Local otherness: rendering at the borders of Australia’s agri/urban creep
Author: Bruce Fell, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
One consideration of Australia’s historic agri/urban boundaries is the proximity they had to the otherness of “the bush” and the subsequent influence bushland otherness had on the national psyche. The ongoing creep of agri/urban imperatives is causing a decline of bushland, hence affecting the opportunities to be informed (creatively and philosophically) by such more-than–human places.
This paper considers the challenges to such socio-ecological insights now that access to bushland otherness is less ready-to-hand.
In arguing that the bush is a creative gateway of national and Global significance, the paper acknowledges that such otherness informed the continent’s original inhabitants. The paper makes no claim to traditional knowing. Rather, the standpoint of the paper results from twenty years of calling a hut in a bush hamlet, home. There, the sights, sounds and textures of the encroaching, the remnant and the endangered continue to influence my
In telling this story, I draw on my regular trips to two rural cities (Albury and Wagga Wagga) and compare the current more-than-human influences available in those cities with those surrounding my bushland hamlet.
everything spilling from around you
In reflecting upon the otherness dwelling in the local bush at the borders of Australia’s agri/urban creep, I acknowledge that the forces that influence such geology and biota are now susceptible to global influences in ways previously less relevant, or indeed ways that once did not require consideration. Perhaps no better example of this is the detrimental effect to human and ecological wellbeing caused by the current four hundred parts per million of carbon dioxide molecules to all of the other molecules in the planet’s atmosphere (350.0rg 2014). Speaking of this, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim says: ‘The risks are global’ (ENS.com 2014). Unprecedented, and according to acclaimed climatologists James Hansen (McKibben 2013 p 12), 400ppm (parts per million) is some fifty parts per million above what is considered conducive to maintaining atmospheric wellbeing for artist, whale, banker, cow, philosopher and wallaby alike:
If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm.”
Dr James Hansen
Now that the detrimental state of the planet’s atmosphere is recognised as affecting the global/local, it opens a way to contemplate the contemporary global barriers impeding our awareness of the bush and what such bushland otherness has to offer.
Trying to figure out how it all fits together
Humans and sun and oceans and weather
Crosby and Raymond
When I speak of the bush, I speak of a world other to the everydayness of both rural and urban life — not better than or worse than. Such bushland has more-than-human qualities, qualities vital for human wellbeing. The bushland otherness I speak of is in line with that of eco-philosopher David Abram (1996 p ix):
Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils—all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams—these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.
Having lived in a hewn bush shack for over twenty years I have become, to some extent, attuned to the more-than-human world celebrated by Abram and others. Living at the junction of two creeks at the base of a valley where flood and bushfire have approached my ‘welcome’ mat — where antechinus, echidna, frog, lizard, snake and wombat may greet you on the dunny pathway. Slowly over time the neonless nights, like naked wind, water and fire have worked on me in ways I could not have imagined when I first moved from the main street of the city of Bathurst to a shack on a track without a name. It is here, where summer dust, winter mud, spring bustle and autumn still have drawn my attention to the otherness of the bush.
That wild woman’s waiting on the steps of her shack—
The magpie said sit down.
I’ve come so far that I daren’t turn back
And a wild woman’s waiting at the edge of the night
With a snake at her left hand, an eagle at her right:
And the magpie says sit down, sit down,
The magpie says sit down.
Warble and Whales
When my partner returned from a morning walk with our daughter through suburban Albury, Jean said in passing, “I think the magpies in Albury are louder than those back home”. This immediately sparked my interest; I’d been reading a report by marine biologists explaining why certain whales have to sing louder than in the past in order to stay in contact with each other and subsequently find a mate. It turns out that the increase in ocean machine noise caused by cargo ships and military vessels is increasingly blocking out natural sound and as such causing stress across the world’s oceans — such noise not only affects highly evolved whales and dolphins, but also crab, lobster, shrimp and barnacle amongst other ocean locked sentient beings (Jenner 2013, Hoare 2012, Penn State 2010). Later research revealed that be it ocean, sky or land the thrum of diesel engines crisscrossing the planet masks the biophony and geophony of the more-than-human.
In terms of bushland otherness, biophony and geophony as well as anthrophony are central to this story. Coined by Drs. Stuart Gage and Bernie Krause (2001), geophony refers to the “non biological sounds: wind in the trees, water in a stream, waves on the ocean shore, movement of the earth. Biophony refers to “all the sounds generated by organisms in a given habitat”, and Anthrophony, “all of the sounds we human’s generate. Some of it is controlled, like music or theatre. But most of it chaotic and incoherent which some of us refer to as noise” (Krause 2014).
Globally, research is revealing how birds are having to adjust to noise (Science Daily, 2013, 2012 and elsewhere).
Listen for silence
gaps in cacophonous noise
Anthrophony and the barricades to Otherness
I went to bed that warm summer Albury evening with my window ajar. As I prepared for sleep I was kept awake (and later woken) by the city’s consistent, persistent, mechanical oscillation. Not unlike an ocean cargo ship, Albury appears to cruise through the night. Thanks to a drive-by midnight disc jockeymy thoughts returned to the plight of ocean whales as my ears tracked the doof, doof, doof of the V6’s speakers noising through Albury’s neon suburbs. When the last doof faded beyond my earshot I noticed that its absence highlighted the less intrusive thrum of the city proper — eventually its cadence lulled me back to sleep.
At 4 am I was awake again! Albury’s dawn workforce were revving up for the day. I was reminded of the disturbed sleep I’d had in Melbourne the night before. There, I had experienced a not dissimilar thrum while in bed above Little Collins Street. At around 4am I had been woken by a flotilla of street sweeping machines grooming the city’s laneways for the morning rush. Though more intense than the suburbs of Albury, at its core the tenor of Melbourne’s noise was indistinguishable.
The doof, doof, doof of the drive-by disc jockey spoke of how, in a contemporary sense, the sounds of music and theatre (television/internet/smartphones etc.) can at times crossover into the realm of noise. I realised that when in Melbourne I had used the television receiver to block out the hubbub, while at the same time using media noise to personalise the transitory space of my hotel room. I came to suspect that the original 2001 definition of anthrophony by Krause and Gage had not taken into account that media, in many instances, is also noise, is also thrumming out the natural sounds of geophony and biophony.
in my head all night
the whirr of anxiety
yet the wee ones sleep
An Ear For Anthrophony
Jean had a similar restless night, but not so our grandchildren nor their parents. Windows ajar, they had slept undisturbed; after all, they were in their home sleeping through the usual anthrophony of their place in the world: which is not to say they slept well.
The usual everyday sounds of traffic, media, commerce, etc., nestle into our subconscious sense of urban place and can be misconstrued as the full spectrum of what we should be hearing out for. For example, when walking along a footpath the squeal of tyres are likely to indicate danger, whereas the whoosh of the same tyres thrumming past is not construed as danger. The whoosh is filtered from our conscious attention. And while such filtering of noise enables us to function, such noise can still be detrimental to our personal wellbeing and that of other sentient beings. Both academic and development delays have been linked to chronic noise: “children who live near transportation noise are more likely to test poorly for language and cognitive skills and have lower reading scores” (Huffington Post, 2013 and elsewhere). Similarly, a growing body of research is revealing the cost to human health from continual exposure to noise (Future Tense 2014).
In addition to the detrimental health concerns surrounding the ever-present thrum, noise inhibits the opportunities to be aware of how the natural integration of biophonic and geophonic sounds create a more-than-human perspective on human being. One that can, understandably, fuel a sense in which otherness can be perceived as being outside of the human condition. Hence, when considering bushland otherness from an urban perspective, it helps to appreciate the nature of placed-based human cognition.
claw marks on the sky
jets plow the blue fields quickly
two oxen look up
A Country Life
The biophonic and geophonic sounds of otherness are not to be confused with the sounds of the countryside. There still persists a lingering sense that dairies and cattle farms like piggeries and chicken sheds, like cereal and fodder production come about in tranquil other-like places. Today, great swaths of hinterland are, like the ocean, dominated by noise as farming practice merges with the factory production line. Much of what was once the quieter rural life is now subject to the same types of diesel engine presence as are the planet’s oceans. The space and time in which ‘natural’ sound can be heard beyond noise is in decline. Krause reports that when he first started recording nature he could develop a natural soundscape for a one-hour program/instillation by recording around ten hours of nature. Today (due to noise) it takes approximately 1000 hours of recording to produce enough non-anthrophonic sound to produce a one-hour natural sounding soundscape (Krause, 2013).
Be it ocean, sky or land, contemporary industrial noise shapes urban and rural space and, as we have seen, wellbeing. Hence, the notion of Rural Australia and Bushland Otherness is complex. Increasingly, one has to step beyond the hinterland into less industrious realms in order to approach otherness — to approach other(ness) ways of creative thinking. Initially such sojourns can be off-putting, if not confronting, to urban sensibilities.
Loud awkward tension
in my friend’s house high
Biophony and Geophony
The counter experience to my sleep disturbed nights in Melbourne and Albury can be found when urban attuned guests sleepover at my geophonic and biophonic inundated shack. What their subconscious scanning registers as ‘possible concern’, my subconscious reads as ‘roll over and go back to sleep’. My subconscious registers the severity of the wind sweeping across the valley, as it does the flow of one or both creeks after a heavy downpour up stream. Within the hut, the thud of a shifting fire log sliding forward onto the fastened stove door does, in the middle of the night, cause me to register then warm back to sleep. In the early hours of the morning I don’t perceive as danger the piecing screech of a rabbit caught, killed and eaten alive by a wild cat or fox or that of Bogong Moths crashing into the hut’s windows as they make their seasonal migration to the mountain caves beyond. And then there are the birds calling-up the sun. The same wind, water, wood and beast do for my urban attuned guests register various degrees of disturbance and alarm. Arguably, just as the street sweeping machine in Melbourne and the doof, doof, doof in Albury did for me.
At home in the bush, I have knowingly and unknowingly categorised the surrounding biophonic and geophonic into normal, pending andalarming tones — just as my urban guests have subconsciously categorised the various tones of their everyday urban thrum into normal, pending and alarming noise.
There are further aspects to our hearing-thinking. For me, the crisp sound of peeled candlebark skin (the bark of Eucalyptus rubida) crunching through the undergrowth and spearing directly into the ground is a signature January sound: “it’s that time of year again”, and with it the Dollar Birds are passing through, the Wattle Bird chicks are now independent, the tomatoes are beginning to ripen a plenty. Yet, when in the city, my hearing of the global appliance is one that finds it hard to discern if I am listening to a summer, autumn, winter or spring thrum?
My guests, having been kept on alert by a seemingly loud profusion of biophonic and geophonic disturbance are forced to make a further adjustment as morning coffee brews: there is no smart phone access this deep in the valley! And while there is the noise of the occasional passenger jet high above, as well as the occasional vehicle crossing the bridge up-steam, here, otherness is able to breach both analogue and digital barricades.
Words that come from afar
Change the way you feel me?
Otherness and Dis-stance
Today, more so than ever, we can’t ignore the screen when talking about otherness. In hindsight, despite the many insightful, informative and creative film, television and on-line productions produced and being produced the screen has not by and large storied us forward to the earth; rather, it has and continues to predominantly directed us back in upon our noisy selves. Such observations can be born out in the findings of Bill McKibben’s ‘The Age Of Missing Information’ (1992) where he demonstrated how mainstream television misrepresents otherness due to a combination of commercial imperatives and the technological-corporeal constraints associated with the necessity to access such content by sitting in a room – usually with the blinds shut. Similarly Shohat and Stam (2002) chart the background to this remove. They draw on the birth of film to describe how a combination of Imperial and commercial imperatives worked towards creating and later reinforcing an urban ‘seeing’ of the world, one that contributed towards leading us further away from being sensitised towards the more-than–human world and hence deeper into an urban worldview. Norman Denzin’s Images Of A Postmodern Society (1991), when read through the lens of McKibben and Shat and Stam charts how Hollywood contributed to our remove from more-than-human sensibilities. Abram’s research (1996) comes to similar conclusions, though his deductions are formed by observing Western sensibilities from more-than-human environs, rather than a media focus:
Without the oxygenating breath of the forests, without the clutch of gravity and the tumbled magic of river rapids, we have no distance from our technologies, no way of assessing their limitations, no way to keep ourselves from turning into them’ (p x).
My media-ecology research is revealing how urban dwellers are predominantly located indoors and predominantly accessing at least one screen. (Fell 2012,13 &14). Such a media-ecology reading of screen speaks to Martin Heidegger’s notion of Ent-fernung (‘dis-stance’). Within Heidegger’s notion of ‘Modern Technology’ (1977) the cinematic and later television screen is an aspect of a technological process that fractures ‘space and time’; a situation in which the content on the screen can be described as being both ‘near and far’— an abolishing of distance. (Heideggerian scholar Heber Dreyfus (1992) developed the term dis-stance to describe Heidegger’s term Ent-fernung.)
Dis-stance influences how we conceive our corporeal world. A configuration of fractured near and far sounds and sights can seem natural when one’s everydayness is depleted of more-than-human influences. In this sense, many of us can be thought of as being a little like Joyce’s description of Mr Duffy in The Dubliners: “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” Or as Abram puts it “… we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies” (p ix). For example, researchers are reporting that contemporary children in the developed world spend more time indoors than out and that some children are having to be taught how to play outdoors (Levin 2013 and elsewhere). This shift has been dramatic, “64 per cent of [adult] respondents reported climbing trees when they were children as compared to less than 20 per cent of their children” (McLaren, 2012).
The opportunity, serendipitously or otherwise to experience hints of otherness is, arguably, more distant in contemporary society than at any point in the history of our civilisation. For all its perceived advantages our 24/7 audio-screen connectivity has evolved within the continuum of noise. The screen-based noise producing global appliance keeps the developed world always looking and listening to its urban sensibility — which is not to say persons are not concerned about or don’t want to support human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. The nuance I’m teasing out is one in which urban noise has reached such a pitch that it is rewiring our cognition of otherness, creating an unintended remove. This can be explained within neuroscience and its explanation of synaptic plasticity, Hebb (and others) argue that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ (Hebb 1949). The challenge before us, creatively and practically, is hearing beyond the all day everyday global appliance: to challenge what we’ve come to hear-think as normal.
of the river
When walking with my young grandchildren along the Albury parkland banks of the Murray River, the glint before me from automobiles thrumming the Albury-Wodonga highway bridge caused me to appraise the surrounding soundscape. The automobile noise prevented me from fully hearing the birds and insects foraging: and that was before an outboard motorboat rounded the bend!
As the boat motored past, I noticed how the natural ebb and flow of the water lapping the bank was over-ridden by larger, more forceful waves. These loud mechanical waves altered the rivers tenor. The outboard motor (not the boat) seemed out of place, I thought of the whales, I wondered what affect the noise of the outboard motor was having on the local flora and fauna — were riverbank roots being further eroded, animals stressed, were my grandchildren perceiving this thrum as the sounds one associates with a river?
The Beloved Child
lives by the Code of Honor
no hunger no pain
Shifting baseline syndrome
When the second outboard rounded the bend, it appeared as if the mechanical generated rhythm of the waves lapped in unison with the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of the automobiles thrumming over the bridge. I immediately thought of the bluestone riverbank walls shaping the Yarra River in Melbourne and the complex relationship between noise, civilisation and otherness. In Melbourne, the trees had long since been prevented from dipping their toes in the lapping.
I had to admit to myself, I was feeling less at ease amongst the constant thrum of the park than when walking along the creek that shaped my valley home. My grandsons on the other hand knew not such silent sound, for them, for now, this lower level thrum is silence, is what journalist and social activist George Monbiot (2013) names as the underpinning of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: “what you experienced in your youth is the normal state of the ecosystem.” At its core, shifting baseline syndrome is a phenomenological understanding rooted in Heideggerian philosophy: ‘The question of existence never gets straightened out except through existing itself’ (Heidegger, 1962 p 33) — what we are born into is normal, until otherwise experienced.
of the river
of the river
That morning, before the walk with my grandsons, I’d read that snowmobile noise increased stress within wolves and elk in Yellowstone National Park (Reardon 2012
I snapped a photograph of my two smiling grandsons — I framed out the motorboats and framed in a magnificent river-side tree. The image could represent any number of locations along this and other ancient waterways. I then turned on my iPhone Voice Memos app and recorded ten seconds of audio. I wanted to test a statement often made by Bernie Krause, “a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures” (Reardon 2012, and elsewhere).
Krause has been recording the sounds of otherness since the late 1960s, his research demonstrates that while you can, with a camera, frame out ecological degradation, you cannot not record the resultant degraded soundscape. Krause demonstrates that a ten second recording of place will ascertain the ecological wellbeing of that environment. The layers of biophonic and geophonic sound captured (or not) speak more accurately than do ‘a thousand photographs’ framing in nature and framing out degradation. Krause helped me appreciate that our inability to connect with otherness can, at times, be ocular — a point Bill McKibben came to realise in his 1996 analysis.
The challenge, as always, is how to speak of this within our noisy, ocular centric, (screen based) culture. Otherness, according to Abram’s definition, is other to our contemporary everyday being-in-the- (noisy) -world. The challenge for artist and philosopher alike is, as I discovered, one of framing the discussion.
Trending tech waves
turn philosopher’s rock 2
sand breaking waves
The evening of my walk along the Murray River I arrived in Wagga Wagga. My motel room overlooked the majestic Murrumbidgee River. Sitting on the balcony gazing at the river I quickly came to the conclusion that this city-fork of the Murrumbidgee does what the equally majestic city-fork of the Murray River does: provide a misreading of otherness!
Drawing on the likes of Abram, McKibben and Krause, ‘the seeing’ before me in Wagga Wagga and Albury provides a depleted sense of the natural and hence provides a false sense of what accessing bushland otherness is. Otherness is more than a seeing of a perceived natural sight – otherness requires a full spectrum of seen and unseen indigenous biota.
The background to my concern draws on research begun in 1988 when Krause received permission to record the soundscape of remnant woodland prior to the implementation of selective logging. Krause wanted to test if selective logging had an impact on the woodlands biophony. Each year since the selective logging, at the same time of year, under the same conditions, Krause returns and records the same piece of woodland. As yet (2013), the diversity (biodiversity) of woodland has not returned — the sounds of and/or profusion of many of the sentient beings captured in the original audio recording have not been replicated. (See bibliography ‘link to audio’ for a link to the initial recording and a subsequent recording).
As Krause argues, and my little audio experiment by the Murray River supports, in terms of otherness our eyes can deceive us. As Krause argues, one can frame a photograph to take in the best aspects of the surrounding location, but one cannot (as I discovered) frame the sounds of place: “when you set up a microphone, it tells you immediately what’s happening in a habitat” (Krause 2014).
My photograph and audio recording didn’t complement each other. My audio recording was replete with the thrum of Albury, Krause would not be surprised, he argues: “you can spend years evaluating a habitat from a visual perspective, but you will find out more from a 10-second sound clip than from years of visual study” (Krause 2014).
As I sat on the balcony of my Wagga Wagga motel room overlooking the mighty Murrumbidgee, a mere two minute walk from the Wagga Wagga Post Office, the overpowering thrum of automobiles and other noise dominated the soundscape; rendering the river, like the Murray (and the murky Melbourne Yarra) to appear to make no sound of their own. (A river in flood is a different story).
In the bushes beyond the balcony, Willy Wagtails danced Charlie Chaplin like, their subtle tones dampened by noise. Which was not the case for the loud screech of a sulphur-crested cockatoo sounding its arrival on a branch above the Willy Wagtails.
As I watched the willy wagtails silenced dance, my ears began to pick-up the oaring of a canoeist working up stream and that of rubber tyres crunching over crushed granite as a bicycle rider negotiated the path atop the levy bank. Over time such sounds came and went: the cockatoo flew off; the canoeist rounded a bend, as did the cyclist, leaving behind the silent Charlie Chaplin willy wagtails and the noise of automobiles, air conditioners, television receivers and other indistinguishable anthrophonic oscillations. I closed my eyes, my ears couldn’t discern if I was in Albury or Wagga Wagga — the thrum, indistinguishable, not as loud as Melbourne, but the noise components, indistinguishable.
“We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations”
(Abram p ix).
The challenge for those in the creative industries working in the area of human-ecological wellbeing is one of access and reception; of bridging the gap created by contemporary anthrophony, a gap in which dis-stance and shifting baseline syndrome are at play.
The riverside parklands of both Albury and Wagga Wagga are to be celebrated, the residents and forefathers of both cities, congratulated. Time in such places is not to be underestimated, for it can provide a stepping stone to the creative and restorative properties of the otherness dwelling just around the bend. That said, such parklands ought not be misread as bushland: they are parklands with less noise than streetscapes and media rooms. The challenge for urban and rural Australia is, in a time where more and more residents spend more and more time indoors, is to not have park and farmland conceived of as the otherness of the bush. Which is not to say that such park-like places aren’t valuable refuges from excessive noise.
fly through the granite canyons
of skyscraper cliffs
Other Clues In No Other Place
Having been woken early by the street-sweeping machines of Melbourne, I found myself drawn to an out-of-the-way corner of a side alley leading off a latte laneway and into a world of graffiti tags, padlocked caged stair wells and sweet decay. Behind a stand of grease stained and over-flowing dumpsters fern and moss, dandelion and creeper had taken root. Dappled light and leaking pipes aided by the out-of-the-wayness of this place replicated the basic shapes found in park and bush. Too narrow for the mechanical street sweepers, this nook conjured my bushland imagining just as some aspects of parklands do. The thrum of the city aside, the lay of flora, of how the fern roots netted over and around obstacles in order to penetrate the underworld was just as the various fern roots in the woodland hills above my shack seek nutrient, as remnant woodland trees do, as do domesticated trees. Similarly, but in miniature, the alley’s watercourses (forged by the ooze of pipes in need of maintenance) formed the unmistakable snake of the creeks I live before and rivers I’ve written about.
A slice of time
Back from the edge of the knife
Crosby, Raymond and Eaton
Our seeing can stimulate imagining — the challenge we face is our hearing. The challenge we visual-centric big-brained imaging animals have, be we in a city nook or by a river-city bend is one of hearing beyond our noisy seeing. How to creatively address the loss of biophonic and geophonic sensibilities from the everyday urban worldview is, arguably, deeply entwined with the 400ppm challenge of our time. To that extent, the borders and outskirts of Rural Australia offer the creative industries the opportunity to access places where otherness dwells, to hear the biophonic and geophonic environments that rural industry and parkland seeing cannot manufacture. Perhaps there has never been a more urgent need for the creative industries to move forward to the earth, to seek more-than-human creative and philosophical insight, to shift the urban baseline syndrome towards otherness: towards global solutions for local problems.
AS THE CRICKETS’ SOFT AUTUMN HUM
IS TO US
SO ARE WE TO THE TREES
AS THEY ARE
TO THE ROCKS AND THE HILLS
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About the author
Dr Bruce Fell lectures in moving image literacy and production. He teaches internal and distance education subjects. Bruce has experience in Film, Television, Video and Digital Production. Bruce’s PhD, The Question Concerning Commercial Television and the More-Than-Human World, looked at the circumstances in which ecologically sustainable messages could be woven into a commercial environment. Bruce’s MA(Hons) Electric Media As an Aids Awareness Facilitator With Prison, compared the documentary style employed in a series of HIV/AIDS awareness programs that he produced, with the evolution of documentary screen-based communication production, from Lumiere’s ‘actualities’ through to contemporary documentary practice.