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Pond sounds at the home of Walmart

By David Rothenberg, Safina Center Fellow

You probably all know what Walmart has done to Main Street, all over the USA. Led to the closing of local shops, the death of downtowns as everyone drives happily to the ample parking at your local megastore. Walmart was our favorite villain of capitalist shopping excess for year, where organic lettuce is found right next to motor oil, where nobody works full-time so they don’t get to be offered health insurance or full benefits. We’ve all shopped there and we’ve all wondered why, and lamented for years the declining feel of commerce in our civilization.

Well, that is so twenty years ago. Now Amazon is the champion of monopolistic excess, and Walmart is rethinking its role in our lives. At least in Bentonville, Arkansas, it is. This is where it all began. The first Walmart is a charming hardware store museum. On weekends it is overwhelmed by a lovely farmers’ market. Down the street is a kinder, gentler future vision of the corporate behemoth: a ‘Walmart Neighborhood Market,’ almost like a bodega.

The first Walton’s drugstore, overwhelmed by giant weekend farmer’s market, in the kind of small town destroyed by Walmarts all over the world. Photo: David Rothenberg

The town has been fixed up in a better-than-Disney way. Alice Walton, daughter of the founder, raised money from inside and out to build one of America’s finest art museums, Crystal Bridges

Eversley artwork and Crystal Bridges. Photo: David Rothenberg

Another Walton family member is obsessed with mountain biking, he has built hundreds of miles of biking trails through the forests of the area, heading right into the nearby Ozarks. There is something called the 21C Art Hotel, which bills itself as the first art museum where you can stay overnight, and when you check in, dragging your muddy mountain bike up to your room, it really does feel like that. Another art museum is scheduled to open next year in an abandoned dairy plant, to be called The Momentary, something more contemporary, with mostly curators of color. Several giant cafes that look more like coffee laboratories line the streets of Bentonville and neighboring Rogers, a still-rundown town getting more popular with artists of the lower midwest. The whole area is remarkable to visit, and although East and West Coast art critics started out by poo-pooing this heartland art scene, now they know it is a force to reckoned with.

Crystal Bridges hosted the Nature’s Nation art exhibit, which began at Princeton, and in July they decided to invite me to play a few concerts, indoors and out. With several bodies of water running through the famed bridges, I thought this would be a perfect place to try a live pond concert, playing along with the mysterious underwater creatures and plant life, constantly making a beautiful rhythmic swirl that few people ever stop to listen to.

That’s because you need an underwater microphone, a hydrophone, to hear all this natural music. Similar to the device used for whales, this one is actually much less expensive, because the sounds are close, not far. Here are some sounds of water beetles I recorded in Fahnestock Park in Upstate New York. Every pond sounds different. Here is a pond in Savoy Mountain Forest in Western Massachusetts.

I asked Jerome Seuer at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, world expert on underwater acoustics, what I was listening to, and he said, “I have no idea. There are fascinating sounds being made by plants and animals underwater in ponds,” Sueur responded. “But we only know the identity of about 10% of what’s down there.”

That number astounded me. It is as if no human would know the names of the birds singing in our backyards—how could this be possible in this age of so much information? Quite simple. Few people bother to listen underwater; the very idea seems alien. It is amazing to me that such intriguing sounds are being ignored right in our immediate environments. 

The audience of about a hundred people at Crystal Bridges was quite surprised, whether they were eight or eighty years old. They heard music coming out of a murky swamp, something few imagined could actually be there. 

What interests me most is how to get people to listen critically to the new world of underwater sounds they discover—first we learn how to distinguish plant sounds from animal sounds, then we learn how to assess the rhythms of plants ‘breathing,’ exchanging gases with the air, then the mysterious appearance of small ‘glitchy’ noises, usually evidence of an animal, most likely an underwater insect, possibly a fish, and in many cases a specific creature not specifically identified.

Together with one of Seuer’s students, Camille Desjonqueres, and bioacoustics PhD student Ben Gottesman, we created an art installation based on Camille’s sounds, my own sounds, and an artistic emulation of what if might feel like to be inside a pond, listening.

Mostly one just hears eleven tracks of swirling pond sound audio, but occasionally, Camille’s voice comes on, explaining that 10% of what we know, saying things like, “that is a beetle called the lesser water boatman, rubbing its penis against its body” and then you just hear the sound and the explanation fades away. We set this up at the Science Gallery in Detroit last July, where thousands of people saw it and listened.

Next year, I hope to take many naturalists and seekers of wonder of all ages out to listen to ponds. I’m getting hundreds of hydrophones made now in China. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll be able to buy one at Walmart. Whatever it takes to get us all to appreciate the wonderful sounds that the natural world has to offer. See you next year.

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