Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Missed Conversations

Written by Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO
Poppy and I paused this morning on our walk around Ferril Lake in City Park of Denver, Colorado.  It being Sunday, there wasn’t the usual weekday commuter traffic rushing toward downtown on 17th Street.  We stood along the south bank to listen to and watch the nesting birds on the tiny island close to shore.
Colonies of Double-crested Cormorants share the island with Black-crowned Night Herons. Canadian geese nest on the ground.  Like a modern political discourse, it seemed that one and all were talking at the same time and no one was listening–at least not to my ear.  What Poppy heard may have been different.
I imagined that the clamor involved the difficulty in finding good nesting spots.  The island is tiny, it’s total footprint smaller in square feet than that of the new house going in on the lot a few blocks east of us on 22nd Street.  Real estate has always been expensive for these colonies of birds. The city drained Ferril Lake a few years back for needed dredging and other improvements.  The lake is used to store treated sewage water that is then used for irrigating the city parks.  The older and larger trees that the birds nest in on the island appear to have died while the lake was dry, possibly because their abundant water supply was cut off.  Several trees have fallen.  The branches of the two that remain are brittle and a good wind may topple them as well.  This history and the current difficulties in squeezing a nest onto these branches and the uncertain future of their nursery pre-occupy the birds.
At least that’s the sort of conversations that I make up in my mind to provide meaning to the various squawking I listened to.  You might argue against my interpretation as anthropomorphist and you would probably be correct.  Perhaps the birds are simply competing for space, chanting, “My spot stay away” over and over again.  Or, perhaps they are complaining about the crawdads they are catching, “Tastes like sewer water!”  I don’t honestly know what they were saying.  Yet, I suspect it would be an error to underestimate their ability to communicate.
As I write this I find myself recalling a program about Constantine Slobodchikoff that aired on National Public Radio in January 2011.  Professor Con (for short), from Northern Arizona University, has made a career of studying prairie dogs. In particular, he has tried to learn their language.  What he and his students have found is, to me, rather fascinating.
When prairie dogs spot a predator they sound an alarm, "It sounds kind of like 'chee chee chee chee,'" said Con.  At first, Con couldn't really hear a distinction between the prairie dog calls. Yet he noticed that prairie dogs responded to the different calls with specific and unique behaviors, like diving into their burrows or standing erect to see what was happening.  Obviously these seemingly identical “chee” sounds had different meanings.
Computer analysis of audio recordings of the calls that prairie dogs made provided translations.  The computer separated out the component tones and overtones.  It was found that prairie dogs don’t just call, “Danger!”  They describe the threat: hawk, human, coyote, or dog.
Through a series of experiments Con discovered that the prairie dog calls were describing these threats in greater detail than we would have guessed.  For example, the dogs described humans approaching the colony in great detail; they could describe what color shirt the humans were wearing and their height (e.g. short fat bald guy with a beard wearing a blue shirt walking a blond dog). Other experiments suggested that prairie dogs described abstract shapes such as the difference between circles and triangles.
As I listened to the discourse between the birds on Ferril Lake, I may have been wrong about what they were saying, but correct in that they were saying something.
The world we live in is filled with conversations besides our own.  Continuing our walk through the park, I found myself entertaining a few questions:  How much meaning do we recognize at some subconscious level?  How much does hearing those conversations give us a sense of belonging and connection to our world or impart depth to our lives?  How much does harm does the constant background hum and drone of our civilization, which drowns out these conversations, detract from the richness of our own lives?
As Poppy and I continued through the park and back toward home and I ruminated upon these thoughts, I noticed something else.  Perhaps again it was because it was early on a Sunday morning and the city was relatively quiet, and I was already thinking about what people hear and don’t hear.  Of the people I passed, the joggers, walkers, stroller pushers, those sitting with fishing poles, well pretty much everyone I saw perambulating, they were all listening to some artificial sounds.  Everyone was wearing earbuds or earphones. 
Traffic sounds or not, for them the bird conversations were totally drowned out.  So for the rest of the way home I pondered whether the near universal desire (or is it addiction) for background music stems from a deficiency of nature, a lack of natural sounds.  Obviously there is a disparity between what people listen to through these amplified digital recordings and true nature, but perhaps the effects on the brain are closer to the effect natural sounds might have compared to traffic, trains, sirens and overhead airliners.
We know from a large body of scientific evidence that exposure to what is termed “Green Space” provides health benefits.  I do not know if anyone has attempted to test whether providing a personal sound track that blocks out the ambient sounds of nature impacts these benefits.  One could argue that music might augment the benefit.  Could listening to a symphony in the park have a synergistic benefit?  I would think yes.  Does jogging through the world inside one’s own sound bubble hearing little of what is going on in the world have equal benefits?  I have a hard time thinking it would.  These are questions though that I don’t have answers for.
But I have my suspicions of course. 

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