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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Thoreauvian Peace & Quiet

Air Date: Week of

In the vast developed areas that sprawl between our cities, quiet places are even harder to find than open spaces. Even Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau's symbol of tranquillity has so many visitors and nearby roads that real solitude is nearly impossible to find there. But, Thoreauvian solitude is what Peter Acker seeks. Mr. Acker crisscrosses New England collecting natural sound from places Thoreau visited and wrote about: the Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and Walden. He plans to release a three CD set of these recordings later this year. Producer Kim Motylewski set out to find out what Peter Acker, and the rest of us, are up against in the search for the true sounds of nature.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the vast developed areas that sprawl between our cities, quiet places are even harder to find than open spaces. Even Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau's symbol of tranquility, has so many visitors and nearby roads that real solitude is nearly impossible to find there. But Thoreauvian solitude is what Peter Acker seeks. Mr. Acker has crisscrossed New England, collecting natural sounds from places Thoreau visited and wrote about: the Maine woods, Cape Cod, and of course Walden. He plans to release a 3-CD set of his work later this year. We sent producer Kim Motylewski to find out what Peter Acker and the rest of us are up against in the search for the true sounds of nature.

(Bird songs)

MOTYLEWSKI: At 5 in the morning lots of birds are up but not many people. That's the way sound recordist Peter Acker likes it. He's about to sample the soundscape in Esterbrook Woods, one of Henry David Thoreau's haunts across town from Walden Pond.

ACKER: If I can walk out of here with a minute of (laughs) -- of uninterrupted sound from Route 2 and 95, I'll be happy.

MOTYLEWSKI: Acker's breath is visible in the dawn light.

(Sounds of velcro; other bumps and grinds)

MOTYLEWSKI: He plugs in a battery pack and snaps cable together. Then he pulls out a lifelike black plastic head and screws it onto a pole.

ACKER: I call him Max. I mean, the technical name is the KU-100, but Max just sounds a lot friendlier.

MOTYLEWSKI: Max has microphones embedded in each ear. He hears a lot like a person.

ACKER: Now I'm pulling out his rock star wig. It actually helps with the stereo imaging; don't ask me why. It just does.

(Bird song amidst shuffling sounds)

MOTYLEWSKI: Black and curly.

ACKER: I wish I had hair like that.

MOTYLEWSKI: Acker jokes, but he works quickly. His morning mission is to record a few peaceful moments uninterrupted by machine noise. He's tried Walden Pond but found it too noisy, so he's moved on to Esterbrook Woods. Acker's goal seems as ambitious as the spiritual quest Thoreau launched in 1845.

MAN: (Reading from Walden) I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

MOTYLEWSKI: Thoreau often wrote of Esterbrook Country in his journal. Many farmers had pastures, woodlots, and sawmills here, including Thoreau's father.


ACKER: Right now we're going to go down to the -- there's a little marsh down here where the geese hang out. (Breathing heavily) So we're going to go check that out.

(More footfalls)

MOTYLEWSKI: Peter Acker figures he's got maybe an hour of quiet ahead. He balances Max on his shoulder and walks briskly.

(Footfalls; geese honking)

MOTYLEWSKI: It's 10 minutes to 6 when we reach the marsh. The sun hovers below the horizon, coloring the clouds violet. A veil of mist hangs over the water. We hear the geese approaching overhead, and Acker jogs over the embankment, stands Max on the ground and begins to record.

(Geese honking louder; joined by jet)

MOTYLEWSKI: But the honking is soon blanketed by the drone of a passing jet.

(Geese honking and jet)

MOTYLEWSKI: That must be very frustrating. I mean here we are, this great moment.

ACKER: Oh yeah. You know, especially the imagery with -- you had the perspective of the geese flying in from behind you and low overhead; it was wonderful. And then there's the jet. (Sighs amidst honking) Oh darn. (Laughs)

MOTYLEWSKI: Acker walks a fine line. He must stay true to this place. He never layers or processes sound on his recordings. But he has to produce something that people will pay to hear. That means no planes, no cars, no motors. Even though as Thoreau notes, engines have breached the quiet here for more than a century.

MAN: (Reading from Walden) The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my wood summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town. Or adventurous country traders from the other side.

ACKER: People will clamor and raise a stink if, you know, there's a cellular tower that goes on a distant hill. And wouldn't it be nice if we had that same sort of uproar about noise pollution. It's not very often that you are away from that. And when you are it's something special. I think it kind of wakes up everything else.

MOTYLEWSKI: Acker figures he's through for the day. Flights from the nearby Air Force base have begun, but we pursue the geese one last time.

ACKER: It sounds like they flew off.

MOTYLEWSKI: Shall we try the field?

ACKER: Yeah, let's take a peek.


MOTYLEWSKI: Acker shoulders his binaural buddy again, and we bushwhack up a short rise. Then Max has a fashion crisis.


MOTYLEWSKI: You lost your wig. He lost his wig. Hey, Peter.

ACKER: Look at this hair sample, where do you think it's from? I don't know, a bear maybe. (Laughs) Good God. If my mother could see me now. Let's try this again.


MOTYLEWSKI: We wander around a bit without much luck. Around 6:15 we're back at the pond's edge, feeling discouraged. Then several geese float across the water and an orchestra of song birds rises around us.

(Honking geese with bird song)

MOTYLEWSKI: And this time, no airplanes, no cars. Peter Acker scrambles down the embankment once more for a front row seat.

(More honking and bird song, growing louder)

MAN: (Reading from Walden) A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

(Honking and bird song continue; geese fly with beating wings; honking fades)

MOTYLEWSKI: What do you think of that?

ACKER: That was pretty damn nice. Pretty damn nice. I like it. And now if you just pick a spot and sit, nature happens around you. Yeah, and it's really great.

MOTYLEWSKI: It was as if we'd slipped between 2 moments and found a still point, not a piece of Thoreau's world but a pause in the commerce of our own that allowed for something ancient to happen. We stood stock still; our hearts and ears kept time with the geese and the song birds. Nothing else mattered. Peter Acker calls these live performances of nature, and they're mind- cleansing.

ACKER: If this work has brought something to enrich my life, that's it. Listening. I mean, just -- just being there, being in that moment.

MOTYLEWSKI: Such moments are harder than ever to find, and a recording is no substitute for experience. But Peter Acker's CDs serve a timeless purpose. To honor the chorus of life, quiet the mind, and whet the listener's appetite for the real thing.

MAN: (Reading from Walden) Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness. To wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow hen lurk, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. We can never have enough of nature.

(Geese honk; birds sing)

MOTYLEWSKI: For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.



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