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Recording the sounds of the West

Two archivists aim to catalog the soundscapes of Western states -- birds, rattlesnakes, bats -- before the racket of modern life drowns them out.

September 04, 2009|Thomas Curwen

RANGE CREEK, UTAH — A synthesized cellphone melody pulls Jeff Rice from his sleep.

De-de da-de-de da-de-de da-de. De-de da-de-de da-de-de da-de.

Rice hits the alarm. It's 4:30, still dark. He clicks on his headlamp and dresses in the confines of his tent.

The nylon zipper shrieks -- zzzzzzzzzzzpp -- as he opens the flap and steps outside. A few clouds have rolled in. The remaining stars poke through the sky like shards of light. Beyond the cottonwoods, the creek is a steady babble, the crickets nonstop and the bats an occasional tcheee, tcheee, tcheee.

But these are sounds he knows, captured two nights ago with the microphone and recorder he set up outside his tent. Now he's eager to head somewhere new, and the morning about to break is promising: no wind to keep the birds down.

"Kenning," he calls out.

"I'm up." Kenning Arlitsch climbs out of his tent, and they quietly head down the path to the SUV. A toad the size of a softball, caught in Rice's headlamp, jumps aside.

Rice pops open the trunk and double-checks his gear: parabolic dish, Sennheiser microphones, Sound Devices 50-gig recorder, portable recorder, lapel mikes, Sony recorder, bat detector, hydrophone for fish and plenty of AA batteries.

Rice came to Range Creek to listen and record its sounds.

Once a private ranch, Range Creek was opened to the public in 2004, and it is a carefully protected, isolated sliver of land just shy of the Green River and Desolation Canyon, hidden behind a fortress of rock known as the Book Cliffs. As Rice knows, isolated means quiet, and quiet -- or more precisely, sounds without the interference of man-made noise -- means endangered.

He gets behind the wheel; Arlitsch rides shotgun. Beyond the ranch complex, the Trailblazer prowls down a washed-out and rutted road.

They call their project the Western Soundscape Archive, a digital database of sounds managed and organized by the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. By title, they are both librarians, Arlitsch typically working behind a desk, managing technology for the project, and Rice spending time in the field, using his equipment like a photographer uses a camera: to hold on to a fleeting moment.

But instead of images, Rice collects sounds caught in the brief intervals of modern life before the cacophony of airplanes and jets, air conditioners and automobiles, music machines and gardening equipment kicks in.

The rarity of these moments makes him a connoisseur of natural sounds. In the course of his work, he has dropped his mike into a beehive, coiled it near a rattlesnake, extended it into a roost of Mexican free-tail bats and gingerly approached elephant seals.

Farther down the road, near an open field, they idle by the ruins of a log cabin, shadowy in the glare of the high beams, its roof crushed by a fallen cottonwood. If a stretch of land ever promised to be haunted, it would be Range Creek, not only by ranchers of this century and last -- most notably Budge Wilcox, who took possession of these 1,600 acres in 1951 -- but also by the Indians who lived in this canyon, so far as we know, from AD 800 to AD 1350.

No wonder that when Wilcox's son sold his holdings to the Bureau of Land Management in 2001, archaeologists were eager to explore the property. It had a semi-mystical reputation -- a footnote to lectures, speculation in local bars -- and in the last eight years, 400 sites, including rock art, granaries, pit houses and rock alignments, have been identified as belonging to the northern neighbors of the Anasazi, the Fremont Indians.

Though recovering the past matters less to Rice and Arlitsch than making sure that the present isn't lost, this morning they plan to record something a little less tangible than the chatter, twitters and trilling of the canyon. They are heading to a rock-art site where they hope to capture an aural understanding of the world that the Fremont inhabited.

Rice stops where the road skirts the creek and the creek rises nearly to the level of the road. This is one of the places he scouted last night for recording ambient sounds. The ground is soft and sandy from flash floods and the washouts of last summer. Dust hovers in the headlights.

He gets out, grabs his gear and, just off the road, extends the legs of a tripod and fastens to the top a large, zucchini-shaped microphone. He pulls a wind sock around it. White and hairy, it looks like a plump Pekingese. In the surrounding trees, a few whistles and squawks have begun.

"You can hear them starting up already," Rice says.

There is no saying what bird or insect they might be or how far the sounds have traveled; Utah and the Southwest are prized among recordists for minimal atmospheric attenuation, the humidity or air turbulence that alters and mutes sound waves.

Rice plugs the microphone into the recorder. He puts on his headphones and listens, making sure that the creek isn't too intrusive.

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