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Nature's Playlist

In 2001, John Buehler had a sonic epiphany.

For years, Buehler, a musician in Chicago, had been working as an audio engineer on various studio projects, composing and mixing music to be played through speakers. When a sound-engineer friend passed away, Buehler was reminded of something that his friend had left in his studio years earlier: an unusual piece of audio equipment called a binaural microphone, shaped like a human head and actually containing two separate microphones -- one on each side, where the "ears" jut out. He pulled it out of storage, curious about how it might function away from the studio, outdoors.

Hearing, like vision, is three-dimensional: we have two ears, simultaneously capturing two channels of input that differ slightly as sounds reflect off our ears and skull. A binaural microphone recreates this effect. Buehler took his friend's microphone out to a forest in Wisconsin (with a few other mics placed around, for good measure) and hit the record button. Listening to his recording with good headphones, he was astounded to hear the woods take shape sonically inside him.

At the time, iPods and other digital MP3 players were just starting to enter the marketplace; earbuds had begun sprouting from attentive ears everywhere. With a start, Buehler realized his mission: to create recordings of nature to be played back inside one's head, not floating around outside it.

"Suddenly," says Buehler, "I asked myself: how has the world gone so long without accurate sound?"

Buehler quit his job and his band, took out a second mortgage on his house, and bought more equipment. In short order he founded Naturespace, which creates continuous-loop audio tracks of natural settings -- a mountain stream, a lake at night -- that can be played on iPhones, iPods, and other devices. The app landscape is thick with nature sounds, but for now, none are as rich and immersive as Naturespace's. Other apps rely on the old standbys: birdcalls, cricket chirps, the wind as it rustles leafy tree branches. Buehler's approach to recording has upped the experiential ante. In his audio tracks, one can hear the flap of a crow's wings overhead, the distant knock of a woodpecker high in a tree in a cavernous redwood forest, the Doppler buzz of a lone bee approaching, circling, and moving on.

As a self-described post-production purist, Buehler says he doesn't manipulate the audio much once it has been recorded. But he readily admits that a lot of silence gets edited out. A 25-minute track might reflect several days' worth of recording, with much of that time spent trying to figure out what, exactly, he should be listening for. "It's not point-and-shoot," he says. "I can't just drop a mic in a forest for six hours, cut it, and then say: that's it."

Buehler abandoned the idea of fetishizing what he calls "the accuracy of documenting" early on. " 'Isn't this real?' -- that wasn't the takeaway," he says. Instead, his aim is to induce a particular state of mind, to "trick the brain into believing it's somewhere else." A Naturespace track sounds like the sound track to a nature film directed entirely by you. "It's a first-person perspective," he says. Consequently, he takes great pains to avoid the sounds of other persons, including himself. Noise pollution is a persistent challenge; a single jet can spoil 10 or 15 minutes of airtime. "The world is just loud," Buehler says. "Even very quiet spaces have sounds from far away."

It is, admittedly, unnatural to close one's eyes and, through wires, stream in the simulacrum of a natural experience. Yet much of the benefit of communing with nature -- the sense of relaxation, of creativity, of an expanded horizon -- is generated by the mind. By sidestepping the visual, Naturespace allows for a more intensely personal experience than a video documentary can. "It's introspective," Buehler says. "It's as close to virtual reality as we can get."

Buehler has recorded all over the United States: in Wisconsin's Chequamegnon National Forest, in Florida's St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, on Hawaii's Big Island. He has encountered plenty of wildlife -- including more than enough bears, he says. But more bothersome are the insects. Mosquitoes are the one species -- other than Homo sapiens -- that Buehler's listeners consistently don't want to hear when they play one of his tracks. So once the microphones are on, Buehler gladly suffers for his art: standing perfectly still, some distance away, he draws any mosquitoes in the area toward him and away from his sensitive recording equipment.

"I'm the bait," he says. "I don't mind so much; I've got really thick hair. Ticks, on the other hand, are not fun."

image of Alan Burdick
Alan Burdick is a senior editor at The New Yorker and author of "Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion," which was a National Book Award finalist. He blogs at www.aburdick.com and tweets at @alanburdick.
great idea, hope he does well with it