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A moment of silence
Story by Andrew Kiraly and
Photography by Christopher Smith
One of the most prized assets of remote national monument Grand Canyon-Parashant is — shhhh — the quiet
“Stop right here!” Eathan McIntyre tells us. So we halt our humble two-vehicle caravan, and now we’re stopped on an unpaved road a dozen or so miles inside the Arizona border. To our right, low hills and scrubland. To our left, low hills and scrubland. No hiking trails or interpretive signs to lend a comforting sense of human sanction. The arbitrariness of stopping here seems absurd. McIntyre, now carrying a small blue duffel bag full of tools and a small orange tote of computer components, strikes off to the left. He is a young scientist who works for the National Park Service, but he looks something more like a cable repairman dressed as Crocodile Dundee. And right now he has about him an air of mischief as he starts marching off into the desert.
We dutifully follow. We walk along a cow path that meanders around the creosote, being careful not to break the delicate soil. We take a small rise into a dip of more low hills and scrubland.
“Tell me when you can see it,” he says. “See it yet?”
Ah. There it is: a solar panel winking from the landscape. Next to it is an anemometer — that is, a wind speed sensor, which looks like a windmill made out of three measuring spoons. Then there’s the microphone, which can capture sounds on the ground up to quarter-mile away and 22 miles up in the air. Finally, on the ground is what appears to be a tackle box on steroids. All this comprises a veritable sound database that has a month’s worth of noises, from thunderstorms to birds to airplanes — a rich soundtrack of nature and man in this national monument on the western edge of the Grand Canyon.
“Birds, crickets, rodents, bats — we hear it all,” says McIntyre. His four soundscape stations — hidden from humans and pretty well-armored against prying creatures, too — monitor this never-ending natural concert to figure out what the noises are, how loud and frequent they are. “I want to understand the biodiversity of the area, and learn how it reacts to sounds from aircraft, ATVs, air touring, even people walking,” he says. Lots of scientists study visible and tangible impacts on wilderness; McIntyre studies something unseen and often unappreciated: sound.
The lockup is intense for such a remote placement. Wires are encased in steel conduit (“Critters love plastic,” he says), and the electronic guts of the operation sit tight inside the plastic trunk. It includes a sound pressure meter, a data logger for the anemometer and a 30-gigabyte mp3 recorder. Once a month, McIntyre makes the trek here to switch out the data cards and calibrate the mic.
“We capture some really rich soundscapes. It allows us to know what we do have — and what we need to save.”
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That far-out sound
Parashant is remote. Good luck getting here if you don’t have a trusty four-wheel drive vehicle (and a few spare tires). But you might say it’s remote by design, as part of the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management’s joint mission to provide a wilderness experience.
“It’s so special because it’s so hard to get to,” says Rosie Pepito, the monument’s superintendent. “But when you do get out here, the chances for discovery are endless. You drive out here and the geology is spectacular, and the wildlife is amazing.”
That’s a good thing: The remoteness and difficulty of access make for a brand of quiet and distance that at times triggers a sense of otherworldly solitude. But that isn’t to say that Parashant isn’t subject to human encroachment. It is. However, in this case, the culprit comes from an unlikely source: sound. Amid the thick-spread blanket of desert silence out here, you’ll notice on occasion the churr and buzz of an airplane, the rhythmic chorp-chorp-chorp of a helicopter. That’s because this million-acre monument on the western edge of the Grand Canyon gets a lot of spillover noise from the frequent air tours. It’s more than just an annoying reminder that you’re not alone. More crucially, it freaks out the animals — and we’re not just talking about some bighorn sheep being a little bit skittish. The anxiety-inducing noise can pile on to other stresses — say, an especially tough winter, a lean season for foraging — to make it more likely that wild animals will get sick. McIntyre, who has been monitoring the Parashant soundscapes since the spring of 2011, ultimately wants to draft a soundscape management plan for the monument.
Open your eyes
Of course, any trip out to Parashant is about more than mere sound. The sights are pretty spectacular, too. “Some spots in Parashant look like golf courses. It gets so green when it rains,” he says. This day trip to see McIntyre’s sound work culminates in a picnic at Tassi Ranch, a stone house that was part of a cattle operation in the 1930s. Imagine a scruffed-up version of a Thomas Kinkade painting and you have an idea. An oasis abuzz with dragonflies and shaded by gargantuan cottonwoods, it sits against a rock-strewn hill that hosts a vigorous, rushing spring.
After lunch, we pile into the SUV, where McIntyre plugs in his Zune (!) to play back some mp3s of his Parashant soundscape recordings. Plucked from time and place, they become aural puzzles that are at once peaceful, intriguing — and sometimes eerie.
“This one’s called ‘Birds and Wind,’” he says. In it, the sustained breeze sounds — almost theatrically — like a vast and continuous spectral breath, against which a lone bird cries. “Fly” captures a fly manically buzzing onto the mic for a landing. Your nose will twitch as you “feel” the fly come up close.
“Thunderstorm” is operatic to the point of smiling suspicion — can these Hollywood-worthy thunderclaps and lugubrious downpour be real? McIntyre finishes up with a mystery sound, a high, warbled yelp that calls to mind a small dog — no, a crow — wait, a raven — or maybe a bobcat? McIntyre is still trying to crack the case. But it opens your eyes — or, rather, your ears — to the preciousness of sound in the Southwest.
Getting there: Take I-15 north toward Mesquite. Before Mesquite, take exit 112 south to Gold Butte Road. After you reach Whitney Pockets, roads are unpaved and require a four-wheel drive vehicle.
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