Writing Sound: Howling for Leopold Week

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.Photo Credit: Jim Peaco/NPS

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 fire is 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.

Audio credit: “Grey Wolves, 8-Mile Pack” NPS/Jennifer Jerrett, hosted by Acoustic Atlas.

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:

"Meteor at the Pleiades" by Luis Argerich used in accordance with CC BY-NC 2.0.

And listen to the howl of a wolf:

Audio credit: “Wolf howling, Lamar Valley” NPS/Jennifer Jerrett, hosted by Acoustic Atlas.

And think hard of everything we have seen and tried to understand.

You can listen to more wolf howls via the Acoustic Atlas. You can hear an inspiring vignette about wolves breaking the silence in Yellowstone National Park in Winter Wolves, an audio postcard produced by Yellowstone National Park.

Grey Wolves, 8-Mile Pack” and “Wolves howling, Lamar Valley” public domain audio recorded by NPS/Jennifer Jerrett, hosted by the Acoustic Atlas. “Meteor at the Pleiades” photo credit Luis Argerich used in accordance with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License 2.0. “Alpha male (712) of the Canyon pack in the Lower Geyser Basin” photo credit Jim Peaco/NPS.

Writing sound: Theodore Roosevelt composed American wildness

Sandhill cranes in flight.

The ongoing occupation of Malheur National Wildlife refuge invites us to read – and listen to – some of what inspired the creation of America’s wildlife refuge system. Theodore Roosevelt composed American wildness, both in his naturalist writings and in ordering the protection of the landscapes that he so loved.

“If the desert is holy,” writes conservationist author Terry Tempest Williams, “it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred.” The armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge by a group of anti-government protesters this week invites us to remember a forgotten place in Oregon’s high desert and to reflect on what is sacrosanct in the American experience.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is not a blank place on the map to me; as an undergraduate student, I scraped paint on outbuildings at Malheur’s field station in exchange for board and an unforgettable week of birding and field natural history. Yet as the refuge floods back to me for the first time in years, Malheur – and indeed much of our public lands heritage – strike me as unremembered. How many Americans had never heard of Malheur – the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system – before armed protesters closed it to the people this week? And what number of us feel connected to the history and significance of its creation?

Malheur is among the more than 280,000 square miles of federal land set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt as national parks, monuments, game refuges, and bird sanctuaries. “We are not building this country of ours for a day,” he wrote. “It is to last through the ages.”

Theodore Roosevelt understood the enormous energies that were being loosed in America. And he saw that among the things they could devour, these forces, if not contained, would be some of the irreplaceable beauties of the country.

George Will, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”

More than a century after Roosevelt’s conservation presidency armed protesters have closed down one of his creations, seeking a fundamental shift in the governance of our public lands. I won’t speak to the politics of this event beyond wishing for a safe and expeditious resolution. But I will take this opportunity to share some of what Theodore Roosevelt saw – and heard – in the American landscapes he felt compelled to protect in perpetuity.

He wrote joyously about birds and their songs:

Of snow buntings:23794392759_93bd95c83f_z

Every few moments one of them would mount into the air, hovering about with quivering wings and warbling a loud, merry song with some very sweet notes. They were a most welcome little group of guests…


Of meadowlarks:

One of our sweetest, loudest songsters is the meadow-lark…the plains air seems to give it a voice, and it will perch on the top of a bush or tree and sing for hours in rich, bubbling tones…Its song has variety, power, and rich melody and there in it sometimes a cadence of wild sadness, inexpressibly touching.


Of the mourning dove:419493070_98ca0d9b18_z

From the upper branches of the cottonwood trees overhead…comes every now and then the soft, melancholy cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seems far away and expresses more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief.


He wrote of the hermit thrush’s song:

The serene ethereal beauty of the hermit’s song rising and falling through the still evening under the archways of hoary mountain forests that have endured from time everlasting…


Of the “remarkable and almost amphibious little water-wren [American dipper]:2313530208_736aab408f_z

With its sweet song, its familiarity, its very curious habit of running on of the stream several feet beneath surface of the race of rapid water, is the most noticeable of the small birds of the Rocky Mountains. It sometimes sings loudly while half spread wings on the surface of a pool.


He wrote of the “wilder, harsher, stronger sounds of the wilderness”; the sage grouse:

The guttural booming and clucking of the prairie fowl and the great sage fowl in spring…


And of flights of geese and cranes:2510083315_8ac5826aa5_z

The honking of gangs of wild geese as they fly in rapid wedges;…or the far off clanging of many sandhill cranes soaring high overhead in circles which cross and recross at an incredible altitude.


It is of note that all of the songs above – songs that more than a century ago inspired Teddy Roosevelt to set aside some of the “irreplaceable beauties of America” – can be heard on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, along with more than 310 other bird species. You can listen to more recordings – from national wildlife refuges, national parks, and across the American West – at acousticatlas.org.

The Acoustic Atlas is curated by the Montana State University Library and includes more than 2500 recordings of species and environments from throughout the Western United States. Our collection emphasizes the strong connection between natural sounds and regional ecosystems, and features a growing number of recordings from Montana and the Yellowstone corridor. Sounds are provided with the help of volunteers, researchers, and through collaborations with agencies like the National Park Service.

Sources: The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: The Wilderness Hunter, Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting TrailTheodore Roosevelt QuotesThe Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. 

Snow Bunting“, “Western Meadowlark (0000490)“, “Mourning Dove“, “Hermit Thrush“, “American Dipper song” audio files copyright 2014, Kevin Colver, all rights reserved; “Sandhill Crane and geese, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park” audio file copyright 2009, the Western Soundscape Archive at the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library, used in accordance with Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 2.0; “Greater Sage Grouse and coyotes” audio file copyright 2006, Jeff Rice, all rights reserved.

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 2.0: “Snow Bunting” by flickr user Tom Benson; “Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) DSC_0069“, “Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) DSC_0054” and “Ross’ Geese (Chen rossii) DSC_0104” by flickr user Dan Dzurisin; “Mourning Dove / Tourterelle Triste” by flickr user Eric Begin; “Hermit Thrush” by flickr user Kelly Colgan Azar; “American Dipper – Part 5 – Taking a Bow!” by flickr user Rick Leche – Photography. 

Writing sound: Thoreau and the wood thrush

We often find inspiration for tweeting sounds from the Acoustic Atlas in the words of poets, authors, and naturalists.

Alas, 140 characters are too few to do justice to many of these descriptions. So we turn to these pages to pair longer passages with recordings of the species and spaces that inspired them.

"Wood Thrush" by Kelly Colgan Azar used in accordance with CC BY-ND 2.0. Take, for example, this oft-noted description of the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) by Henry David Thoreau:

I admire the moderation of this master. There is nothing tumultuous in his song. He launches forth one strain with all his heart and life and soul; a pure and unmatchable melody and then he pauses and gives the hearer and himself time to digest this. And then another and another at suitable intervals.

Take a listen:


Thoreau’s description captures the cadence and honesty of the Wood Thrush’s refrain. His admiration for this bird extends beyond his apt observations:

This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses. It changes all hours to an eternal morning…I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me.

What species – or soundscape – is your Wood Thrush? Find your “ranz des vaches” at acousticatlas.org.

We first heard Thoreau’s quotations on the Wood Thrush from Radio Open Source’s show “The Art of Wildness”. Source for Thoreau’s quotations: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Journal, edited by Bradford Torrey. Image source: “Wood Thrush” by Kelly Colgan Azar used in accordance with CC BY-ND 2.0. Audio file copyright 2014, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved.