed me to set up my microphone near a gate in the fence — and to stay out of the way.
There is little stopping a stampede of sheep. “In their best of times sheep go through life in a near panic,” Doig once wrote. But the herders and their dogs knew what they were doing. The sheep crossed onto the road in a surprisingly orderly fashion. You could hear their bleating from more than a mile away as they moved down the highway toward their new pasture. Take a listen and see if you can count the number of hooves and divide by four.
The NPR program Here and Now interviewed Acoustic Atlas audio producer Jennifer Jerrett last week about some of the sounds she is recording in Yellowstone National Park. Jennifer is recording in Yellowstone as part of a cooperative agreement between the MSU Library and the Park Service.
Sounds included an incredible grizzly bear roar, cougar calls, and wildfire recordings, among several others soon to be available on the Acoustic Atlas. Here and Now has been visiting parks across the country as part of a series on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service.
Surfers in Santa Cruz, California. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Since the 1970s, recordings of ocean waves have been the stock and trade of nature sound recordists and new age musicians. This is due in large part to the success of one man named Irv Teibel, who all but invented the hippie soundscape. He recorded ocean waves, birds and soothing streams and packaged them as a groovy “Decongestant For the Mind,” perfect for massage therapists and California dreamers.
Even if you have never heard of Irv Teibel, you know his influence. You may have even seen his Environments series in your local thrift store record bin. His first album included the “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore” that was marketed, brilliantly, as “The Future of Music.”
In fact, Teibel’s album did have a lot in common with music. It was a fabrication of editing and mixing that included, yes, some real ocean sounds (from New York’s Brighton Beach), but also computer-enhanced white noise that created something that Teibel felt was even more authentic. (You can read an excellent profile of Teibel in Atlas Obscura.) Whatever it was, it struck a chord and Teibel sold millions of copies from the series. Now many people assume that what they heard on those albums was an accurate reflection of the natural environment.
That can be a little frustrating. When I make recordings, many people assume I am out to capture the soothing, relaxing sounds of the environment. Some of the sounds on the library’s Acoustic Atlas are actually pretty relaxing, but that’s not our goal. We’re trying to capture what places and animals really sound like, which can be surprising. Frogs don’t always go ribbit, birds aren’t always mellifluous and oceans don’t always wash gently against the shore.
That said, I felt the presence of Teibel over the weekend as I trekked out with my microphone to Natural Bridges State Beach in the hippie enclave of Santa Cruz, California. I have recorded ocean waves at many different beaches across the West and down into Mexico. They all sound a little different. Some sound radically different. It depends on the geology of the beach, the weather conditions and many other factors. In this case, the medium-sized waves pounded the sand in a nice, low frequency pulse of Teibel-esque white noise.
It has always struck me as odd that ocean waves are soothing to people. They can be quite loud, and create an insistent wall of noise that is hard to write off as mellow background pablum. Waves are intense and crash on the shore. Given the chance, they might pick you up and sweep you out to sea. But I admit that I too find them calming. I don’t know why that is, but I’m a sucker for the sound of waves just as much as anyone. Feel free to get out your incense and scented candles and take a listen.
The Olympic marmot is one of three marmot species found in the United States. It is endemic to Olympic National Park in Washington, where this particular one was recorded today for the library’s Acoustic Atlas.
Montana residents might be more familiar with the yellow-bellied marmot. It inhabits local alpine areas like Bridger Bowl Ski Resort, where we captured a 2014 recording. It also makes a snappy ringtone.
A sign for Dupuyer Creek in Dupuyer, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Ivan Doig’s second novel English Creek introduces one of Doig’s best-known literary creations, the McCaskill family. Its main character, Jick McCaskill, is a 14-year-old boy negotiating small-town life in Depression-era Montana, and English Creek is his coming of age story. Jick and the McCaskill’s are loosely based on Doig’s memories of his own family and the people he knew while growing up along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front.
As much as the book is a work of fiction, the places and people in it ring true. English Creek itself winds through fictional composites of the small towns where Doig lived much of his life through high school. “Some of the geography is actual,” writes Doig in the book’s Acknowledgements. “I’m afraid, though, that anyone who attempts to sort the real from the imagined in this book is in for confusion.”
In a way, that has been my job this summer—sorting the real from the imagined in some of Doig’s work. I have been visiting several of the places that Doig wrote about, and trying to capture a feel for them. In the case of the eponymous English Creek, Doig would not necessarily say that it was a real place on the map, but if it were (he has implied), the nearest thing to it would be Dupuyer Creek. That creek runs right through the town of Dupuyer, where I visited earlier this month.
Bear spray is recommended for those hiking along the Rocky Mountain Front. Photo by Jeff Rice.
One thing about this creek, however, is very different from the one described in the novel, and from the place experienced by Doig as well. Over the past 20 or so years, some new residents have arrived. Grizzly bears have been expanding their range and now regularly show up in and around the town and other areas along the mountains and prairies. I was told by local residents that the bears like to follow the creek bottoms and will often nap in the heavy brush by the water during hot afternoons. I was advised to keep an eye out and carry bear spray, even when recording the creek in the center of town.
Take a listen to Dupuyer Creek (AKA English Creek) in the recording below. But don’t get too comfortable.
Visitors sledding at White Sands National Monument. Photo by Jeff Rice.
What does 115 degrees in New Mexico sound like? White Sands National Monument seemed to sizzle as insects called from the side of the road last weekend. The gypsum sand looked like fresh snow. People even brought sleds.
The writer Ivan Doig was a keen observer of the natural environment, especially the birds of the West. “None of us spoke while the songs of the birds poured undiluted,” remembers a character in Doig’s novel Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. It was a deference shared by the author, who was an avid birdwatcher.
This summer, the Acoustic Atlas is traveling to some of the places that influenced Doig, and we are capturing recordings of many of his favorite birds. The recordings will become part of the library’s collection of Doig’s papers, now being digitized for presentation online this fall.
“I suppose we were afraid the spate of loveliest sound would vanish if we broke it with so much as a whisper,” Doig wrote in the novel. “But after a bit came the realization that the music of birds formed a natural part of this place, constant as the glorious grass that made feathered life thrive.”
One such constant is the Western meadowlark. We hope you will enjoy this recording of a solitary bird near Ringling, Montana just outside of White Sulphur Springs where Doig spent his early childhood years. (Special thanks to BirdNote for inspiring this blog.)
Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.
If a place ever beckoned to a nature recordist, it is Ear Mountain. I had never been there, but saw the name on a map and had to visit.
I happened to be in nearby Choteau, Montana for a project related to the writings of Ivan Doig. This summer, I am tracing some of the locations Doig wrote about in books like This House of Sky and English Creek. The project is supported by the library’s Acoustic Atlas, and over the past month it has taken me from White Sulphur Springs to the Rocky Mountain Front, with a few detours to the northernmost part of western Washington. Continue reading →
Late last Friday, I discovered that the first week in March celebrates Aldo Leopold, the American author, environmentalist, and philosopher. I sat down to explore how the famed conservationist wrote about sound. Yet I found my fingers balking at the keys. My memory circles the personal impact of a man who’s words on wildlife and wildness thread through my own life. Recalling his significance to me, self-doubt persuades that I cannot possibly do justice to one of America’s most renowned ecologists and nature writers.
Then, after a little digging and reflection, I am reminded that Leopold’s land ethic is born of humility. Leopold wrote of the need to humble ourselves before natural systems of complexity and nuance and grace beyond comprehension. It seems fitting to quiet my mind and offer a small homage to an author who put words to our obligations to the majesty that is life on earth.
There is a passage from A Sand County Almanac that fit into my heart from first read and reverberates whenever I have occasion to contemplate the wild. As a young man in the Forest Service in the Southwest, Leopold shot into a pack of wolves:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Leopold’s fierce green fireis a moment of regret and redemption, vulnerability and compassion, kinship and divergence. Throughout his Thinking Like a Mountain essay, the wolf appears as a guide in the evolution of Leopold’s thinking on top predators and ecological systems. And Leopold wrote of listening to Canis lupus as much as observing them visually:
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night.
Leopold’s descriptions of wolf howls are rooted in the relational; he writes of the auditory experience empathically:
It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.
And in solidarity with the community of life:
Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.
And with humility in recognition of the smallness of our stature:
Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
I said that Leopold threads through my life: as a southwestern child amidst the Bring Back the Lobo campaign; as an undergraduate student studying natural resource policy and state wolf management in particular; and as an adult who didn’t so much move to Montana as immigrate to wolf country. Wolves or their absence have always been with me. Perhaps Aldo Leopold’s words resonate with me simply due to exposure – his works experienced a resurgence that neatly overlaps my lifespan. I am sure that I owe my love and curiosity for wolves in no small part to Aldo Leopold. Yet I think he would maintain that he simply put words to a universal connection:
Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.
In Song of the Gavilan, another essay in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold answers what might be the most important question of all: how do we hear secrets whispered between wolves and mountains? The answer, of course, is to still ourselves and listen:
To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony – its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.
It is a tall order to live in Leopold’s landscapes: to immerse ourselves in simple living in an untrammeled place. But we can still look up to the Pleiades: