A facility at Cornell University houses the world’s largest collection of recordings of animal sounds, the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, along with the Bioacoustic Research Project and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What does a sound lab sound like? Could I listen to scientists, engineers, archivists, technicians, and their machines the same way I listened to birds and other nonhumans? I asked lab staff to discuss the sounds at the heart of their work—sounding their knowledge on archiving, acoustics, field work, gear, communication, looking at sound, music, evolution, and conservation.

Poetry it turns out has helped acoustic biologists interpret the animal sounds they study. When we speak of animal “song,” we bring metaphors from the arts of poetry and music into science. I wanted to know why the Macaulay LNS collects its “specimens” and how such a collection is thought about within a matrix of philosophical, aesthetic, ethical, and political concerns. To “sound the animal” is to pull on threads and follow “risky attachments.” Backup data preserving these animal sounds is stored at Iron Mountain, a facility in Western Pennsylvania located 220 feet below the earth’s surface.

Study of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings (as discussed in Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse) reveals an indeterminate, open relation to the life forms we now call “animals.” The determinations of the hunt remain oddly oblique to such markings—which scarcely represent, say, reindeer, whose bones strew middens found near these caves. Yet the enclosure of an individual life, a species, a figure haunts the record. While we marvel at the “freshness” of the depictions of bison and lions, at their “realism,” such rendering might represent capture—Mammoth, Woolly rhinoceros, and Megaceros deer, exhaling through the human soul. The most recent markings were left by the extinct cave bear.

The sacrifice of an individual animal brings closure, as does the enslavement and mass slaughter of such individuals. The extinction of an entire species presents a less spectacular yet no less certain closure. Now we have put our own species in the sights. What does it mean to open ourselves to other life forms as we continue to enclose their biological possibility and to foreshorten the human future? Is an archive an invitation to listen now, for the indeterminate open, or is it a deferral of listening, stolen for future ears from the apocalyptic march of human time? In listening to listening, I reached for limits of hearing within the field of the archive.




this poem is for you
you know who you are
living your honest
and decent lives
you canaries in the global
coal mine
spring peepers on fire
on the calving face
of the ice, a vibratory membrane
calculating where the animal was
comparing the audio to the video
when the oil spill happened
a clusterfuck
of bohemian waxwings
finely coded
to minimize ship strikes
the cactus flowering
at the end of an industrial
age, complementary
not opposed
to the athletic endeavor
of recording
a singing planet
ah who, ooh who
threaded with the high
frequencies of white-throated
sparrows and shot through with
the bottle rocket calls of
redwing blackbirds
counting up
to look at the broadest
possible spectrum
because you're happy
anticipating the unexpected
series of themes
the bubbles and the sloshing
that the scientist is trying
to put a number on
the political information
embedded in a state sponsored
tour of the poem
the difference between aah
and ooh, falling
right into the pond