By Morrigan DeVito
What does the voice of the Mojave Desert sound like? Is it the swoosh of wind blowing across the sand, or the gurgling bubbles of a little stream? Perhaps the desert’s voice is contained in the cadence of creatures like yipping coyotes, wailing Gambel’s Quails, and squeaking harvester ants scurrying underground.
For Fred Bell, a recordist and filmmaker based out of Las Vegas for the last 31 years, the Mojave speaks through the sweet serenades of Canyon Wrens and the inquisitive calls of Phainopelas, rooting him to the land as he records soundscapes of the southwest. Bell creates these soundscapes as a testament to the richness of the Mojave Desert, especially as quiet places to listen to nature are becoming scarcer. You can listen to Bell’s work by going to his website Sounds & Spaces, a collection of his soundscapes and films.
“Thinking of the land and its soundscapes prompted me to reevaluate places that I had camped, fished, and photographed for years,” Bell says. “Purposefully listening was like rediscovering these landscapes for the first time.”
Can the Mojave’s voice be heard in Las Vegas? Even beyond the ringing slot machines and the rumbling roads, a quiet spot can be hard to find in the city’s parks. Artificial noise like airplanes and construction even breach sanctuaries like the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. But still the desert’s voice is present, though it may ask for your purposeful listening. Verdins tseet as they hop between palo verde branches, displaying male Anna’s Hummingbirds squeak, and Crissal Thrashers sing their jumbled songs from saltbushes tangled against barbed wire fences.
Mindfully paying attention to what we hear has physical effects, and the human body responds very differently to natural sounds compared to artificial ones. A 2017 study from the University of Sussex found that natural sounds activate the parasympathetic nervous system, a state of lowered heart rate and slower breathing associated with relaxation. However, the artificial sounds found in cities increase people’s stress levels. When listening to natural sounds, like wind or birdsong, the brain’s attention is directed outward, open to the world. But when listening to artificial noise, attention is brought inward and people focus on their own internal dialogue like ruminations and to-do lists.
Regardless of what you call it, mindful listening is a practice that can guide your attention towards natural sounds like birdsong and leaves rustling in the wind. Bell discovered the peace of mindful listening through recording soundscapes, and even though he didn’t call his practice mindfulness, he says,
“[...] I think it’s something I have been doing on a subconscious level ever since I started thinking about soundscapes. For each recording session, I’m usually sitting still and actively listening for an hour or more. I stay engaged with the scene. My headphones are tethered to my recording equipment, so I’m forced to stay very still and listen.”
This stillness can be carried into any soundscape, whether that’s an urban park or a wilderness setting. To practice mindful listening in nature, you can turn your attention outwards and let all sounds come and go. What noises grab your attention? Do you perceive some sounds as good and some as bad? Try to focus on one or two sounds, and when your mind wanders, return to those sounds to ground yourself.
For Bell, jet noise is the biggest distraction, threatening the natural soundscapes of even the quietest places like at Great Basin National Park. To make a recording of what the landscape once sounded like before jet noise, Bell researches flight patterns and roadways before finding a spot to record.
The rumble of road traffic prevents Bell from creating soundscapes of Red Rock Canyon and Corn Creek Station near Las Vegas, but his work has taken him to other places like Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, Wee Thump Wilderness, and more. In 2022, his soundscape, “Wee Thump At Dawn,” was featured in the Spirit of the Land exhibit at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art to bring awareness to protecting Avi Kwa Ame as Nevada’s next National Monument. His soundscape of Grapevine Canyon also showcases the varied voices of the land, featuring Cactus and Canyon Wrens, Mourning Doves, Phainopeplas, and others. This piece is unique because Bell was able to record it during 2020 when air traffic was at an all time low.
“Echos from canyon walls are some of my favorite sounds,” he describes, “especially if the originator of the sound is the call from a Canyon Wren.”
The loss of spaces where people can go and listen to nature uninterrupted by artificial noise is a conservation concern, and preserving the unique soundscapes of the Mojave’s ecosystems is one way to reconnect people with nature so that they value and advocate for conservation. And Bell’s soundscapes reveal more than just the voice of the Mojave, but also its rhythm of speaking, something that cannot be replicated in other environments.
“The sound waves of the Mojave Desert come in peaks and troughs,” Bell explains. “The peaks are terrific, but the troughs can be very long. Most of the year, there is very little to hear, but then again, silence has its own appeal.”
To some, quiet listening can seem daunting. Inevitably, your mind wanders and can pull you back into your internal thoughts. But taking time outside to intentionally listen is a skill that can be built through practice no matter where you live. For guiding prompts to listen and explore outside, check out Red Rock Audubon’s March “23 Minutes in Nature” PDF.
What voice and rhythm will the Mojave Desert speak to you in?
Images by Fred Bell