In the year 2025, a seven year old girl looks up at stars against the “deep, black” night-time sky, remembering that her stepmother as a child could once not see their “cool, pale, glinting light.“ Octavia Butler sets the scene for her cautionary tale, Parable of the Sower (1993), a novel which glosses the spiritual journey of the believer by cautioning against the indiscriminate sewing of seeds in infertile ground. The abundance of light in this possible world is an increasing reality. The girls’s stepmother used two words–“‘city lights‘”–to come to terms with the radical changes of nocturnal luminescence wrought: stars grew so feint in the night sky they lost visibility in her own memory. “‘Lights, progress, growth, all those things we’re too hot and too poor to bother with anymore,’” is all she was able to explain, in a post-apocalyptic tenor increasingly haunting today’s world, as the absence of darkness seems to have rendered starlight invisible in most of an over-illuminated earth.
The memory, and public remembering of an era of over-illumination haunted many works of the era with good reason, as the world of darkness has receded into the past. Novelist Russell Hoban imagined the absence of all government in a post-cataclysmic world drowned in darkness in Riddley Walker (1980), set in 2437 O.C. (Our Count, dating from an atomic blast) but haunted by fragments of the scientific language that are shard-like memories of a world lost to “counting cleverness,” which by “straining all the time with counting” eliminated of night–“‘What good is nite its only dark time it aint no good for nothing only them as want to sly and sneak and take our party a way'”–who “los out of membement who nite wer” as “they jus want day time all the time.” Echoing current environmental concern for the ozone hole, Riddley bemoans the “harms what done in poisoning the lan or when they made a goal in what they callout the O Zoan . . . you can’t see it but its there its holding in the air we brave.” The difficulty of remembering or registering the scale of global loss, and the possibility of an absence of terms to ever know the geography of stellar visibility or dark. If the reparation of “memberment” tries to keep together a world where all government is reduced to the performance of Punch & Judy puppet shows, the elimination of night is cast as a precursor to atomic apocalypse.
Are we in the midst of a current era of the lack of remembering an era that not so over-illuminated by artificial gas or electric light? The apocalyptic nature of a loss of the darkness of the night is increasingly upon us, and long before the year 4347 when Riddley Walker appears set. For the many reliant on round-the-clock work, any border between day and night is increasingly obscured. All-night work across the world have fashioned glowing landscapes of increasingly illuminated night skies, over inhabited spaces in over-illuminated lands may redefine an uncanny materiality of maps for the new millennium, evident in composite satellite images of an electrically illuminated world.
Nasa Earth Observatory/Composite Image of the Night from the Godard Space Flight Center
The notion of a “star-gazing station” that pops up along the highway may seem an improbability today. But driving an hour and a half north from Toronto, just north of Napanee, one passes a Dark Sky Viewing Area, that offers the chance for volunteer-led star-gazing, where knowledge about viewing night skies are eagerly passed down, as if out of Fahrenheit 451, offering opportunities for amateur astronomical observation of geminoid meteor showers at the “most southerly dark sky site in Ontario,” where increased stellar visibility confirms that one has moved sufficiently away from the hyper-luminescent United States to “natural brightness” to view the Milky Way in all its glory. The designation of “natural brightness”–or darkness–suggests a growing need to reckon with the geographical limits of night-time illumination. North Frontenac, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada assures, offers surroundings suitably dark in fifteen km in all directions to be designated a “Dark Sky Preserve Status” for viewing night-time skies as they once looked. The Star Gazing Pad invites all with telescopes in what seems a throwback to the popular astronomical observations of Victorian England. But it reflects growing anxieties and fears of the unprecedented skyglow and the augmented illumination of night time skies, where viewing stations are removed from major population centers. Astronomical observation in “dark sky viewing areas” exist outside of cities, near national parks, offering the possibility of respite from over illuminated skies.
Driving north from the border today, one arrives on the 401 in “dark sky country,” as if a definitive passing of the border, north of Kingston and Lake Ontario, removed from the nocturnal glow of city lights, which promises to provide the “night sky experience very similar to what was available more than 100 years ago,” promising visitors the chance to “witness–perhaps for the first time [in their lives]–how the night sky is meant to be seen.”
Again, the question of the geographical boundaries of “natural brightness” and “natural light” are called into question by sites of such “Dark Sky Viewing Stations,” which have grown rapidly in Canada as preserves to “save the stars from light pollution.” The United States was the foremost model for Butler’s cautionary tale of a post-apocalyptic future, when stellar visibility had only just returned, but only did after the decline of a world in which increasing artificial luminosity had long removed the stars from increasing portions of mankind.
The vignette helped situate readers in a time just after a global collapse, where villages and cities are walled from roving gangs of drug-crazed marauders, and any semblance of security or infrastructure is gone from memory, and has faded into a past that few save the old can recall. Lauren protests to her stepmother “there are city lights now” which don’t “hide the stars,” but the older woman is only able to shake her head in response, trying to summon earlier skyscape, and describe the changes that set the scene for the dystopia they now inhabit: “There aren’t anywhere near as many as there were. Kids have no idea what a blaze of lights cities used to be–and not long ago.” Lauren tries to recuperate an even earlier sill of reading the stars by an astronomy book that once belonged to her grandmother that allows her to decipher constellations she is now able to trace, and are newly visible in the night-time sky, using its maps as the sole means to be able to glimpse the stellar order seen in the night-time skies of bygone eras. Gas lighting was a memory of the past.
Henry David Thoreau pegged the confusion of night and day to the railroad’s expansion in mid-nineteenth century America, and to the expansion of the railroad outside of Concord. Amidst the spread of electricity, even in the unfrequented woods on the confines of town, traveling in th “electrifying atmosphere” “at some brilliant station-house in town or city,” Thoreau described the passage of trains as a new environment in their train of clouds and piercing whistle and defiant snort, acting as a giant plow amidst the countryside, registering the surprise with which even “in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants” as new environments. If this pollutes our language as “to do things ‘railroad fashion’ is now the byword,” the energetic coursing of the trains pollute his own senses not only by introducing light to the dark night where he is at peace: only after the train departs does he hear again the calls of whip-poor wills, hooting or screeching of owls, crying geese, or croaks of aldermanic bullfrogs of Walden, as if reacquainting himself with a natural sensorium of a living evening habitat that the train obscured. They return only after the retreat of any automated “path to the civilized world.” Far from the gas lighting that Thoreau had created a residence with “no path to the civilized world” in Walden Pond, even if it was with such a “deficiency of domestic sounds” that “an old-fashioned man would have lost his sensors or died of ennui” at the relative silence save squirrels on his roof, blue jays screeching, or a rabid or woodchuck beneath the house, finding privacy in a solitary life on a few square miles of forest, reclaimed from Nature, with “my own sun and moon and stars,” finding that even rare guests from the village “soon retreated, usually with light baskets [flashlights], and left ‘the world to darkness and to me,'” in an ideal of no light pollution that seems to have rapidly receded ever far away in time.
The night-time illumination of regions was tied to the introduction of the train. An animal of artificial invention, the train was a mechanical horse, snorting and creating a new environment of nature. Running across the countryside as a “fire-steed that flies all over the country,” a “cloud-compeller” that remakes its own habitat, stopping at “some brilliant station-house in town or city,” concealing the sun and leaving his own bucolic home cast into shade in its progress and he was awakened by its “defiant snort” in the middle of the night, erasing the division of day and night as it “penetrates my woods summer and winter. The progress of the train was, Thoreau suggested, to be weighted and considered a danger for the distancing of the world from nature, more than afford a support for civilization in the ability it offered to carry goods from all over the world to new locations, and provide odors carried with goods from “foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe,” an effective precursor to the smooth surface of the transit of goods and open markets we tie to globalization. Concerned that there was “something electrifying in the atmosphere” of the train depot, where men “talk and think faster,” Thoreau invited readers to balance the improvements in punctuality the train provides even to farmers and the new compass lines it create perhaps obscure the path of fate in the air “full of invisible bolts,” as the individual is tethered to the relations of time and distance the train instilled.
The rise of Railway Time by Greenwich Mean Time helped illuminate the landscape have accelerated to the premium on unelectrified unlit spaces of the present. In ways that give a new sense to “dark data,” techniques for mapping of the absence of light from an increasing share of the world suggest a new understanding of “place” that commands attention in multiple ways. The Bay Area where I live can already be seen from the sky from the International Space Station, as photographed by astronaut Randy Bresnick photographed it in one of his final trips about the planet, that bear shocking witness to the expanse of populated lands that illuminate the growth of streetlights in the Bay Area, where intense luminosity stretches from San Jose to the Carquinez Bridge:
The experience of the extreme intensity of urban blazing is echoed in the quite timely appearance of an atlas of night-time space. The use of satellite maps to chart the extent to which artificial light has come to compromise the night-time sky over the past fifteen years. For it reveals the global scale at which the growing impact of light pollution on the diminished darkness of the night-time sky not only around once sacred areas, like Stonehenge, but stands to change our sensitivity to the perception of starlight, and experience of a non-illuminated world. At one time, the definition of astrological constellations provided a basis to organize time, space, and prognostication, they offered natural guideposts for maritime navigation–as the girl in Parable of the Sower seems to suspect, even as she struggles with the absence of many clear keys for their interpretation. If Butler suggested the dark future of no stars in an alternate world of the future sometime shortly before 2024, by which time the dark sky has returned, we see little point of turning back in the maps of the over-illuminated world presented in the first-ever global atlas of light pollution atlas.
The atlas suggests we won’t so easily return to an unlit world–or at least won’t return save after a similar apocalyptic massive destruction of the over-industrialized world. The recession of stellar visibility is only beginning to be fully mapped in full, but the ever-narrowing window of night-time perception of stellar visibility seems quite timely. The global spread of man-made light pollution is the direct consequence of living in what historian Mathew Beaumont first described as “post-circadian capitalism” back in 2005– a condition where work-time is no longer governed by a clock, or biological rhythms of sleep, but both flexible employment and 24-7 economies have effectively expanded the working day to a continuous job, often enabled by continuous illumination. If Beaumont, following Jonathan Crary, has seen the sleep-deprived working worlds of the globalized world that denies the value of rest–or allows one to deny it–the attempt to process the global absence of darkness demands to be grasped as evocatively as Butler began. And one is pusehd to do so by a recent collection of the diminished global levels of starlight and stellar visibility, which invites us to try to survey what a sky without stars would be.
In the visualization of land conversion map in the header to this post, cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City haunt the transformation of landcover across the western United States, as the place-names haunt the five-color map that denote the scope of an absence of open space. From each city, expanses of red leach into the landscape, spreading outwards along patterns of settlement in ways that seem to infect the adjoining counties to register how development cascades to surrounding regions. The image shows the reduction of once-open spaces with the dramatic pace of extra-urban expansion in most western states, whose absence seems to haunt the region that we once knew as the American West, and are departed from it.
The dynamic maps suggest a poetics of loss, both qualitatively objective and evocative of the disappearance of a landscape that no longer exists. Increasingly elegant interactive data visualizations help orient viewers to a changed relation to the landscape of the west over the past twenty years, and the disappearance of what was once a notion of wilderness that have so dramatically retreated over increasingly active real estate markets and dynamics of expansion that allowed such pronounced extra-urban growth over a short period of time. The subject of the maps is not only difficult to process, but complex to navigate over time: if the use of a slider bar helps orient oneself, it also raises question of the historical implications of such a broad retreat of open spaces across western states. If the Old West seems a fixed chronotype to some, it may be that mapping the retreat of open spaces can provide a lens to chose our Romantics, or map the nature of our Romantic tie to the retreating spaces of the past and its landscapes.
But how best to read the landscape that lies beneath them, and the changed experience of the landscape they seek to describe? The stark colors of the data visualization cannot but suggest a romantic relation to place, marked by the disappearance of formerly open lands, and suggestive of a deep change over few years. The multiple levels of time that the maps of The Disappearing West, a web-based map offering ultiple datasets of different sorts of human activity presented by Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress. The elegantly interactive website of land use, showing incursions of open spaces in alarmist red, provide a way to take stock of existing changes and the dizzying pace of the disappearance of opens spaces that may even be cognitively helpful, as the scale of such changes are so difficult to process. The opportunity to examine change on different scales and over time, by use of a slider bar, provide a basis for coming to terms with the increasingly irrevocable rapidity of such changes, and indeed with the inevitable melancholy of the departure of the known world of the past, but provide a deep and irrevocable sense of how our own ability to observe the western landscape is in the process of irrevocable change.
1. Such a sense of irrevocable change was quite violently tried to be stopped when the self-designated cowboy when the out-of-state vigilante Ammon Bundy summoned like-minded ranchers who inhabit another region of the same landscape in Nevada. He summoned the ranchers who viewed themselves as rightful residents of a faded land so that they could seize public lands in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge, without justification, but to assert their imagined rights to open lands. In garrisoning one outpost of the wildlife sanctuary, without much regards to its use, they sought to stake claims to their rights to a rapidly departing map. Their reaction–but one of many to the disappearing west–suggest a point of beginning to see how we might better come to terms with the acceleration of the loss of open spaces over time, and the problems of mapping them onto the region’s powerful spatial imaginary.
For in misguidedly hoping to occupy the refuge’s offices until the United States government “release” any claims to the public lands it has long administered, they seemed to act in hopes to reclaim a landscape increasingly fragmented by overdevelopment and forever altered. As open spaces of the Old West disappear, the staying power of the mental imaginary of open lands have created a tension palpable enough for Bundy and his followers to view federal protection of pubic lands as unjust, and armed with a sense of reclaiming a lost landscape for hunting, they aggressively reclaimed a myth of a sacred relation to the land that they might experience to use firearms freely without impunity in open spaces, and eager to recast protections of public lands as if they were primarily individual restrains.
As if to stage claims to a disappearing west, Bundy sought to reclaim them for ranching and hunting from a very local point of view, resisting a disappearance of the fabled “open lands” that once defined the imaginary of the West for Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher. Bundy and his fellows railed against the government, invoking hopes to restore the conditions of the west, as if removing governmental presence would let a wilderness reserve to revert to wilderness by liberating it from alleged government control: his anti-government animus was evident in his earlier defense of the right of his father, Nevada rancher Cliven, to refuse to pay grazing fees of federal lands. Ammon encouraged a 41-day armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, 2016 to defend local claims on a national stage–although his anti-government stance was more apparent than his appreciation for the historical loss of open lands across the extent of the western states.
The outpouring of sympathy of resistance of a range of militia to Bundy’s elaborately staged reclaiming the West was a response to a shifting mental geography of the west. But the bizarrely misplaced response of such extreme violence among the Bundy and their followers in the name of reclaiming western lands seemed to act as if it was possible to restore it to a lost landscape of hunting, trapping, cattle ranching seems a geographic dream. If the maps were in their heads, it was so remote from realization to be self-indulgent. Might the interactive format of a web-based map provide a more clear-eyed way of taking account of the rapid decline of open lands across the western United States? Can interactive data mapping of California’s rapid loss of open lands in an interactive format provide a more clear-eyed ability to track their disappearance?
A recent set of two-decade old change in The Disappearing West offer an opportunity to assemble and investigate data on the drastic reduction of public lands and extent of extra-urban growth across the west that seems particularly timely as a way to chart the rapid pace of landcover change in the West in relation to the Bundy brothers’ ill-conceived attempt to the back a mythic relation to the land. The graphic tools it offers call attention to the loss of open lands in our national interior. Indeed, the increased current dangers of dismantling the public custody of remaining open lands may make the website a valuable tool of visualizing and taking stock of the extent of their reduction in recent years–and raise questions about the best ways for preventing their disappearance.
For the dangers to the western lands lie in fact less with the invasiveness of public governments or the extent of government land-holding in western states than the true value of their custodial role in preserving needed habitat and open spaces–the commons of the wilderness, if you will–that are increasingly endangered or lost. The imagined spatial geography that the Bundy clan sought to defend has long vanished, but Ammon and his brother Ryan held a spatial imaginary nourished in a landscape where federal policy, rather than local development, threatens the landscape of the west. Much as their father, Cliven, had evoked the former freedom of a once open lands of the western states once known as the “public domain,” the retaking of a federal wildlife reserve seemed a theatrical reenactment of federal lands as if a wildlife refuge constituted a last stand for defending his family’s rights.
The vigilante group illegally occupied offices of a preserve for birds for month, after intending to remain for a year. They did so in their desire to affirm a departed west, but acted somewhere between a costume party and organized terrorism in a poorly conceived defense of the Second Amendment, dressed in cowboy hats and attracting the support of anti-government militias at whose rallies Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan announced plans to occupy the refuge’s unoccupied offices on the first days of 2016, inviting armed men to sieze them to defend the idea of access to an idea of wilderness long vanished for most. The range of objects sent to them–many including sex toys that made fun of staging claims to masculinity in an isolated cabin–underscored the futility of hoping for a restoration of a rancher’s sense of the wild, by hopes to “open’ 1.4 million acres of the National Forest for logging, conjuring specters of governmental presence in untarnished lands to protest the government’s role in the US West. Their bid to renew the old rules of the western lands by exposing an undeveloped forest to forestry, challenging how the National Parks have preserved remaining isolated areas of a once-forested expanse of wilderness, suggest the need to gain purchase on the scale of the expansion of paved landcover and property development across the western United States.
While their protests were misguided, the Bundy brothers seized state facilities as if they were their natural rights, bulldozing new roads in the refuge, and attracting the attention and support of local libertarian militia until they were arrested as if protesting the death of an earlier rural America and of the once-open west through the issue of federal land-ownership. But the problems of public management of lands have little to do with the disappearance of open spaces across the western United States, if the Bundys sought to defend their ability to graze animals, hunt, camp and live in open lands increasingly curtailed in most of the United States, and even in the western states where few opens spaces remain, but where residents were long attracted to the freedom of their open space and ready to defend what they saw as the impending encroachment on common lands, and lacked much objective relation to the deep exclusion that they felt.
2. The loss of open spaces from Arizona to Oregon are far less the result of government policies than the rapid overdevelopment of western lands, and although the spatial imaginary of the Bundy and his followers directed much of their animus to the United States government, they responded to the rapid contraction of the notion of “public lands” that have changed the very image of open space across the western states, which Bundy seems only to understand–quite misguidedly–in terms of the federal policies of land management. If the notion of “the commons” has long departed from the American West, the image of those commons and rolling plains has been far more compromised and challenged by the rapidity of land conversion due to public development and the rapidity of extra-urban growth, which Bundy from the perspective of his father’s ranch may not see–and may even only be able to be entertained from a site such as the Wildlife Refuge where he and his followers holed up and presented the demand that the “federal government will relinquish such control” of the national forest it maintains in a role of stewardship, and allow “ranchers . . . kicked out of the area [to] come back and reclaim their land.”
The imagined intergenerational transmission of property rights in regions never open for ranching could be alleged to be “in accordance with the [U.S.] Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” but the desperate vigilante action was a power-play for national attention with little sustainable logic–especially given the scale at which open lands were lost to private development across the west. Whether the image of the “Oregon Territory” inspired Bundy and his crew, privately held lands (light blue) dominate Oregon far more than the small bits of National Wildlife Refuge (brown) lying in Eastern Oregon–yet Bundy alleged his case lies outside of government jurisdiction, summoning a misguided notion of natural rights to defend his personal right to the land.
3. The accelerated diminishing of green space across much of the Western United States has rapidly rewritten a landscape of once-open lands. Such rapid curtailing of open spaces, as much as revealing a change in land cover, has deeply altered the local experience of the very landscape and fragmented wildlife habitat in ways challenging to map-so radically have deep changes altered our experience of its landscape on the once-virgin west through the rapid change of once-rural lands. With over a hundred million acres lost to modification by humans, a decade of satellite imagery of land cover over eleven western states, the interactive maps The Disappearing West offer a starting point to explore, survey and take stock of the scale of massive environmental changes created by an ongoing collective redefinition of how we have come to inhabit the new landscape of the American west. Indeed the interactive timeline tracking urban expansion and landcover change offers a different ethic relation to how land ownership has led to the dramatic curtailment of formerly open space.
The progressive development of the landscape over a decade is difficult to comprehend. But the streaming of this data into multiple layers, superimposed on each state, counties, and urban areas allows foregrounded layers of the map to jump out at viewers in particularly effective ways. They help parse the eleven western states that fills 165,000 square miles of landscape–a change in land cover equal to the construction of parking lots for six million superstores, and at an annual rate of an area almost as great as the footprint of the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles–and far greater than the footprint of New York City, according to US Census records of the loss of natural lands used by Conservation Science Partners–to create a virtual profile of land conversion in an area that is increasingly fragmented by road, as once roadless areas are exposed to development. The rapid nature of such anthropogenic change has been to some overshadowed by intensity of drought and of global warming, but distances the land in a terrifyingly definitive way as the region’s open spaces are increasingly segmented by roads and transportation routes. But it has brought a fragmentation of open landscapes, driven by the expansion of roadways, overdevelopment and competition for limited resources, that have parcellized whatever protected open lands indeed remain.
The web maps focus on a uniquely revealing index of the human footprint, rather than cities, or jurisdictional lines, to suggest the extent of how we are re-writing a relation to the land. They aim to comprehend the loss of land over time a region that is reduced by a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes. The map is an attempt to depict the scale of this vanishing landscape, by a detailed record of the scale of the contraction of open lands that one can zoom to local levels, against which cities and regional names float in ghostly way, as if it describes the changes that underly a simple road map of place-names and individual states.
How can we read this record of disappearing space, save as the emergence of a new set of attitudes to the land? Its flexibility helps take stock of accelerated changes in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; the maps force us to come to terms with the scale of recent “development” of open lands in ways that have been rarely so effectively or dramatically synthesized in one site, and our increased power to comprehend and try to come to terms with the disappearance of an older landscape that was the focus of such romantic attachment,–and the rate of the recession of that imagined past.
The visualization that can be examined over time and in such striking local detail affords a basis for imagining the terrifying scale of anthropogenic change across the west, with all its attendant problems of wildlife conservation.
The detection of sound provides a primary registers by which we are able to judge spatial relations and experience space. But sensitivity to auditory sensations may be increasingly compromised to orient ourselves across much of the country; the epidemic of the extinction of “quite places” in the modern world has created a deep alienation form sounds of place, even as we can continue to map place, and a dramatic contraction of auditory horizons by which we perceive the world. Increasingly impacted by a barrage of anthropogenic sounds, the alienation that is increasingly common from natural ecosystems of sound, and predominance of sound pollution, has led acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton to devote increasing energies to making sound recordings of areas of natural sound ecologies of the Northwest in Washington State’s Olympic peninsula. The region, one of the few “deep blue” areas in recent mappings of increasingly elevated sound-polluted areas indelibly shape the acoustic and indeed neurological experience of place across the nation. Registering the increasing presence of anthropogenic noice along thresholds of decibel levels creates an image of the dramatic contraction of sound horizons that Hempton is so interested in preserving. The below map, created by computer algorithms, reveal a distribution that has rightly commanded increasing attention upon its release in no smart because of the recognizable mirror it lifts to our own world of a landscape–here, the soundscape is visibly rendered as a landscape that offers few spaces of blue in which to lose oneself–of the shrinking auditory horizons of most.
After synthesizing about 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring, the below representation of noise-levels across the nation’s roadways create a portrait of sounds likely to be heard on an average summer day presents an image of the extent of places where one can expect to encounter aural intrusions. The flyover view illustrates shifting decibel levels across the continuous forty-eight states, but most strikingly reveals the rare places marked by an absence of human-made sound. The almost inevitable infiltration of anthropogenic noises is only poised to grow further in coming years, standing to change our experience of place and how we inhabit the world.
The unprecedented registration of sound-levels mapped across the country and rendered by computer algorithms is a significant achievement, but a benchmark of human geography. The shifting hues of blues used to map the registration of sounds at above-average decibel levels reveal a significant diffusion of high levels of background sound across the nation–and suggests the radical changes our national soundscape has experienced in recent decades. For background noises have become an almost inescapable aspect of daily life. While registration of auditory differences in ambient sound across space have rarely been able to be charted with such precision, the resulting map shows a national both distinguished by far higher sound-levels than the past, and a diffusion of human-made sounds spreading from megacities to the rural hinterland, leaving diminishing differences between the two: the near-absence of lands removed from human-made sound across much of the land suggests a radical remaking of our auditory world, as loudness is no longer clearly localized. Rather than reflecting clear boundaries, the almost inescapable nature of noise-levels across much of the Eastern seaboard, midwest, and west coast lights expanses by a dim sulphuric glow, confining “wilderness”–if by that we mean by that a space where we can listen to hawks cry, hear water running in streams, rustling grasses, the conversation of rainwater with leaves, or insects’ buzz–to a small regions of deep blue that roughly match the largest national parks. Who’s to say that this is not a shift as significant as climate change?
The rising levels of human-generated background noise across the country may constitute a health risk, given established links between sound-levels and blood pressure; the near-ubiquity auditory interference also suggests a significant compromising of our sensitivities to the particularities of place that seems both particularly troubling and of historical note as a change in our lived environment and auditory atmosphere.
While reflecting human density, the map is not only a reflection of population centers–although it does map onto them–but of ambient noise. And it is even more revealing not of where noise is concentrated, than on where it is absent–those deep blue openings on the map.
The rapid expansion of anthropogenic noise has profoundly altered the national soundscape, and indeed made the protected aural environments that suggest the limited success of the management of sound a generation after the 1972 Noise Control Act set a standards of local and regional acoustical management. The acoustic data was processed by computerized algorithms to exclude local street traffic as well as variable air sounds of jets that predicts spatial differentials in the levels of unavoidable local background sound even without such outside intrusions. Human-made noise has not only outstripped population growth; the growth in rising ambient sounds has surpassed three decibel levels is perceptible in almost two thirds of the protected regions and National Parks–roughly mirroring that region of greater natural sounds, not accounting for sounds likely to be soon unleashed by the expansion of hydraulic fracking, pipeline construction, drones, and the expanding density of air travel.
The portrait of our decreasingly differentiated auditory environments raises the stakes for preserving secluded spaces that will undoubtedly compromise our own future sense of space. To be sure, the notion of a comprehensive acoustical monitoring of the entire continuous United States is not possible, and would require far more funds than the National Parks Services has at its disposal. But the picture that emerged of a shrinking space of silence–and a shrinking space of focussing on “natural” sounds, not generated by humans, is striking. Even as we receive increasing recommendations from ecotherapists urging us to act to remedy widespread affliction by nature deficit disorder by immersing ourselves in greater sensory engagement, and ecopsychologists note the health benefits of hearing leaves rustling or wind through trees, the map paints a picture of a future of radically reduced horizons for auditory engagement with unavoidable nature of anthropogenic noise. The illumination of up to half of the nation, if not two-thirds of its inhabited areas, by striking bursts of yellow suggest an encroaching inescapability of noise that may compromise our sense of space: with refuges to experience soundscapes under thirty decibels of loudness increasingly rare, ecotherapists may be conducting some seriously long distance guided trips. One’s eyes are drawn to those deep blue spaces of repose in select areas of the inner recesses of national parks, but one is simultaneously struck by their distance from the environment where one lives.
The imagined soundscape without the presence of humans–or filtering all anthropogenic sound–would reveal a national soundscape pronouncedly divided into relatively noisier eastern and significantly more silent western halves, reflecting the greater inhabitation of the half of the country east of the deserts: this seems almost an auditory Continental Divide. When Kurt Fristrup and Daniel Mennitt of Colorado State University of Fort Collins sought to map a landscape of differentials in “natural” sound across the country, they used it as a sort of base-map on which future data levels could be read: indeed, one can distinguish the deep green swirls of sounds of the Mississippi, silences of mountain ranges, and noisy coasts–but an expansive stretches of silence across most of the region west of the Continental Divide.
National Park Services Natural Sounds and Night Skies
One can usefully compare it to the contacting regions of the forested United States, based on this 2012 remotely sensed map of the woody biomass of the continuous United States, released by NASA’s Earth Observatory and created by computer modeling, that reveals the growing expanse of those regions permeable to extensive infiltration by sound.
One might compare it to horticulturalist and dendrologist C. S. Sargent’s 1884 comprehensive mapping of the density of US Forests, now digitized by David Rumsey, which presented the first detailed survey of the sort, to note the decline in tree-cover across the Great Plains and Mississippi, as well as the Great Lakes:
Wired; from Rumsey Collections
The map of “natural” sounds reveals the levels of under 40 decibels marks a threshold in the intrusion of an array of anthropogenic sounds, one that reflects the changes of how we now inhabit the continent, and how we perceive the inhabitation of space, that might be compared to Global Warming in its cascading effects of how sound spreads across its sonic space.
And in creating a synthesis of sound-levels across the nation, Frist has not only set something of a high watermark in the sound-drenched nature of our landscape. The marked change across the national soundscape that Fristrup has helped chart based on 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring reveals a shift in hearing that seems on the level of that described by visualizations of the alarming local rises in regional temperatures across the nation, which providing apparent evidence of an inevitable process of global warming: the maps below seems to suggest similarly ineluctible changes of the anthropocene at the nation’s edges that we have only begun to track, although the causation of such environmental impact to a release of greenhouse gasses is less clearly mapped in terms of causation, and human agency less readily determined than the registration of something that seems like climate change.
New York Times
Rather than consuming the edges of the country, as the above visualization of rising temperatures across the nation as evidence of impending global warming from the New York Times, noise encroaches on the country from the more populated areas more often located on its coasts and eastern shoreline. The region providing platforms to the world is not organized as a clear workspace or a set of clear property lines, but as corporate entities and logos, and where the bulk of the wealth produced has proved increasingly elusive for many of its residents. But the expansion across much of the nation’s soundscape by human generated sounds reveals what an analogous trend of man-driven change, if one that one can map with fine grain, and which impacts our perception of local experience in ways that seem more easy to measure and render at fine grain.
For the compromise of the sonic sensorium across much of the country suggests the degraded sonic environment we are transmitting to future generations. The map of the auditory landscape across the United States suggests the emergence of sizable and rapidly growing rifts on the amount of audible sound to which we are daily exposed that seem as prominent as a Continental Divide: radically different soundscapes in different parts of the country suggest a country increasingly plagued by noise–middle America or what was once known as the Midwest is distinguished by almost ubiquitous manmade background noise; intense acoustic shocks are rendered as bright corridors of noise run along Eastern seaboard of notably high loudness; only pockets of western parks, rendered as deep blue expanses in the interior, are distinguished by sound-levels of less than 20 decibels. The Acoustic Society of America used some 270,000 hours of measurements across 190 sites in the country’s National Parks in the contiguous United States to assess an initial picture of levels of ambient human noise that seem all but inescapable in the U.S. If the 1972 Noise Control Act was directed to strengthen legal protections against “unwanted or disturbing sound” to regulate noise pollution, sound-levels seem so widespread across the nation to be hard to distinguish how unwanted sounds adversely affects one’s quality of life as unwanted disturbances. Yet we now have a means to visualize the collective rises in ambient sound in ways that are truly as compelling as maps of global warming.
The change in our aural landscapes has gone largely unremarked, in part because the data is less easily available, and visualizations were long less able to be confidently rendered in such clear detail–or the amount of data not able to be clearly synthesized. Even at first seeing the map of sound levels in the nation released by workers at the National Parks Services in past weeks, it’s hard not to be drawn to these scattered refuges that lurk inside the map, as we shun the bursting supernovas of aggressively bright yellow whose streaks across the overstimulated sonic landscape where most of us live. The brightness of areas in which greater levels of sound were sensed seem to push us to the relatively few remaining quiescent places in the continent: it is not that they remind us of just how fully the sounds of motorized vehicles have come to penetrate most of our auditory worlds most of the time, but that they seem so ever-present and so visually loud, even when the levels of sound seem to fade miasmatically into the midwest, but reflect the growing population centers across the country that undoubtedly generate the greatest noise. The map creates a compelling picture about how we can interpret the current distribution of populations as filling the nation’s space.
Much of the attention that the map has received respond to just how rarely sound-levels have been so closely integrated–or so clearly shown to overlap–with the mapping of an environmental space, or so compellingly integrated within an understanding of environmental change.
The question of registering an atlas of urban sounds have most often responded to less to subjective or individual perception than public policy issues that surround very specific local levels sonic pollution in urban environments from San Francisco to Oslo, based on visualizing noise levels across urban streets through GIS-based simulations that synthesize variations in decibel levels over time–and reflect a desire to control urban noise that even predate the Industrial Revolution, and which, R. Murray Shafer has found, there is evidence in Bern back in 1628, but which computerized maps provide a basis to visualize the results of such acoustical monitoring today.
Despite such concern for managing urban soundscapes, less attention has focussed on comprehensively mapping endangered sounds–and even less on the endangering of silence, which have not been often imagined as a comprehensible object of concern. Attempts at mapping local sound-levels for reasons of public health have focussed on a local level to assess problems of noise pollution and to assess aural impositions in urban spaces–and to measure benchmarks of tolerable sound-levels in urban space. We more often consider noise abatement in relation to crowded restaurants than open spaces or countryside. The registration of a varying range of decibel levels across the United States created the opportunity to visualize a color-coded record of ambient sound, grouped according to spatially situated environments, applied a broad palette to geographic space based on a much larger dataset, and one that responds less to problems of placing future projects of construction than measuring the increasing ubiquity of sound-levels often linked to urban environments across the country.
The innovation of the NPS sound map of the country’s less inhabited and more densely inhabited regions presents a particularly persuasive picture of the extent of the growing uniform nature of our aural environments. Based on the 1.5 million hours of motoring across the country to capture sound levels sensed on an average summer day, researchers with the National Parks Service have collated an impressive acoustic topography of the continental United States in hopes to map average decibel levels across the country, and found few areas of relative quiet. The result is particularly striking for suggesting deep scars of sound that radiate aglow from urban agglomerations in a heat map of loudness that registers the diffusion of human-made noise levels across the country, and the extent to which much of its illuminated center is flooded with ever-present background sounds–acoustic pools, as it were, of almost 50 dB, or able to drown most natural sounds from animals. If the sound map created from algorithms suggests just how urbanized we are today, and how far urban noise-levels extend across much of the country, it offers evidence of the auditory effects of anthropocene from which there appears no turning back.
The picture does not look good for the future of quiet spaces in most of the coterminous United States. The stars and streaks of aggressively bright sulfuric levels of smoky yellow–indicating concentrations in urban areas of a level of 51 decibels or more–maps clearly onto population concentrations from the shores of Lake Michigan to Dallas, Atlanta or central Florida. The noise map reveals huge differences in noise tolerance and indeed background noise that most Americans experience as normal, and indeed the auditory expectations most bring to their days, and the relative absence of silence over a large part of the inhabited country that noise has infiltrated, from a light gauze of yellow that surrounds are largest farming industries to the clusters of noise around expansive urban areas. In those deep blue swirling patches of the interior lie the most silent spots of the country,abysses of quiet which register the lowest absolute levels of sonic interference, far from the pollution of urban noise which seems to spread like age spots across much of the eastern half of the continent. (The very deepest deep blue regions designate areas of background noise below twenty decibels, the sound of a ticking watch, far below the a refrigerator hum, and very far from the ever-present ring of cell phones, piercing blasts of jack hammers or car alarms, freeway rumble or such sudden spikes as sawing concrete that now seem to so often mark the hubbub of urban life that is often difficult to blank out save by white noise machines.) A considerable share of the population must be quite habituated to an almost constant loudness of almost fifty dB, or about that of constant traffic–and just below that which is claimed to increase high blood pressure, tension, and heart attack risks.
Remapping the limited areas of low-level sounds top stand out more dramatically in black as isolated islands of greatest quiet gives the map an even clearer urgency as a manifesto for the shrinking spaces of silence across the continuous United States:
The map advances a narrative of the shrinking areas of silence in the soundscape of the continental United States that is decidedly not rosy, and in which levels of noise pollution stand to double or indeed triple every twenty years, making this a particularly troubling prospect that challenges the future of silence in America. Not so surprisingly, it maps well onto a randomized map forecasting air quality across the nation in its contours, although variations in the NPS soundscape in the header to this post show more finely grained variations and seems to exploit a broader dataset.
The deep discrepancies in decibel levels however bears little clear correlation to the current mosaic of political preference across the continuous forty-eight, however Lamarckian one would like to be about the relation between collective preferences and aural environments. Despite a tendency to link weaker support for Republicans with louder areas of greater ambient noise, the data just doesn’t bear it out in full at all: some of the reddest areas are those register considerably greater decibel levels. (Low support for Republicans in Maine contrast with its predominantly low levels of ambient sound; noisy areas of the South are pretty darn red, despite strikingly diverse levels of ambient sound registered in those states; noise-levels in California’s central valley are roughly equal the blueness of its coast.)
The narrative that the soundscape implies is far from rosy, however. What seems most frightening is the lack of any clear map of the future penetration of high decibel levels across much of middle America. Along the frontier of the decibel divide, much of the nation’s center appears flooded dark yellow; Denver, St. Lake City, Las Vegas and Boise seem beacons in an expanding aural frontier, burning bright already in Seattle and Olympia. The registration of these ambient sounds include not only vehicles, but from factories, radios, sirens, televisions, construction sites, trains, or mechanically generated sound of any kind, registering the range of overlapping sounds at any space at any time, in a manner more like Zefrey Throwell’s 1,000-car-horn symphony than the heterogeneous ensemble of percussionists György Ligeti enlisted in his Grand Macabre.
But the origins of the shifting soundscape in the nation might be better tracked through the appeal of the Good Roads movement of Charles Henry Davis, that industrious Quaker who lived in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, but founded the National Highways Association in 1911, promoting the hope for an interconnected National Highway System of 50.000 miles “built, owned and maintained by the National Government,” which while limited at that time to six great “Main Highways,” advocated an image of “a paved Unites States in our day” that has persisted. The benefits Davis saw in paved roads as an engine of economy that would raise the nation were more than only an infrastructure–“national highways will increase the wealth, the power, and the importance of this country as nothing else can do besides that which has brought civilization to the savage, wealth to the poor, and happiness to all–GOOD ROADS”–but an image of collective benefit. The continued promotion of their benefits, so removed from views of the benefits of preserving place today, actively promoted the benefit of the ideal of a “paved United States in our day.” Indeed, if all road maps were promoted in 1912 from South Yarmouth as useful tools that “will prove of inestimable value to the proposed national highways commission, and in addition will be of service in showing the people of each state how the national government can make use of their roads in the proposed plan” as of a piece with a bucolic vision of the nation.
Davis, Good Roads Everywhere (1912)
Maps boosted the image of a national system of highways, and indeed our sense of access to national space, from the 1925 promotional map that synthesized the roadways of the nation as an invitation to their exploration to celebrate the achievement of 250,000 miles of national highway–
–to the expansion of the “Good Roads Everywhere” movement creating a “paved United States in our day” as if it were “peace in our time.”
Looking at the nation’s soundscape, it’s hard not to be drawn to the chasms of deep blue where sound levels decrease. National Parks Services’ researchers took some shots when they compared these areas without background noise to the notion of traveling back in time to the sound-levels before Columban contact–on their apparent ignoring of the dense population of the continent before its “discovery”–one might see it as the sonar landscape Lewis and Clark experienced with the collection of animal trackers and Native Americans which composed the Corps of Discovery, traveling down the Columbia river or pausing in their portages: these are the areas distinguished with a sound level of lower than twenty decibels, areas where one can access a pristine auditory experiences characterized by the near-absence of the background noises that we are tempted to screen out of our auditory experiences,–and against which would stand out the perception of local wildlife.
The attractiveness of these seemingly pristine places not only provides a compelling advertisement for visiting national parks during whatever summer vacations one might have, but is a compelling soundscape of a world not likely to return, where decibel levels fall far below the fifty that almost seem low for urban areas, the deep blue recalling something like the cold of oceans’ depths. Created by the National Parks’ Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, it reflects their mission statement to create an inventory of sound that seeks to preserve “acoustic and night sky environments unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” Fristrup worries, and provides something of a watermark on our aural environments, but it is also intended as a diagnostic tool to measure the degree to which manmade noises affect owls and bats who depend on locating insects to find food–the somewhat synesthetic record renders an acoustic environment married by bright yellow splotches and sulphuric streaks, and ubiquitous noise levels comparable to hearing a washing machine churn from a distance of three feet away.
The ever-present scars of unwanted sound spread aggressively in almost radial fashion from major population centers and seem diffused across many the rural areas of the country. The maps suggests the auditory compromises created by the road network which generates ever-present background noise across the continent’s more inhabited areas, even if the algorithm used to generate it discounted traffic, with non-human made sounds of wind and water. Rather than present a watermark of sound levels, the map bodes poorly for the growing levels of volume in years to come. If much of this noise-generated hearing loss perhaps on account of noise-levels artificially generated in iPods and MP3 players which funnel amplified sound into directly our ears–and which may have helped elevate the number of five million 12-19 year olds who have compromised hearing thresholds, according to Dangerous Decibels–a site which is full of tips on living with hearing loss and the risks of noise-induced hearing loss–the desensitization to environmental sounds that the map charts creates a landscape where even those without Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) have a compromised relation to their environments.
But the map suggests the changing nature of outdoor hearing for most populations, compromised by the rise of background noise, and the deep penetration of what used to be considered urban sounds of mechanized movements across much of the country.
Reading the stark topography of sound levels across the lower forty-eight, one is indeed almost instinctively tempted to run into its scattered pockets of deepest blues: these seem the safest areas of respite, as one shrinks from the bright incandescent yellows of even a tolerable amount of ever-present background noise–maybe not to the deserts of southwest Texas, but if not to the national parks bordering California, in the Cascades, the Colorado Plateau, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Dinosaur National Monument between Colorado and Utah, and in the Great Basin. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that some of these ecosystems, many home to Native Americans, were to be preserved “from injury or spoliation” by the National Parks, preserved thanks to Carl Shurz, David Brower and Howard Zahniser. Is the aural intrusion not a deep form of injury?)
One might as well get out a paper map of the greenspace in parks to correlate them with the deep blue lakes of silence . . .
It is almost difficult to imagine the experience of those deep blue areas of silence today.
The expansive chromolithographies of Thomas Moran depict deeply hidden, inner resources of nature in sites such as the future Yellowstone or Zion Park, preserved from industrializing life of in ways that raised interest in the hidden landscapes of the United States, after he had accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden on the 1871 Geographic Survey of the Territories, in ways that created one of the first romantic images to produce a popular movement for the protection of a landscape as undisturbed. One is struck in Moran’s monumental landscapes by how these awesome environments dwarf their human visitors, arriving in what seem uninhabited lands, far from the noise of railroads or cities in the industrializing United States:
Thomas Moran, “The Valley of the Babbling Waters, Southern Utah” (1873) 18.71.14
Thomas Moran, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1875) 18.71.8
These are the ideals of We now look at the romance of arriving at deep blue spots in the algorithmically generated soundscape, far removed from Moran’s monumental renderings of geographical formations that first communicated a sense of the natural majesty of the western United States to a large audience of viewers that communicated the wonder of a landscape he saw as both untouched and pristine, in contrast to the ever-present ambient noise that seems not only inescapable in remote regions of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park but all but inescapable in much of the U.S.
But the levels of noise pollution that illuminate or almost incandescently light much of the country marks the encroaching of an auditory anthropocene from which there will be no turning back, and which has already altered the landscape as well as soundscape of the country. The spatial collation of audio registrations finds most people live in environments “where night skies and soundscapes are profoundly degraded, Fristrup notes, describing the extent of both sound and noise “pollution” as almost spanning the continent, where median background noise plagues most, out of a desire to “conserve natural sensory environments for future generations” registers his deep and abiding sense of loss and the inevitability of a landscape of increasing auditory degradation that could bring a generation of “learned deafness” destined to dull one to the very soundscapes National Parks seek to conserve–and the notion of such environmentally provoked desensitization to sound seems backed by the datum that some 10 million people in the United States were judged, in 1999, to have permanent hearing loss from noise or trauma. Are we becoming increasingly hard of hearing or deaf, or in danger of slowly losing a sense by which humans have long interacted with the world and gave meaning to it?
The argument has had special resonance–no pun intended. The map that was quickly shared upwards of 10.9 K times record penetration of high decibel levels (above 40) across much of the country’s inhabited land–and the rarity of those deep blue chasms that seem to almost fall through the map. Although the idea that they record the sound environment of the country before Columbus is doubtful, and not only because of the folly of thinking that it was not inhabited before 1492, the absence of industrial ambient background noise over a level of forty decibels is no doubt a pretty modern creation–though anthropocentric presumptions that the noise be generated by humans, rather than animals–stampedes of buffaloes?–seems more unwarranted. But the map based on measurements of midsummer decibel levels is a unique map of how we inhabit the land, and a nice record of what we might mean now by the “inhabited world”–or ecumene. It is a record, perhaps, of how we have chosen to inhabit space, and the ways that we have chosen to inhabit it–the landscape scarred with sound bizarrely analogous to the barren scored and spotted pock-marked lunar landscape, and the connotations of un-inhabitability it inescapably provokes in evoking this surface without life.
The sterile landscape of the moon is an odd choice of comparison. The worry that we may be facing the rise of a “deaf generation,” unable to hear the world as men and women once perceived natural sounds, due the growing decibel levels of constant noise in larger cities, and not be able to hear or register the natural sounds in cities, and even National Parks, has led Fristrup to worry about the threats and healthiness due to increases in ambient noise and wonder if future generations might not even appreciate the sounds of nature in cities or National Parks. If such fears seem alarmist, they are reflected in the deep attraction most observers will have to the deep blue identified with tranquility–and with restfulness or even curl health–an association according with the profound healthful benefits of silence.
Fears of a growing disconnect with aural experiences makes the strong similarity between the scoring of the national soundscape and the lunar landscape somehow appropriate. For the scientific synesthesia that results suggests how we’ve filled the continent with sound, from jack hammers to jet airplanes to trucks to power mowers to daily traffic to sanitation trucks to bird-calls. The sonic landscape closely corresponds to the expansion of manmade environments across the continent, and ignore the level of noise that was made by earlier inhabitants. The measurement of strong levels of sound pollution claims to screen out the traffic of nearby automobiles, but is appears to echo the very network pattern of freeways and highways that traverse the country and link cities with one another, and were no doubt privileged sites of measurement; where few or no roads exist, it seems that regions of deep blue must perforce prevail–or at least that the grids provide a basis to generate noise: grids of streets even appear in the noise map, much as the splotches of bright yellow mark cities and sprawling urban areas that have made silence almost inaccessible for large shares of the nation’s populations without considerable geographic mobility, and moved all landscapes of deep silence far west, removed from traffic’s perpetual hum.
Only in 1970, of course, considerably more open spaces existed across the United States, if one focuses on Interstates alone across the western states:
The apparent density of noise may indeed be partly explained by the density of the network of highways that course across the Eastern seaboard and much of the midwest.
What might be called the “noisier half” of the United States shows an area of almost continuous noise pollution, where the “auditory horizons” have markedly shrunk in most places to but a few blocks of paved space–
reflects the very same region where highways define a distinctly different relation to expanse:
The expansion of the National Highway System across the nation is perhaps best rendered by a hand-drawn map that tries to project its future and the compromising of place that it implies, with an eye to the shrinking of the auditory human experience of place:
A Highway Map of the USA
For the congestion of noise, roads, and urban areas reveals an image of how we inhabit continental expanse. We might compare the division of the country, grosso modo, to the imbalance in the density with which McDonald’s restaurants are spread across the contiguous United States, shown here by illuminated dots that reveal the proximity of fast food restaurants across the land, sometimes suggesting strikingly similar highway paths, and no doubt mirror population trends, and indeed the density of businesses:
Stephen Von Worley
Does space tend to collapse in interesting ways once one is less able to sense sounds? Such levels of noise pollution offer a sonorous residue or acoustic remainder of how we have come to inhabit the world’s environment and to remake it, and register the arrival an auditory anthropocene which earlier maps have often been hard-pressed to detect.
As much as being confined to the United States, the prospect of such elevated decibel levels in areas of dense population and the modern humming of transportation networks across the country find a parallel in the noises of the global traffic networks we have created in the seas. Indeed, the oceans seem increasingly characterized by constant presence of such noise recalls the “background hum” of oceanic shipping lanes that resounds across the oceans, by modeling a global soundscape seeks mapping the range of sounds ships create in transatlantic voyages, that seem the material reminder of the increased intensity of a global network of shipping lanes. Such sound levels, to be sure, often obscure the cresting of waves, with the upshot of radically compromising the auditory experience of the ocean for its inhabitants–especially imperiling animals that use sounds to communicate, cetaceans from whales to dolphins, in ways that may mislead the sonar skills they have evolved to map their own courses underwater, in ways that create more than auditory interference with how they experience space. And with noise traveling some 4.3 faster in the watery medium than in air–and traveling at an unchanging intensity over considerable distances–the gigantic impact of large-cargo vessels that generate more noise than we would often permit onshore from constantly running diesel engines creates considerable ambient noise to which different marine creatures are especially vulnerable.
A map of the auditory intrusions of passenger vessels alone that was recorded and released by NOAA based on anthropogenic noise of cruise vessels alone suggest a shifting in the oceanic environment:
Yet the spectrum of noise from the chronic levels of noise modeled from larger commercial vessels was far more chronic:
And when summed, the picture that results is of a radically sonically altered and disrupted environment, apparently in ignorance of the disturbances that they create for actual (or any) ocean populations:
The map below registers sounds that extend to a depth of 650 feet in a similar color spectrum map–which doesn’t include either seismic exploration or Navy sonar noise that add considerably to the range of ocean sounds that obscure today’s songs of humpback whales. Indeed, if whales often base their communications over expanses of hundreds of miles through their song, whale space has undoubtedly against such background noise in a a sea with startlingly few areas absent from auditory interference. Such changes would not only affect the cetacean populations of marine mammals as they navigate underwater transit–if von Uexküll suggests that whales are attuned to other worlds, it might be important to contemplate what they make of the ships’ apparently unavoidable background sounds, or whether they accommodate to their presence.
If one goes to 200 Hz, a slightly different picture of the local variations in background hums emerges:
But what might be considered more broadly is the very difficulty of erasing the imprint that such ships that travel across the seas exercise over the entire marine environment. The sonorous surroundings characteristic of the oceans were earlier mapped at 400 Hz and a depth of fifty feet by NOAA in 2012, from passenger ships, commercial ships, to seismic surveys in an annual average, present a similarly pronounced offshore acoustic disturbances and an even more pronounced augmentation of background noise offshore, as if hidden from landlocked observation stations, as if ships’ engines are only started at full throttle after arriving in the open seas, where ship captains or automated pilots crank up their speeds and plow full speed ahead:
NOAA Underwater Mapping Sound Field Mapping Working Group/HLS Research/ NCEAS–Details of North Atlantic Shipping and local noises near Long Island–from the New York Times
The rumors of transatlantic voyages notwithstanding, it is somehow wonderful to move from the noisy oceans to their landlocked counterparts.
The deep blue sites of relative silence, often confined to the areas close to the coast, may indeed obscure the extent of noise we have created far out at sea, far from the increasingly noisy shore, where we cannot hear their hum. The shifts in the national–as well as the global–soundscape makes one wonder whether, in obscuring some sounds or making other sounds inaudible, one is not changing perceptions of space in ways that the great majority of data visualizations cannot register. But both present us with digitized images of sound-levels so strikingly ever-present that we can almost hear them resonate across space.
Like the deepest blue spots on the sound map of the United States, they mark the rare areas of respite in an every-noisier world.
We do well to see through maps, Denis Wood enjoined, urging us to detect the “human landscape” that lies superimposed upon the land in maps, and uncover the ways that the landscape has been changed–and orient ourselves to those changes that have been wrought by the “huge arrogance” that “we can name and we can claim.” Maps demand to be interpreted by scratching their surfaces, aa task of uncovering how one might best “see through them,” to explore the landscapes that lie underneath the layer of words that lies on their beckoning if often all too opaque surfaces. To take stock of how maps work by asking us to go about imagining the landscape that lies beneath those words is a way of uncovering their arguments about territories.
The linked map invites readers to explore its surface, in web-based maps of the London Sound Survey by using links to explore soundscapes that would otherwise lurk beneath cellulose surfaces. Web-based maps such as Sound Survey of London’s waterways offer modes of remapping the known environment of the city: and the choice to map the riverine network that is rarely seen in London by the conventions of Harry Beck‘s almost universally recognized diagram of its Underground.
The image offers an apt way to invite viewers to excavate audible aspects of the city absent from a drawn map, in a truly phenomenological map of the circuit of hidden waters beneath London. If subways are often noisy, the sounds that the Survey has compiled offers a somewhat synesthetic compilation of the hidden waterways that might be seen as corresponding to metro stations, less as a disembodied circuit–as Beck’ map–than as the subsurface lying underneath the engineered world. Beck’s map sanitized the subways in streamlined fashion to attract Londoners to the Underground, readers are asked to explore the waterways that emerge only in its parks, bridges, and channels linked to watery paths which we rarely see which run under and about its surface before they enter the central artery of the Thames.
Rather than by mapping the city’s space in reference to its individual streets or intersections, but by placing the rivers of the Survey maps waterways’ sounds in ways that recuperate their perhaps forgotten presence. Wood remapped the lived community of Boylan Heights so that is not only as a place in Raleigh, North Carolina, but charting the “metabolism” of the community in maps of the light street lamps cast, lit jack o’ lanterns placed on porches at Halloween, paper routes Wood ran with a tightly knit cohort in his youth, or “squirrel highways” of aerial wires, which collectively serve to unpack the often invisible ways of “how it works.”
One might compare to this set of maps the ways in which maps in the London Sound Survey invites readers to enter an overpowering pointillist accumulation of local details, and similarly serve to map a setting in which everything sings–or at least we can enter its audible surface at distinct points.
The question of what axes indices and axes might be adopted to best orient readers to the ways that the place works are ingeniously organized by the Sound Survey through the colored lines and stops of the transit map that Harry Beck proposed for London’s Underground in 1931, a network-map whose revolutionary simplicity seems to have been devised when the draftsman in its Signal Office, Beck adopted paths of circuits to map the intersecting pathways of the Underground at a time when the city needed to encourage less traffic in its streets: the powerful success of Beck’s map shifted Londoners’ attitudes to urban space. A rewritten version of the familiar iconic network of the London Underground appropriately provides the syntax to uncover the hidden network of non-tidal streams, brooks, creeks, pools and channels that run, partly exposed, partly underground, around the river Thames. Territories are less the question in the map of London’s waterways, which progress from trickling streams to waves slapping against the locks of the Thames.
The result is to conjure not a mythical, lost London, as did James Shepherd Scott’s 1884 History of London, a work concerned to show “the origin and growth of the present condition of the suburbs” of what was the “largest city of the world,” but which began with the tabula rasa of “London Before the Houses”–with two streets running about marshy region in a network of rivers–but to remind us of a watery network that still lives under the city’s paved streets–even though it also echoes Scott’s illustration in recreating a London that is now lost to the senses for most readers.
If Scott’s map served as the frontispiece for a volume that described the city whose growth has been “very rapid in modern times,” and “an ever-widening tract of country covered by the buildings of a city already so large that it is equalled by no other in the world” (1), the cosmopolitan metropolis is excavated in the map of the London Sound Survey. While Scott mused that “as the houses advance, the natural features are obliterated,” and, at the conclusion to his list of changes, “the brooks no longer run” (2), the survival of the brooks and streams as vital parts of a living landscape are documented in the qualitatively detailed survey’s sounds.
In charting paths of the waterways hidden even to London’s own inhabitants, the sound map is especially successful in charting the dissonance between the forms of symbolization and lived experience–and by doing so through the conventions we immediately recognize as indicating London. While imitating or offering a cartographical homage to the Underground map, the surface of the map is punctuated with sonorous glimpses of the lived space of London today–offering actual stops where we can pause to hear a sound file of a minute or so of the water that trickles between it can be heard from the surface, in evanescent moments the symbology of the map cannot hope to record created by rivers, feeder streams or brooks, and canals. Each “stop” is an observation station–to perceive or note the gurgling of a brook over a weir near Wimbledon or follow the course of the Brent through a culvert and along a viaduct, beside ambient noise of work, honking geese, and quacking ducks. That the rivers don’t exist makes the map a recuperation of how London lives beside the water today, and to attune oneself to its changing environment in which the tributaries of the Thames are more often trickles than rapidly flowing streams. While dismembering Beck’s circuitry, the paths of rivers, streams, and waterways that flow into the Thames are something of a melancholy look at a world we have lost, but also a snapshot of their survival in an urbanized environment.
The cartographical poetics of the Sound Survey map are immediately recognizable. By adapting the iconic conventions Harry Beck pioneered in his immensely popular modernist mapping of the circuits of metropolitan transit in his 1931 Underground map, the map needs no identification of where it is–London–and provides something of a counterfact of an image that today is separable from the city, despite its considerable influence as a model of mapping transit networks. The map’s almost-universal influence on how metros are mapped in urban landscapes has not altered the distinctive iconography of the Underground map: its conventions establish a quite different perspective than orienting readers to its built underground, however, as it used similar streamlined conventions and colored lines to trace the paths water takes in London’s built environment. The conventions invite readers to explore the topography of where water rises to the surface of the urban space: by clicking at the site of any “stop,” to link to audio clips along the indicated waterway, marked, as trains, by curving colored lines almost identical Beck used to diagram the city’s Underground–yet rather than create a unified network, they trace currents that flow into the Thames–the river that runs through London, and sole point of external reference in Beck’s now-classic modernist map of the London Underground.
Ian Rawes has long recorded London sounds to preserve its sensorial world; the map of waterways allows us to enter aural environments at parts of the city by a smattering of precise sensations of water passes whose collective accumulation overcomes its readers: while mapped as if a site of imaginary metropolitan stops, the stops are in fact spots where waterways aside from the Thames are audible to city-dwellers, as if to synthesize insider’s knowledge how the urban space overlays an unseen web of currents, exposing them in a map as Beck foregrounded the space of transit lines to orient urban travellers.
Harry Beck’s original map of the London Underground (1936 version)
When London Sound Survey mapped the city’s hidden urban waterways, it used data from observation stations to revisit formerly overlooked spaces where water emerged, at least aurally, in the city. These sites are rarely mapped, but the interactive audio files allow users to hear sounds of a watery web which one might have earlier recognized. Each observation site appears evanescent moments at scattered sites in the city, but reveals, as a sort of historical base-line, the levels at which water flows through multiple sites in the built environment. The website gestures the organic notion of the flows of circuitry in the Beck map–now iconic–around the flow of the Thames, and perhaps, by orienting itself to the Thames River, so different in its smoothness than the hyperactive transit maps of Japan Rail in Tokyo, whose integrated circuit seem spectacularly stripped of reference to physical landmarks or phenomenological relation to the world.
When Ian Rawes sought to encode over 1,500 discrete recordings in the London Sound Survey but in plotting the courses of the audibility of otherwise-hidden waterways plots, the Survey organized what seem curiously subjective perspectives to map what can be heard at different sites in the space of a single map of the hidden streams that run through the metropolis; the act of apprehending the submerged underground network is pleasantly reorienting, focussing our attention on where they reappear and intersect with birdsong, dripping waters, passing individuals, or local sounds of construction and transport in the city: the discrete sites assemble, collectively, both a map and an aural environment that most maps)cannot capture. Each discrete sound seems impermanent, but also suggests, collectively, the ways water briefly reappear in a built environment, as rivers, streams, and canals enter lived life in ways not detectable on an actual map. At each “stop,” we enter an observation-station where Rawes recorded the ambient sounds around waterways.
1. The resulting mapping of the soundscapeof London’s waterways offers a multiple points of entrances to soundscapes outside the city’s built environment. The permanence of the pathways of canals, rivers, and underground waterways rightly map of the sounds of the system of waterways as intersections with a riverine underground. Explicitly designed as an “auditory tribute” or homage to the circuit-like color-coded design of Harry Beck’s modernist map which clarified complex pathways of the tube for commuters earlier only “about as legible as a bowl of spaghetti” for its riders. Beck’s draftsmanship elegantly schematized the pathways of London’s Underground to allow their legibility in an icon not only of urban transit but accessibility, but of the city itself: at a time when the city’s subway had become so geographically far-flung to be a challenge to condense to a legible fashion, the map effectively persuaded commuters of the ease of navigating its totality, while living in its suburbs, by mapping the pathways of its trains by angles at increments of forty-five degrees to increase their legibility, and foregrounding its interchanges.
Ian Rawes cleverly adopted the diagram first designed to promote a readily legible record of commuter rail, by straightening out their course and contracting the distances at regular intervals to allow aural access to sound files through a web-based interfaces. Whereas Beck’s intent was to expand the utility needed in a transit map for audiences in ways that riders to navigate its multiple lines that was readily appreciated by riders, Rawes’ map is an opportunity for noticing the overlooked, and invite them to follow the paths with which waterways intersect with other lived environments. The cooing of pigeons and drips of water under the Greenway bridge at “Channelsea” off the Lea complements the hum of traffic overhead, as if an epiphany of the evanescent; the passing train near the Roding at “Alders Brook” suggests a moment watching passing urban traffic on a viaduct, as the trickle of water at “Paddington Basin”–not Paddington Station–almost concealed by the loud whirr of air-conditioning units and an intermittent power-saw from a nearby construction site. The Brent flows under the observation station “Greenford Bridge” pierced by the referee’s whistle at an amateur football game mixed with players’ cries. The registration of lived experience sets something of a watermark on the sounds of London circa 2012.
The physical expanse of Rawes’ aural map is an a propos homage Beck’s diagram. The soundscape map reveals the similar permanence of overlooked waterways that link to the Thames. By collating short sound-files at points where they emerge from the built environment, preserving a uniquely personal reaction to place of the sort that often eludes city maps. Where Beck preserved a mental image of the sites at which access to the London Underground was permitted, at a user’s click, a range of ambient sounds peek through the observation points noted by the stubs with which Beck rendered Underground “stops” in his iconic map. Beck’s map was immediately popular among commuters as a way to re-render the urban space. It has since gained such sustained popularity as a model for similar subway systems–it encouraged urban expansion in Sydney (just eight years later) and encouraged Beck to submit maps for other cities’ transport systems in future years. Indeed, the image has become so a successful a symbolic rendering of London’s space for its conventions of colored lines and combining of circular hubs of interesecting lines with stubby stops to orient access to London’s underground. By using the streamlined circuit-like conventions by which Beck had oriented riders to the expanding Underground and navigate their commutes, Rawes recuperated the lost sounds of the city’s waterways as if to remind readers of the distance at which they stand from them.
The Underground map was, of course, famous as a remapping of urban space, as much as an icon of London. The diagram placed stations at a remove from actual distances or locations, but replaced an image of the actual geographical relations in the city by highlighting their routes on clearly colored paths that run in uniform lines to prominently render interchange stations, filtering out any reference to the city’s physical topography save a quite schematic rendering of the Thames; the image was quickly affixed to every station on account of its highly readable ways by which it oriented city-dwellers and allowed them to gauge the crucial question of the number of stops–rather than the actual distances–to their destinations. If Beck’s map collapsed space, the map of waterways orients readers to the transit that water took across its expanse, in ways that seem irrelevant to spatial geography. Beck straightened the river’s course in the name of clarity in his diagram, in line with the straightening of trains’ routes for readers to allow them to better visualize routes of travel and the exchanges they would need to make.
Such is the conceptual clarity and considerable staying power of Beck’s diagram to navigate London’s underground makes it in fact quite difficult to view the actual pathways taken by Underground trains–yet Beck’s system of reference remains so powerful a symbolic form to conceptualize London’s Underground that it is disorienting to be presented with the actual courses train lines truly take in the city. As a symbolic form of what Rudolf Arnheim called “visual thinking,” the diagram encouraged Londoners to take to the Underground as a way to navigate their commutes or daily travels with such success that an actual groundplan of the interface between the individual lines and the city’s space seems disorienting in how it reveals the meandering pathways that train lines actually take, the actual sinuous curves of the Thames, and the apparent failure of trains to turn at increments of 45° along their true courses.
We are far more ready to map the familiar transit lines displayed in a reference key and shown in the maps by pronounced paths of colors, as a network that existed as if autonomously from the city, to better find what he called its interchange stations. The notion that the network was made up of discrete lines proved immensely influential in all later transit maps.
Beck’s Original Reference Key (1931)
For Beck’s crucial insight of simplifying the courses of trains by mapping subway lines in increments of forty-five degrees allowed riders to imagine the paths of trains as a network independent from the street map. It has been expanded, accommodating the multiplication of transit lines reflecting the city’s explosion:
Beck’s streamlined routes of the diagram offered Rawes a quite fitting medium to map each waterway’s aural settings at observation points. Each “station” presented readers with a chance to look under the map to hear the sounds that peer out from it, at a click: linked sound files map unmapped–and perhaps often forgotten–waterways from the River Lea, Wandel, Roding, the New River, Brent to Beverly Brook. Rawes’ legend link multiple listening stations, linked on a similar spectrum of color-coded lines to orient viewers, even if each sound-file disperses one’s attention to the city’s surface in way that are wonderfully unlike the fixity of Beck’s coherent system–the map individuates specific points where readers can descends to join not the Underground lines, but watery courses below an inhabited surface. Each waterway is assigned a uniquely colored path that approximates the hues of the current Underground, and are given the names of the actual waterway, transposing the natural and the man-made.
Beck’s diagrammatic streamlining of the Tubelines provided an apt set of conventions quickly identified with underground transit routes of built conveyances. He used them to chart hidden points at which the constellation of urban waterways intersect with the city’s lived environment. The resulting soundscape map situated the emergence of waterways in the city. The result is to suggest the points at which an otherwise hidden network of waterways reveal themselves in the soundscapes of docks, bridges, marshes, creeks, reservoirs and parks that we so often consider the built city to have replaced.
Pushing this avenue of investigation, Rawes invites readers to revisit and investigate a hidden network of waterways running under the city that are hidden from the familiar map’s surface. In a metageographical terms, Rawes’ sound-map acts as a comment on the folly of conveying an actual level of continuity to the quite specific sites where water appears to be heard, and the relation of the transit of water in the city to the historically built means of transit–from traffic to the sounds of footsteps, joggers, walkers, the drone of airplanes, industry, or as well as ambient birdsong–and allow the unique poetics of an imaginary landscape to emerge that results from the situation of London’s actual hidden waterways. To be sure, the role of the cartographer is as a disinterested observer–Rawes preserved this role, it seems–but offers archivally dated sound files of each place that the reader can savor in one-minute clips.
2. The river, of course, runs through it. The London Sound Survey of Waterways present a palimpsest of urban topography. The location of the individual urban soundscapes offer a counter-map to urban space, exploiting the ways in which online maps invite us to go beyond this reading of the imaginary in an eery way. By linking the mapped space of the city in an almost joyously synesthetic fashion with urban sounds, the sound survey of London’s waterways provides a way of tracking urban experiences around is hidden waterways, suddenly bringing them to the surface from the very tools of mapping London that are perhaps the best known. By inventively embedding sound clips of tickling rivers, birdsong, traffic, droning of substations, cries of gulls or terns, trains, and even boats on the Thames, we see the city in new ways that recreate a map with an almost subjective intensity that is almost always inherently absent from a map’s face. Suddenly–unlike the original–we find the waterways of the inhabited city peeking into the stylized format of Beck’s transit map, as the submerged riverine paths are given a prominence most dwellers of the city ignore.
Beck’s diagram of the Underground intentionally abandons scale or correct proportions for regularity and apparently straight lines in his own schematic rendering of waterways. Beck’s aim was to produce a quite stylized format to grasp facilitate urban communication and both plan and recognize routes of commutes. The immediate success of Beck’s formal innovation of how to mediate he underground to its passengers of course now offers not only an icon of London, but served to helpfully map the city’s physical space, even while the diagram sacrificed exact spatial correspondence or measurements: indeed, many visitors to London are regularly reminded to disregard the plain distortion of the Underground map, much as visitors to New York may need to be reminded that the walking distance between apparently nearby stops is greater than the map implied. Beck diagrammed the Underground as a record of routes of transit not corresponding to their spatial organization. Rawes invested similar regularity to the waterways that fed the River Thames, which he gives a prominence in his map, to which each of the waterways linked, though few have commerce with one another: if Beck streamlined the Underground lines, Rawes “Beck-ified” London’s waterways to better distinguish a network of streams hidden from public view and register their sounds, often overwhelmed by ambient noise.
In appropriating the conventions Beck pioneered for London’s Underground, the course of the city’s hidden but barely heard waterways are mapped to suggest the hidden streams running under the city, and bodies of water from canals to brooks to rivers with which the city’s inhabitants rarely recognize. Rather than orienting viewers to the course of London’s rails, the map tracks waterways and reservoirs–the natural life and urban life–over which were built roads and buildings and the tube itself–and reducing the Thames to something like a mere geographical marker. The sounds of the city, not only of its inhabitants, is meant by Ian Rawes to offer something of a more accurately embodied record than a map could offer in words and drawing, or might otherwise go overlooked. (Despite the clearly modernist–almost futurist–rationality of Beck’s diagram, its circuit-like nature is notably less evident in the 1931 map Beck designed, which gives less prominence to a Circle Line, because it was primarily intended to carry folks to the city’s centers from outlying regions.)
Harry Beck’s 1931 “Underground Map,” courtesy London Transit Museum
Beck’s diagram of the Underground nicely lends its recognizable structure to tracking the submerged waters of the rivers in ways that one can explore their relation to city sounds. Sounds are removed from the graphic purity of Beck’s modernist design. A barely concealed aspect of Rawes’ homage to the draughtsman who designed the Tube Map is no doubt that Beck symbolized the Thames to appear innocuous in the Underground map–orienting viewers to the paths of rail-lines of commute that link London’s previously quite discrete neighborhoods, but which echoes the apparent straightness and gently curved lines of laid track, and, reduced to a light blue abstraction, recedes into the visual background of the mapped field and is, in fact, no longer an obstruction to movement. In Beck’s map, the Thames’ pale blue almost sinuous curves are only as a sign of spatial reference. In sharp contrast, the River Thames is ever-present as one approaches at different basins or boatyards, the irregularity of the canals and lesser rivers are shown as similarly stylized lines on which the viewer can use to click at a range of sites–rather than stops–to find a range of epiphanies manqués that underscore the incompleteness and selectivity of the map–or any map at all.
In the Sound Survey of London’s waterways, the ways that Beck translated the network to terms passengers might best negotiate relinquished geographic accuracy, but became a basis to negotiate the city’s geography: the presentation of the clickable map of urban soundscapes of water offers a counter-map of the city, and allows the online viewer to indulge in the multiple dimensions of the natural settings in which the track of the city’s Underground was built–and the sites of confluence of natural and man-made in today’s city. If Beck’s image was quickly affixed to every station as a shared model for orienting city-dwellers to trace their paths of commute, the success 1931 printed map provided a framework whose popularity has endured, because of its remove from the city’s lived landscape, its interchange stations set against a blank white background to ensure its greater legibility by commuters. There is something truly telling in that the map was commissioned to reduce the intolerable and untenable density of foot-traffic on London’s streets.
Victoria and Albert Museum, “Underground Map” (1936)
3. The sounds on which one click fill the diagram of waterways with an immediacy unfamiliar to maps. In way that transforms viewers’ relation to the city, Rawes’ counter-map re-purposes the stylized simplicity of the lines of transit to show the proximity of the waters to urban settings: the map focusses on waterways relegated outside the underground in Beck’s diagram. The insight of preparing a set of lines that oriented viewers to how lines link to one another–more than the urban streets above–to suggest the autonomy of the system into which Londoners’ entered, as limiting the lines of rail to angles of forty-five degree increments, indeed oddly naturalized the streams that commuters would ride along and across the Thames: Rawes organized his record soundscapes on rivers that followed as they entered its path.
The urban observation points, if rendered by Beck’s symbolic conventions, offer a distinct system to orient oneself to the map’s surface–in far less pointedly utilitarian ways. While Beck’s map presented cues by which the train-passenger can orient themselves to the landscape of London in tacit fashion, in order to better orient themselves to its non-exact spatial scale, the city is absent from the diagram. One function of the map is to place oneself in a close proximity to the water–on bridges, by viaducts, on a quay, by a lock–that can rarely, if ever, be recreated in a static map or web-based map, as well as to a complexly variegated aural environment of birdsong, workmen, planes, and passersby. Viewers of the London Sound Survey can be immediately transported, by one click, to relate to the city’s space in distinctly news ways–and a wonderfully synesthetic manner that few maps are able to offer, inviting a perceptual world into the map that defies its oculocentric organization as a surface that is only scanned.
By clicking at a toponymy quite unlike that of Beck’s classic map, one enters a sonorous site whose power almost asks one to resist the city as a cohesive collective and focus on moments of the transcendent. For we are struck by a barrage of closely observed sense-based observations, on a gamut of individual sounds cumulatively overwhelming as site-specific perceptions of London’s canals, rivers and streams so as to reveal a “sweet inland murmur” that echoes the revelatory manner that the Romantic poet William Wordsworth evoked, while returning to its banks of the River Wye that he had often remembered as “a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” Wordsworth’s elegant formulation of the sense of transport as he stood “by the sides/ of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” led him to apostrophize the “sylvan Wye,” whose sounds seem a form of local transcendence, as a place of blending perception and creation–a pastoral whose “tranquil restoration” lies not only in the perception of waters “rolling from their mountain springs,” but a recognition how at their sound “the picture of the mind revives again.” Could a map offer similar restoration?
One does not perhaps feel the same ecstasy sort of transport Wordsworth had described at each minute of sound, but all transport us to another place, and to conjure the flow of water beneath the map. Each station force one to sort out the flood of discrete sense-based perceptions that one registers with immediacy; Wordsworth described being overcome by the sublime of “sensations sweet,/Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). The sensations its sounds and sights provoked he knew well, were re-felt as he saw it again as if for the first time. Although few observation stations in contemporary London offered the opportunity to “hear the mighty waters rolling evermore,” individual “observation stations” offer points of ingress to hone in on places absent from Beck’s map, to access a similar “sweet inland murmur” of waterways and city sounds. In an age of global warming and the recession of ocean waters, and when the water levels of major rivers have dropped worldwide, it is not that one arrives at a redemptive sublime beneath the map of Wordworthian proportions by listening to the sounds of London’s waterways, or takes stock of being newly attuned to one’s past memories of a sight and placebut that the lived city appears, through the sounds, to one’s mind.
As the names of pseudo-stations in the Sound Survey’s version of Beck’s map provide names linking to Rawes’ sound files, auditory perception is linked to place through the magic of the map in ways that seem a sort of local sublime. Clicking on stations not only orient readers to place, but transport readers to a mental image of a glimpsed landscape, if in pointillist fashion: each offers a revelation of the traces of the waterways that fed the Thames or canalized water in the city. The salient waterways and canals are suddenly made evident, and able to be traced, below what we usually consider the city’s physical plant. And as the reader encounters equivalents of the “sad music of humanity,” the cries of adults and footsteps of passersby, moving both in and out of the water that flows around the city and birdsong about its canals, rivers and streams: the “stations” conjure the sounds urban inhabitants might have once recognized, navigating its rivers as they run through and reappear in parks, channels, reservoirs and zoos.
The poetics of the soundscape map seems truly Wordsworthian: the click of a cursor offers readers the opportunity to revisit the city’s waters, and by revisiting the sonority of settings around the city take stock of their changing relation with its actual environment, but create images of place in the mind’s eye. While the relatively rapid adoption of the iconography of the “Underground Map” situated rail-riders in London in ways that rapidly habituated them to a new understanding of its expanse, the sounds of waterways access a hidden set of sensations London. One hears the ducks and gulls that circle above the West Reservoir in North London with a chill, as the roar of traffic recedes, listens to the overlooked but immediately recognizable appearances of sounds of water and nature in the built city. (The textual descriptors that appear after clicking on each “stop” catalogue the impressions, but cannot fail to capture their experience. The sounds of coots chasing one another at “Welsh Harp” suggest that Beck’s map, and the project of cartographical modernity, has been directing our attention to the wrong things all the time.) When one clicks on the sound survey of urban estuaries, rendered at points as if rail stations or stops on the underground, lived moments pierce through the familiar symbolic surface of the map, as lived experience breaks through it surface, as if the offered points of entry ways to an underground station; a click transports one beneath the map, in ways that seem to break through the symbolic surface in ways that remind us of the distance between mapping and the aural environments the mapmakers recorded. The ecstasies of “dizzy rapture” calls our attention to the often unnoticed flow of waters about the built city, and aural particulars of the environment that escape almost all maps, as “every common sight” delivered seems chanced upon, and as a moment “present pleasure” “upon the banks/Of this fair river” was recast as actually “Apparell’d in celestial light.”
Is Wordsworth in fact an apt reference for the sort of transport that the designers of the Sound Survey Map intended, rooted less in actual spatial itineraries than the sort of reflection on water, place, and perceptions that Wordsworthian poetics had invited readers to focus their attention?
The intense barrage of imagery Wordsworth’s 1798 poem is evoked in the sound map Rawes designed in 2012. For the density of detail in Rawes’ recordings suggest the illusion of rendering continuity in a map–and preserves the immediacy of the reality that lies beneath any map. The counter-symbolization of London’s cityscape in the sound map offers inverts the near-absence of the Thames in Beck’s map, altering the streamlined simplicity of the Tube Map’s circuitry, as it dismembers the circular pathways of interlinked trains to a web of discretely noted rivers and waterways, and suggesting the irregularity of the river’s bends. Rather than marginalize the Thames as the sole route of water, a wide strip of a set of parallel blue lines, almost external to the mapped system of metro lines, waterways are indeed the system mapped for the London Sound Survey of waterways, Beck’s iconography, tongue-in-cheek, as a way to trace waterways that expand from the Thames as they reveal its feeders:
The pathways taken by water in London are rendered by the standardized conventions to order the aural environments of the birdsong, bubbling brooks, or the dripping water in London’s creeks and minor rivers effectively pierce the smooth and streamlined diagram of Beck’s modernist circuit-like symbolization of the Underground. They allow us to engage with the sound world that Beck’s map intentionally omits: one hears rushing water of the River Lea at “Pickett’s Dock”; faint cries of seagulls at “Camden”, before a train intrudes as it enters Euston Station (not on the map); bird song that arrives from the aviary of the “London Zoo”, with a magpie chattering, adult coots heard in the Reservoir at “Welsh Harp”; “Paddington Basin” (not station) is dominated by the sounds of air conditioning units and powersaws–and puts the sound of trains, traffic, footsteps, human cries, or construction that are heard in the background, as if intruding into a sound environment, as well as being part of it, allowing one to imagine a landscape peeling away layers of history with insouciance for viewers lucky enough to click there. At a click, an aural experience of the lived world of the city emerges from the map as if leaks out of the surface that Beck’s iconography leaks out from the map’s surface. Each small sound clip transports one to a sense of place that unfolds in one’s imagination with a physical clarity that is altogether absent–and indeed banished–from Beck’s more utilitarian (and sterile) transit map. The sound clips transport one to specific sites, rather than allow an infinite number of itineraries to be traced by multiple users, but allow one to explore the city’s aural dimension through a visually and symbolically similar map.
The map invests discrete moments of specifically noted times with new meaning as a collection–and suggest less of an inhabited city than ambient sounds most city-dwellers in London be apt to neglect, which would undoubtedly never be noticed if they had not been recorded. Indeed, the transient sounds of a world filled with water offer a sense of tactile contact with the place described, through a map, that at the same time, unlike a map, suggest the evanescent nature of place, and its fragile beauty. At this point, the map is a map, but it is also a portrait more intensely immediate than any map can be: in the medium of the internet, the immediacy of this map lies in its non-visible parts, which take one down passageways unable to be depicted on paper. Once one gets rid of the cellulose embrace the interface, the flimsiness of the static designation of place–even the not so well-known places in the Sound Map of London’s Waterways. As Mutton Brook flows nearby “Hampstead Gardens”, one seems to be knowing the place with a far more acute immediacy than any name could offer. As one clicks the map, the sounds recorded on specific dates acquire a timelessness. And one experiences, after repeated clicks, an eery impression that the selected sounds seem chosen so randomly to make one aware of the omission of any information in a map–and the mechanized nature of the possibilities of interaction that the map offers. This argument may press the notion of the poetics of cartography to a further degree than the London Sound Survey intended, but it hardly seems a coincidence.
In listening to these sounds, one can suddenly recuperate the ambient sounds that stand at odds with the overwhelming aural experience of the underground, long a deafening roar and clang-and-clatter. We listen, in a focussed and almost Zen fashion, to the rasping of grasshoppers, magnified to be louder than surrounding traffic, at “Tottenham Marshes”, or the birdsong, playing children, and barking dog at “Palmers Green”: seemingly evanescent local sounds are recuperated, as it were, and offer an entry place to creating an image of each site. If they seem in constant tension with the totality of the city, showing the foolhardy nature of any hope of truly comprehending a synthesis of the city’s variegated landscape as a continuous expanse, they allow access to meaningful overlays of sound in specific sites. If reduced to a set of poetic fragments, the city is not only uncomfortably dismantled in the map, reduced to a set of recordings, but the recordings register changing degrees in the presence of water in the built environment and allow us to discover the waterways concealed in most maps. Through them, we discover space by a completely new toponymy than that which usually appears on maps to better create them by the mind’s eye: the result is something like a meditation on the poetics of cartographical creation that Wordsworth might have admired, or at least recognized, as a lover of “the mighty world/ Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,/ And what perceive.”
Dual functions of sense-perception embedded in the London Sound Survey of Waterways cannot fail to appeal to the mind’s eye:
Life falls out of the map, in purely auditory form, and map a gap between the map as construction and the lived cityscape. The minute-long intervals of cascading of water one encounters as one walks beside the Wandle in South London, coots in North London, the Ravensbourne at “Bromley Common”, the faint roar of the Roding at “Woodford”, River Beam at “The Chase”, the trickle of the pools at “Lower Sydenham”, punctuate the monotony of the static form of a printed map, and indeed dramatically shift our perceptions of space: we hear a car moving, hear voices of adults or children in the background, but these glimpses of the day-to-day offer a sense of the stability of the experiential, in ways that few paper maps can ever do. We are not actors who determine this environment, than we are passing through it to appreciate it. Its given names were assigned by humans, but those names, for a moment, actually seem completely beside the point.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!