Stacks Image 9

Quiet Atlas

A listening journey into one of the world’s last true refuges of quiet, the Saharan Atlas Mountains, by sound designer and field recordist Nicholas Allan

The sudden quiet took me by surprise, as the violence of the wind gave way immediately to the world around me.
I listened and looked out over miles of Martian rock

Leaning forward, propped up by the wind, my gait lowered, I walked – almost waded – across the barren, dusty mesa. The wind was fierce, unrelenting and direct; the movement of an air mass unimpeded as it advanced across the plateau. My head was turned to alleviate the pounding of my ears, and my eyes were all but closed to protect them from airborne sand.

All that I could hear was the movement of the air; its interaction with rocky surface, clothing and ear drums. I concentrated hard to see through my teary squint, instinctively scanning the foreground and the horizon for movement and turning to look behind – just as in a dark forest at night, when our vision is diminished, our hearing is so acute; when one sense is dimmed another is heightened.

I reached the riven edge of the land and descended, following the twisted landform until the wind was behind me, helping me on, before dropping over the cliff edge to the ledge below. The sudden quiet took me by surprise, as the violence of the wind gave way immediately to the world around me. I listened and looked out over miles of Martian rock.

I could hear properly again, and the soundscape I had become so used to in recent days revealed itself. It consisted of only a single element: the wind – the flow of the air – rubbing against the surface of rock, over sand, through clumps of vegetation, or a combination of all three. Now it flew off the rock formations that were shielding me from above, quiet but constant, seething, and seeming to emphasise the silence of the vast landscape laid out below.

Trying to take in the silent panorama was as if studying a giant mural. I thought back to Britain and its mosaic of industrial, urban and rural landscapes linked by its mesh of roads; the soundscape from vantage points in most parts of the country a rich blend of human machines – cars, trains, aeroplanes, tractors and everything else, together with the voices of our livestock and the birds which live mostly within the fragments of forest and the margins of our farmed landscape.

The distant sound of tyres on tarmac dominating, as across much of the developed world, and blanketing the lowlands in its familiar, grey drone.

Here felt different – there was no noise – no audible, ambient background level. Every sound was easily localised and separated. A soundscape as pure and uncomplicated as its visual of rock and sky.

Occasionally more incidental sounds provided a brief focal point; fifty metres below and another fifty out from the cliffs two brown-necked ravens spiralled to the ground. One of them punctuated the quiet with a single croak as they landed, momentarily, before flying, silently away. A fleeting moment bringing life to an otherwise static landscape.

After a while the energy began to subside. The light changed as the dust in the atmosphere began to clear and the wind, still whipping over the rocks but now more softly, took on a shining, silvery timbre whose pitch rose and fell smoothly as its intensity slowly fluctuated. Sometimes it would fade away almost completely, and it would do so with a decay so gentle and gradual that it was like a car finally disappearing into the distance on a long, straight, featureless stretch of empty road.

I scrambled my way down to the bumpy expanse of desert, leaving behind me the cliffs as they amplified and reverberated the ringing song of a solitary desert lark.

As I walked, occasionally strange, faint, scrambled sounds, like a human voice but almost musical, drifted in and by, carried on the wind. Was it the Berber shepherds calling and whistling to their dogs? I sat on a rock and listened, trying in the brief moments to make sense of the sounds and pinpoint their direction. They seemed to appear briefly, with the ebbing of the wind, in a manner I hadn't observed anywhere before, and which I was sure was the result of the combination of the distance over which they had traveled, the bending effect of the atmospheric conditions, and, above all, the quietness of my surroundings.

The clarity with which we now hear ourselves and the voices of others - both human and non-human - is striking

In the desert the sense of space, vastness and remoteness is heard as much as it is seen. With no buildings, mountains, trees or other obstacles to overcome sound travels great distances. As it does so the higher frequencies diminish so that by the time it reaches your ears, sound that has traveled a long way can be devoid of the high-frequency transients that shape it and give it clarity.

Where the terrain is sand, the sound takes on a ‘dry’ quality, as it lacks hard surfaces or objects to reflect it back to the listener, an effect most of us are familiar with from the beach. It’s absorbed by an almost infinite space as it travels out from the source, adding to the sense of quiet.

And then there is the absence of noise. Used to hearing acoustic signals masked by the noise of our surroundings the clarity with which we now hear ourselves and the voices of others – both human and non-human – is striking.

Stacks Image 15

This level of quiet is always conspicuous. This is because throughout most of the world, over many years, quiet has been in retreat. As our populations and prosperity have increased, so has our mobility, with road and air travel increasing to the extent that noise has become an inescapable daily reality for most people, even those living far away from towns and cities.

And where we have sought to provide refuge for people seeking calm and to protect environments for their intrinsic value or scenic beauty, we have often neglected to consider the intrusion of noise and how it affects our enjoyment and mental wellbeing, as well as the impact it has upon the behaviour and survival of non-human animals.

As a nature sound recordist I seek-out places with little noise in order to record the sound of the natural world. And here in the desert, with no roads, and no flight path, the possibilities were endless. For once I was limited not by the intrusion of the
anthropophony, but perhaps only by the sparseness of sound itself.

As the last of the garbled tones died away a few rays of sunshine broke through the thinning cloud. The wind dropped to a gentle, cooling breeze, and dusk began to fall.

A white-crowned black wheatear dropped into a marooned, skeletal bush, its wingbeats clearly audible and its plumage striking against the burnt-orange background. I trained my microphone, sat silently and waited, but it didn’t make a sound. It flew, northwards, perhaps a continuation of its journey to more life-bearing areas of this rocky belt of land.

I followed toward the distant glint of camp, listening to the gentle rise and fall of the wind as it skimmed across the stoney plain.

The Saharan Atlas Mountains are the southernmost range of the Atlas Mountains system and mark the northern reaches of the Sahara Desert. Our expedition had taken us to an area in the south-eastern corner of east-Morocco which encompassed all of the typical habitats of the entire span of the range: stoney planes, rocky mountain slopes, rock desert, sand dune systems and, where enough water is available, lush-green desert shrublands.

We arrived at one of these more vibrant areas at sunset and pitched our tents amongst some bushes in the long shadows of a sandy bank of earth. Waking just before sunrise I climbed up to its summit to see the landscape in the first light of the day. We were at the edge of a great pattern of red, sandy mounds fused with vivid green shrubs.

These mounds, often found in the semi-arid outer-reaches of deserts, are a type of fixed dune where the sand is stabilised in a more permanent landform by vegetation. They were around three to four feet tall, with a line of taller mounds, including the one I was standing on, of around three times that. Another three or four feet separated the foot of each from its neighbour. To the north, east and west rose jagged cliffs, an escarpment of horizontal strata. In the far-distant south, mountains. A vast basin.

Stacks Image 21

The vegetation was fanned by a gentle but ever-present and occasionally gusting wind, its airy tone an effect of its passing through the coarse vegetation in the way that it does in a pine forest, the movement of the fine, wiry leaves adding delicate high frequencies. Sometimes the wind rose in intensity enough to rock and rattle the dead, tangled branches of some larger bushes which cloaked and surrounded the taller mounds and which must have, at some point in recent history, succumbed to changing water availability.

As the first direct rays of sun lit the landscape a Thekla lark appeared and delivered a short phrase of its melodic song from the summit of one of the mounds, before flying to another and repeating. Another lark was audible in the mid-distance, and before long I could hear several singing at any one moment. Larks are birds of open environments found from the grassy hillsides of Britain and northern Europe to the deserts of Egypt, and the Thekla lark specialises in natural, arid environments. I’d come across it here more than any other species so far; they seemed embedded in the landscape and their plaintive song, often heard from a distant perspective and sunken deep in the wind, seemed fitting to its windswept barrenness.

And so it was at this moment, though occasionally a bird would land within a few metres and provide a hi-fi close-up, revealing the distinctive timbre of its voice; rich and piping but with a distinctive hint of squeakiness. A lesser short-toed lark called in the foreground, its spaced, repeated, fine trills easily separated from the background of Thekla song, and a calandra lark climbed in a vertical flight, its wings beating in slow motion, delivering its rapid, twisting series of notes as it hung and drifted high-up on the breeze. Thekla, calandra and lesser short-toed, at times I could hear 4 or 5 larks deep, all the way to the craggy edge of the dry basin.

Once I felt the chorus had reached its peak I headed to the cliffs. The reflective environment cast by the rock face might provide a new shade of aural colour. By the time I arrived the lark song, almost as quickly as it had started, had died away. The increasing warmth from the sun warned of diminishing time for foraging before the midday heat. The soundtrack was changing, and an immersive hum of flies was building from the bushes at the foot of the cliffs.

The breaks between passages of now-distant lark song grew longer, and the morning soundtrack settled into a quiet, glowing composite of insect hum and wind, punctuated only once by the sound of a lanner falcon as it settled on a ledge and let out its rasping, jurassic call.

As throughout all deserts, rainfall at the northern edges of the Sahara is in extremely short supply and water systems are periodic - lakes come and go, and the deep ravines carved by rivers ran with only a tiny trickle during our early-spring expedition. Nevertheless, vegetation is found in its greatest variety and densities along these dry river beds and basins, and so they naturally provided the routes for many of our explorations. They also provided a great contrast in soundscape with that of the dominant rocky, sandy environments.

In one location - a smooth, winding path where water intermittently flows, slightly banked on both sides by expanses of fixed dunes and on a long, gentle decline from rocky Atlas foothills - we found vegetation that reached head-height, a relative jungle, and not surprisingly it was here that we encountered the most varied bird-life; the energised, electronic pings of a great grey shrike, the chattering of roosting Spanish sparrows and the onomatopoeic calls of a hoopoe throughout the warm day.

Stacks Image 17

At dawn the shrubs were animated by an invigorating, steady, roaring wind. The great grey shrike was unmissable, issuing its strangely urgent song from the tops of bushes; the repeating, spaced, staccato notes pulsing outwards, easily cutting through the backdrop of wind, warblers and larks. Before long the chorus gave way to the cold wind; the flow of air, the rattle and sway of vegetation.

And then a new sound appeared, in bursts, approaching steadily, from downstream. Insistent choruses of piping, slightly metallic tones, each note in the series bringing more emphasis than the last. Fulvous babblers moving through the bushland; jostling, indifferent as they passed close-by to me with my microphone, in short bursts of flight, taken in turns, flitting between bushes and reforming their flock at each stage of their movement through the bushland, leaving behind only the quiet of the wind.

The day began to warm, but walking between the bushes gave the faintly cooling feel of a forest. Stepping inside the wind became immersive, and hid the delicate sound of flowing, shallow water, which was forming into channels, splitting and remerging, sketching fresh paths in the sand. In an open area a lone plover stood, its dabbles heard momentarily before disappearing under the soft blanket of wind.

The stream-bed narrowed into a gorge, where the calls of Sahara frogs resonated and linnets danced between the last of the green bushes before the forest turned to rock. Deep in the rock desert the soundtrack changed to one of wind sweeping against rock and buffeting ears, reflected footsteps and clusters of lark song reverberating in hollows. The sense of quiet still dominated, and I could hear the whoosh of a single, curious crag martin as it swooped in for a closer look.

The midday heat arrived and with that the bird song became subdued. Back on the stream-bed and the atmosphere, now dried by the sun, had seemed to thicken, sounding closer and more confined. I placed the microphones in an area of low-growing shrubs, their dangling leaves quivering in the breeze. From within the bushes, and when the sun shone during breaks in the cloud, started to emerge the sound of crickets, the chirping gentle, almost tentative, as if the first of spring; the first of new adults.

Listening deeply to a natural environment unaffected by the masking effects of noise uncovers a world of detail

Each encounter with life here is set against a backdrop of quiet, allowing an intimacy to develop with the immediate environment, which is unbroken by the noise of the industrialised world with all of its echoing reminders of the day-to-day. That it is in quietude that many find peace and creativity, can listen to their thoughts with more clarity and where humans and non-human animals can communicate more freely is both widely-felt and well-documented.

But listening deeply to a natural environment unaffected by the masking effects of noise also uncovers a world of detail, allowing us to draw a new level of aesthetic pleasure, something which is perhaps less-well recognised.

The composer, environmentalist and soundscapologist R. Murray Schafer described quiet rural soundscapes, where each sound is distinct and separable, as hi-fi, as opposed to those affected by dense, continuous, overlapping, often human-made sounds as lo-fi.

Sitting and listening to this hi-fi desert soundscape of crickets and wind-through-leaves, it seems to me that there’s no better place than here, in one of the world’s last refuges of quiet, to experience and enjoy the thrill of the natural world.