I’ve been thinking about the proposal to bring snowmachines and snowmobile races to Anchorage's Kincaid Park, so I suppose it’s no surprise, or coincidence, that I was drawn to a recent posting on a blog called The Nature of Cities. (I happen to be one of many contributors to The Nature of Cities, so I periodically check in to learn the perspectives of others interested in the idea of cities as “ecological spaces.”) The posting that caught my attention was Tim Beatley’s “Celebrating the Natural Soundscapes of Cities.”
Beatley’s musings reminded me how important “natural sounds” are to me, even in the city and even — perhaps especially — in winter, when my days are lightened by the chatter of chickadees and redpolls, the soft trilling of waxwings, the sweet warbled songs of pine grosbeaks, and the more raucous calls of ravens. Sometimes there are unexpected and delightful surprises – such as the voice of a young white-crowned sparrow, which for some reason chose to spend the winter in Anchorage and was practicing his song outside the home of friends I visited this week. What an unexpected treat, to hear a sparrow song in January, even if it’s still a work in progress.
The calls and melodies of songbirds are what I mostly listen for while on my daily winter walks (or, more rarely, skis) around town. But other pleasing and relaxing sounds contribute to Anchorage’s urban winter soundscape, from the rustling of wind through spruce needles and birch limbs, to the soft hiss of ice moving through Cook Inlet. Though not necessarily calming, the loud chatter of squirrels tends to bring a smile to my face, a reminder of another neighbor eking out a year-round living in the city. And more rarely, there are the haunting hoots of great-horned owls -- enough to stop me in my tracks.
Like Beatley, I find that “Listening to these deeply nourishing sounds — what Rachel Carson has called 'nature’s music' — serves to calm me, steady me, reassures me that I am in the right place . . . Natural sounds are an important entry into the mystery of life around us, a kind of aural portal or window into the complexity and diversity around us.”
There are also less pleasing urban sounds, which for me include the various forms of mechanized noise, most notably the motorized rumble of cars, trucks, planes, and jets, the honking of horns, and, in winter, the roar of snow blowers. Loud noise is partly what keeps me away from malls. And as much as I love coffee houses, I sometimes find the combination of their music, espresso machines, and loud conversations distracting, occasionally even agitating or overwhelming.
Thoughts of urban noisiness lead me back to Kincaid Park and the specter of snowmachines there. While it’s true that airport traffic is sometimes an annoyance, in my experience there are places in the park, and times of day (or night), when the roar of jets does not interfere with natural sounds and what some of us call natural quiet. Anchorage is fortunate to have parklands where residents can largely escape the loud cacophonous racket of modern urban life. Kincaid is one of those places.
Snowmachines are among the nosiest vehicles, and despite technological advances to cut down on their mechanized mutterings, they remain loudly obnoxious machines. To have events, or scheduled times, when groups of snowmobilers gather to ride their machines will inevitably magnify their roar to oppressively loud levels. It will just as inevitably ruin the experiences of many winter recreationists drawn to Kincaid not only for exercise or sport, but for the calming and uplifting effect of wild nature and natural sounds.
In his posting, Beatley notes that in some cities around the world — in Scandinavia, for instance — enough attention has been paid to local soundscapes and the human need for natural sounds that “quiet areas” have been set aside.
But most communities, including ours, largely ignore the local soundscape in their planning. I would join Beatley’s call for “some badly needed sonic leadership,” or, for a start, at least recognition that some urban places should remain largely quiet refuges. Kincaid is one such place that should continue to be protected and celebrated as a place for people to go and participate in quiet sports without having their days or nights disrupted by loud, dissonant noise.
We need to keep Kincaid free of snowmachines. And city officials need to begin considering the local soundscape when planning what sort of city Anchorage should be.
Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" and "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness," the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wildlife politics since the mid-1980s.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.