Local filmmaker, author and photographer Pete McBride’s new book, “Seeing Silence: The Beauty of the World’s Most Quiet Places,” is a meditation on how natural, wild space is defined as much by sound as anything immediately visual.
The book, published in September with dozens of never-before-seen photos from his assignments for national magazines across seven continents, describes an epiphany McBride experienced as he and Kevin Fedarko were through-hiking the Grand Canyon. During their 750-mile trek, completed in pieces in 2016, the natural silence was so deep, you could hear the flapping of bat wings. It made McBride realize how “the least appreciated and often hardest-to-document marvels are not the breathtaking vistas I chase with my camera but the blanket of calm that surrounds them,” he writes in the book’s introduction.
As they settled into walking for many hours at a time without speaking a word, they also found themselves more in tune with the landscape, which developed into a survival technique. In an interview this month, McBride said he and Fedarko — whose journey resulted in an award-winning book and movie — learned to keep an ear out for increasing insect life, because that was an indication that there might be water nearby.
The Grand Canyon hike, which documented mounting threats to the canyon’s sanctity, solidified the idea for the book, which will be the subject of a presentation that McBride will give at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday in partnership with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. (Aspen Journalism is an event sponsor, and McBride sits on Aspen Journalism’s board.)
But the seed for the project germinated over the course of trips in 2009 and 2014 to the Colorado River Delta region — a less-well-known stretch of the same river forming the Grand Canyon and at whose headwaters Aspen sits.
On the 2009 trip, McBride witnessed how, due to overallocation, the river dies in a swampy muck about 100 miles from the Gulf of California. He traveled, mostly on foot, the length of the channel from shortly before where it first ran dry to its former delta. Although the river channel was replenished by the flows of a tributary about 60 miles in, that wet stretch died out again about 30 miles from the sea. McBride estimates that of the last 100 miles of the river’s natural channel, he was able to use his paddle board for a total of 8 miles. The quiet that he experienced on that trip, devoid of natural riparian life, was eerie, he said.
“You’d go to bed and all you’d hear are packs of howling dogs and the distant drone of vehicles,” McBride said.
In 2014, arrangements were made for a “pulse flow” of water to run through the channel so that the river could briefly reach the sea. McBride returned and was able to float the length that he previously had walked.
“It went from this dead, totally empty landscape to a symphony of wild sounds,” with jumping fish, songbirds “going bonkers,” insects and coyotes, he said, describing the jarring juxtaposition with the soundscape on the 2009 trip. “Obviously seeing water … and floating a river where I originally had walked it (was powerful), but that experience of what I heard was more powerful.”
Escaping the anthrophony
There are three types of sound in this world, as cataloged by “acoustic ecologists” cited in the book: geophony (formed by wind and water), biophony (sung by organisms) and anthrophony (from humans and our creations).
Any dedicated practice seeking out the first two leads one to understand how hard it is to escape the latter.
Gordon Hempton, a natural-sound expert cited in McBride’s book, in 1984 identified 21 places in the state of Washington where one could experience natural silence — free of human-made sounds — in intervals of 15 minutes or longer. When he revisited those places in 2007, he found that only three still qualified.
McBride said it is challenging, even in the wilderness in Aspen’s backyard, to notch more than a few minutes at a time of natural silence. A main culprit is aviation traffic. He described a climb of North Maroon Peak this past summer when he and his brother, John, were timing the intervals of natural silence — and 3 or 4 minutes couldn’t elapse without their hearing a jet. He added that from the peak’s craggy ledges, he could hear a plane take off from the Aspen airport.
It’s one thing for humans to be annoyed by our own anthrophony, but for species that rely on sound for their own survival, the din can be deadly. For example, whales can use sound to communicate over vast distances, but shipping traffic severs those lines. And McBride notes how frogs croak in unison to make it harder for predators to identify a creature’s specific location. One loud jet flying overhead scares them, quieting the blanket of sound and making them more vulnerable.
“The book is a reminder — it’s not just an escape to pretty places, it’s not meant to be just a postcard book — it’s a reminder to make us think about our impacts on a different level,” McBride said.
Although humans are accustomed to thinking about land uses altered or pollution choking the atmosphere, more attention ought to be paid to sounds we produce, and the natural sound patterns we alter.
At Sunday’s event at the Wheeler, where attendees are required to be masked and arrive with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test administered within 72 hours, McBride will share slides from the book and talk about some of his experiences that it documents, including swimming with orcas in Norwegian fjords, walking alongside the Amazon River in the jungles of Peru and getting to know the “icefall doctors” who decide where to set crevasse-crossing ladders and set rope lines for climbers on Mount Everest.
Presenting in Aspen will be a treat for McBride, who travels far and wide giving similar talks. He said he has been taken by the power of the concept of silence to cut across cultural divides. It’s more relatable than other environmental topics that tend to become politically charged, since nearly everyone has experienced the soothing nature of peace and quiet in one way or another. But McBride said he hopes opening that door will lead to more conversations about conservation, climate and environmental impact.
“I’ve been lucky, due to what I do, to be forced into these places, and I’ve learned there is this whole other language going on defined by natural sounds that we have somewhat forgotten,” he said.
This story ran in the Dec. 16 edition of The Aspen Times.