Review of "The strange stillness of the past: toward an environmental history of sound and noise" by Peter Coates

19 December 2013

The strange stillness of the past: toward an environmental history of sound and noise
Guest author Jonathan Strout writes about Peter Coates' "The strange stillness of the past: toward an environmental history of sound and noise"

Scholarly and popular culture have long been primarily visual. Over the past several decades however, historians are beginning to consider sound as part of their telling of history, and while environmental historians are absent from these discussions, an environmental history of sound is pieced together by Coates in this article. 

The writings of social historians often include some references to environmental sounds. In a history of how early America sounded, Richard Cullen Rath has an opening chapter on what he calls the “natural soundscape,” which discusses thunder and lightning. In an acoustic history of early modern England, Bruce Smith defines “keynote” sounds as those created by natural entities such as wind in the trees, running water, birds, insects and croaking frogs. 

R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, is credited with originating the term “soundscape” in the late 1960s. Schafer was concerned with “sound imperialism” and the “overpopulation of sound,” especially in cities. Schafer’s work on this in the 1970s applied apt terminology to a long-standing concern with the noise of cities dating back to the 19th century. 

The noise of cities is often contrasted with the ‘silence’ of wilderness. Coates points out that the word “noise” derives from the Latin word nausea. For some, the notion that wilderness provides a silence in contrast to the noise of the city is appropriate. Henry David Thoreau wrote of the intrusion of the noise of the railroad into the tranquility of nature. Later, the introduction of the automobile produced similar reactions and is arguably credited with the launch of the wilderness movement of the 20th century. 

For many others, the sounds and ‘howl’ of the wilderness are what provide these landscapes with meaning. John Muir describes the spruce trees of the California forests as “ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.” Many writers, including Aldo Leopold, remark on the howl of the wolf as one of, if not the signature, keystone sounds of the American west. 

Eventually, Coates provides a definition of “natural quiet,” which nuances this distinction between the ‘noise’ of the city and the ‘silence’ of wilderness. Natural quiet is “the absence of noise,” noise being those sounds generated by humans and their machines. This idea of natural quiet is one that has been incorporated into modern environmentalists fight to preserve and restore natural spaces. Leading the charge is Gordon Hempton and his One Square Inch of Silence project. These efforts led to the US National Park Service formally recognizing wild soundscapes as park assets worthy of protection in 2000 and they have launched a program to raise awareness of natural sounds.

Sound recordings are emphasized by Coates as an important complement to our well-established textual and visual archives of nature. The work of bio-acoustician Bernard Krause is a highlight. A note of interest is Krause’s commentary on our increasingly noisy world. In 1968, when he began his nature recordings, he gathered one hour’s worth of natural sound suitable for recording in fifteen hours. Now it takes him two-thousand recording hours to get that one hour.

Coates’ task in his article is to convince environmental historians of the importance of sound to our understanding of a range of landscapes (urban, rural, ‘wild’), and to consider a more explicit aural orientation in future environmental histories. He has done that and succeeded in a more urgent sense to make heard the influence of sound to our everyday perception and comprehension of the natural world(s) we inhabit.

Find the full article "The strange stillness of the past: toward an environmental history of sound and noise" by Peter Coates on JSTOR

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National Park Service Natural Sounds Program. Available at:
Olsen, Sigurd. 1972 [1956]. The Singing Wilderness. New York: Alfred Knopf.
One Square Inch. Available at:
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