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.