The science of soundscapes

The sounds that go with this: the quiet sound of falling rain, a distant dove, a bird chirping in the woods

Right now I hear: The sound of a light rain pattering on the roof of the travel trailer, and a dove calling in the distance. That’s it.

When I first moved to San Francisco in 1991, I don’t recall being particularly offended by the noise. By the time I left in 2008, the noise was driving me crazy. I’m not sure why. It may be that the aging ear, more and more, resents noise and the work of filtering signal from noise. Or maybe it’s that I already was so stressed that the noise was a greater aggravation. If I were in San Francisco right now, I’d hear: Buses, trucks, and motorcycles roaring up the hill around Buena Vista Park, and sirens, sometimes close and sometimes distant, almost non-stop. In my last year in San Francisco I sometimes wore noise-canceling headphones to diminish the noise. Walking down Market Street is almost unbearable. The noise level is so high that it’s almost impossible to even carry on a conversation with someone walking beside you.

Silence is priceless. Sometimes I think that the money I’ve spent here is worth it only for the silence I now live in.

Living alone in a quiet place, one realizes that the sounds we hear carry far more information than we may realize at first. I’ve been reading up a bit on the science of acoustics to try to better understand the propagation of sound. Why, for example, on a quiet night in a rural area, do we hear trucks on a distant highway, but other times we don’t?

The key factors that affect the propagation of sound are the frequency of the sound, the relative humidity, and the temperature. Lower-pitched sounds travel farther and get around obstacles better than high-pitched sounds. Higher relative humidity allows sounds to travel farther. Lower temperatures allow sounds to travel farther. So, on a cool, humid night we are more likely to hear the low rumbling sound of trucks on a distant highway. The sound of a foghorn, fortunately and unsurprisingly, travels farther in the very conditions that create the fog.

A sound that comes from higher up travels farther than a sound that comes from closer to the ground. A singing bird can make itself heard twice as far by singing from a higher perch in the tree.


Scientists who study the communication of birds also study the acoustic properties of the soundscapes or auditoriums in which birds are heard. The book Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong, can be previewed at It contains an excellent technical discussion of how soundscapes affect the propagation of birdsong.

Few sounds travel farther than thunder. Its pitch is low, it originates high up, and it’s often accompanied by high humidity and cooler air. Last summer I often sat out on the deck as a storm approached just to enjoy the sound of distant thunder. I soon realized that I wasn’t hearing just thunder. I was hearing the local terrain. Because the sound of thunder easily travels for five miles or more, when listening to thunder one’s auditorium has a diameter of 10 miles or more, and one can hear the presence of hills and valleys within this large auditorium, just as you hear the presence of a nearby wall if your eyes are closed. If you listened carefully enough and long enough, I believe you probably would be able to say, “I hear a high hill about four miles to the north, and there is what sounds like a river valley to the south.” I have little doubt that our ancestors understood intuitively how to do this.

It’s not a random thing that I’m writing about this subject now. It’s because my ears, now attuned to silence and the sound of nature, have clearly detected a change of season. Even if I had not seen a robin, I’d know the birds are back. I’m hearing familiar voices in the woods that I have not heard in months. Also, the woods are a very acoustically live auditorium at present. There are no leaves on the trees, so the woods reverberate like a very large room. When the trees have leaves, the level of sound from the woods, and the reverberation, will be greatly attenuated.

But even as the woods become muffled by leaves, my auditorium will extend across the hollow, where there are few trees, to the next ridge. When the wild geese fly over, I hear them honking as soon as they cross the ridge into the hollow, my auditorium. And though I heard a pack of coyotes in the woods during the winter, I probably would not hear them when the trees have leaves, because the leaves attenuate the sound so quickly, and the shrill voices of the coyotes are high pitched.

All of the factors that separate us from these nature sounds are forms of pollution. It is as though we live at the bottom of a filthy lake of sound pollution and light pollution. I never realized until I was reading up on natural acoustics that noise pollution reduces bird populations. That makes perfectly good sense, because birdsong is a form of communication, and birds don’t want to live in places where noise prevents them from getting (and sending) information about their environment. Even here in the foothills, trucks, and to a much greater degree, airplanes, pour a huge amount of filth into the natural soundscape.

It is clear to me that I could never tolerate living in a noisy place again.

Looks like a late spring

A baby day lily

Young daffodils

It has been an uncommonly cold winter, with an overall low of 2.3F, plus many nights with a low below 15F. There also was too little rain this winter. A nice spring rain fell today, and the temperature reached 55, but more cold weather lies ahead, with forecast highs for the next four days of 46, 38, 38, and 45. So it’s not exactly looking like spring.

However, I’m expecting the rain to jump-start the young grass and clover. My daffodils, I’m afraid, are still two weeks or more away. I wish my garden would plant itself, because I’m very busy with the house.

So the New York Times confirms my guess…

New York Times: A Los Angeles neighborhood where the creative class wiped out

It looks like I beat the New York Times by two days on this trend. The Times has a story today about the retreat of the creative class:

The deep recession, with its lost jobs and falling home values nationwide, poses another kind of threat: to the character of neighborhoods settled by the young creative class, from the Lower East Side in Manhattan to Beacon Hill in Seattle. The tide of gentrification that transformed economically depressed enclaves is receding, leaving some communities high and dry.

I wrote earlier this week about my fear that, when times get hard in cities, the creative class will be the first to go.

Let’s keep in mind, though, that the energy of the young and creative will always go somewhere. It is irrepressible. In the 1970s it took on a rebellious tone and went into place such as communes, or ghettoes such as Haight-Ashbury. During the decline of Rome it took on a more reclusive tone and went to abbeys and monasteries. We will soon start to learn what the creative class will do during this downturn. Will it be rebellious? Reclusive? Nerdy? Super-green? The response of the creative class will be a key factor in setting the tone of American culture for the coming era. If the response is constructive and creative, that could be a wonderful thing. If the response is angry and rebellious, watch out.

Which is scarier, the city or the woods?

Yes, that’s scary… (Arthur Rackham, Hansel and Gretel)

Is this scary, or inviting? … (Anne Anderson)

This is not too scary… (Dover Publications)

The chart is very scary!

For years, I have had a recurring dream. Something has gone wrong with the world, and there is danger. In the dream, I am traveling through the woods at night, alone and on foot, with no light other than starlight and moonlight, keeping clear of any signs of people, and looking for a refuge. In some of these dreams, I find a refuge. It is an abandoned little house in the woods, in disrepair. I go in and build a fire. I decide that, if I am quiet and don’t make too much smoke, I can probably stay here for a while without being found or challenged.

Watching the new version of the movie War of the Worlds got on my nerves. Tom Cruise, fleeing from the city, kept leading his daughter toward crowds of people. I kept yelling at the television, “Get away from all those people, you idiot! Go into the woods!”

Now you know where the name of my blog came from. So who knows. Maybe I was only fooling myself in thinking that my house-in-the-woods project, into which I put several years of planning, was a rational project. Maybe I was just unconsciously being manipulated by dreams.

And what, after all, is wrong with that? I admire people who can find a way to make a dream real, even a small one. I recently discovered the blog of some very magical people in Britain who put a little fairytale cottage on wheels and are roaming the countryside.

My real point, though, or at least my rational point, is that I am very concerned about how the economic downturn will affect people who live in cities. I had been thinking about Richard Florida, his theory of the “creative class,” and how the creative class stimulates cities. I was wondering if the creative class really matters that much in a severe economic downturn. Then a few days ago I learned that Florida has a piece in the March issue of The Atlantic: How the Crash Will Reshape America. Florida seems optimistic about cities. He just seems to think that it’s a matter of figuring out which cities are going to win and which cities are going to lose. I am skeptical. If city life ever became too hard or too dangerous, the creative class would be the first to leave. I have no idea where they would go, but if things get that bad, that’s a trend we’ll want to watch. In an earlier post, I pointed out that, when Rome was falling apart and its cities became too miserable and too dangerous, the creative class went to abbeys and monasteries, and that’s where they stayed for hundreds of years, until they returned to the flourishing cities of the Renaissance.

ABC News is more pessimistic about cities than Richard Florida, with America’s Top 15 Emptiest Cities: These Once Boom Cities Are Now Quickly Turning Into Recession Ghost Towns. Atlanta, by the way, is third on this ugly list. Greensboro, North Carolina, not all that far from me, is fourth.

If you’re not doing it already, it couldn’t hurt to check in from time to time with the worried folks at Survival Blog and see what they’re thinking about cities. If you’re up for a very scary movie depiction of cities fallen into chaos, watch the dystopian science fiction film Children of Men.

The woods are dark and scary, and sometimes I hear howling in the night. But cities scare me more.

Lunching out in Southern France by Anivid.

In France we still have midi, or siesta – meaning shops and offices closed from noon to e.g. 2 p.m. during workdays.
A lot of people are using the time for having lunch together in a nearby restaurant.
We chose a restaurant which is also a shop, selling bread, wine and specialties.
Every morning when going for the bread, I’m studying the menu cards, observing what’s today’s special in the different places.
Today it was Salmon, delicious cooked in foil with slices of lemon on the top and a couple of clams (cocquille Saint-Jacques) in each end.
Cooking in foil serves the same purpose as cooking in bain-marie, namely to keep the food out of direct contact with the cooking media, whether it be water or oil. When properly wrapped the food tend to keep more of its natural flavors and fragrances during this indirect cooking.
On the side we got a little bowl with chopped haricot vert (green string beans) and leek, and some rice as a mix of wild rice and rice from Camargue, the famous natural region in Southern France (the delta of the river Rhône) where the horses are bread, and where the wild fowls, live in the marsh.
The wild rice is also called water oats, as it botanically is no rice at all, but of a different genus (Zizania) than the white/brown rice (Oryza).
After the sumptuous meal (at $ 15.25) we took a stroll in the lovely spring sun, and soon found an open place where the outdoor cafées flourished.
Here they served us a nice petit café a concept which costs $1.50-1.90 all over France.
Coffee in France is rather on the strong side, hence the glas of water.
As always, the coffee was served with a little sweet on the side, a chocolate covered almond, pure chocolate, or as in this case, a little spiced cookie called Speculaas (originally dutch).
Signing out: Anivid, gastronomy and culture 😉

The deck's all done


Though it was not part of the original plan, it became clear that it was necessary to shelter the back doors (they’re double doors) with a small porch roof. Water coming off the roof was falling too close to the door.

It’s just a short distance from the deck to the woods on the downhill side and back. On the uphill side the deck faces the orchard-to-be. When the back doors are open, the deck is irresistible. I’ve noticed that people walk into the house from the front door and are drawn straight to the deck. The deck is always visible through the glass doors, so it makes the house seem larger.

The one thing that’s incomplete in this photo is the roof over the small porch. Right now it’s just covered with tar paper. Green metal roofing is on the way.

House update


The fireplace was lit up today. Home is where the fireplace is. It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve had a fireplace, so I find that very exciting, even though it burns gas and not wood. To not have a wood fireplace was a pretty easy decision, though. For one, I could not afford a brick chimney over 30 feet tall. For two, I’m getting too old to mess with firewood. And for three, I wanted a reasonably competent and reliable heat source in case of power failures. This fireplace is vented to the outside. That made it a bit more expensive and pesky to install, but there are advantages to the vented fireplaces, not the least of which is that it puts out a bigger, more wood-like flame. I’m going to love being able to flip a switch and have a fire.


The ductwork for the heating and air conditioning system is almost done.


The plumbing and electrical work also is almost done. If there are no hitches, I may even be able to start the insulation work in a week or so.

Local sweets


By far, the most royal of all the local sweets is the sourwood honey from the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a light-colored honey, delicate and floral. There must be rules about what can and cannot be properly called sourwood honey. Though the honey in the photo above is not labeled “sourwood,” the color and flavor are that of sourwood honey, though pure sourwood honey is probably a little lighter in color. A year ago it was selling for about $7.50 a quart. Lately it has been $9.69 at a little market in Walnut Cove.

The market also sells fruit preserves that are made without sugar. The strawberry and blackberry preserves are particularly fine. The ingredients are listed as fruit, grape juice, cider, and spices. The strawberry preserves sell for $5.99 a pint. The blackberry preserves cost about a dollar more.

Sourwood honey is incredibly good with hot buttered biscuits. And it’s great for dulcifying one’s herb tea.

The dropouts: Who will they be this time?

Tintern Abbey in Wales [Wikipedia]

I realize that there’s a long tradition of making facile comparisons to one’s own time and the fall of Rome. Still…

From History of Rome, Michael Grant, Scribners, 1978:

“In the vain hope, then, of keeping their armies in the field, the imperial authorities ruined the poor and alienated the rich. They also alienated and then very largely destroyed the solid segment of the population that came in between — the middle class…. But the external invasions and internal rebellions of the third century A.D. had dealt this middle class terrible physical blows, while the accompanying monetary inflation caused their endowments to vanish altogether…. The cities of the empire, their public work programs cut to nothing or severely restricted, began to assume a thoroughly dilapidated appearance; and then in the fourth and fifth centuries, despite contrary efforts by Julian and others, their position still continued to worsen, and the old urban civilization, especially in the West, plunged into a sharp decline….

“So throughout the last two centuries of the Roman West there was an ever-deepening loss of personal freedom and well-being for all except the very prosperous and powerful…. The authorities sought to impose maximum regimentation, to pay for the army and prop up the imperial structure. And yet all they thereby achieved was to hasten the ruin of what they wanted to preserve, by destroying the individual loyalty and initiative that alone could have achieved its preservation….

“There were also various other causes of the downfall of the western empire, secondary and peripheral, though not altogether unimportant. One of these was the proliferation of dropouts who refused to participate in communal and public life. There were many people who found the social and economic situation intolerable and in consequence went underground and became the enemies of society. A large number of them became hermits and monks and nuns, who abandoned the company of their fellow human beings….”

I’ve asked several friends for their thoughts on what form the dropout phenomenon might take this time. The social and economic dislocations of the 1970s led to the hippy and communal movements, and many people (including me), remember that period and were influenced by it. Whatever the shape of the new dropout movement, a neighbor pointed out two attributes that I’m sure we can count on. The new dropouts will be connected by the Internet, and they will be green, very green.

House update


The railing and steps for the rear deck were added today. Tomorrow, we’re adding a roof out over the deck door. It will extend a bit more than three feet out over the deck. This is to shelter the deck door, which is a double door, and to keep water from the roof’s rear valley from falling on the deck too close to the house and door.

This work is being done, by the way, by a cousin who I had not seen in many, many years.

The electrician is coming along nicely. I’m still waiting for the plumbers and the heating and air conditioning people to start.