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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Surf’s Up!

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Bonnie Auslander ponders the pros and cons of sanitized nature CD’s.


CURWOOD: Now, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, reading might help you relax. But, commentator Bonnie Auslander has another remedy, even though it may well keep you up at night.

AUSLANDER: Every night my family falls asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the shore. When we hear the water gather, lift, slosh and churn, it’s as if our beds are turning into beaches--the baby in his crib beach, the 5-year-old on her big-kid beach, and us, the weary parents, sprawled on the queen-size beach. The grown ups are too tired for even a goodnight kiss yet still desperate for something to swamp the voices in our heads that tell us ‘worry, worry, you've got too much to do, worry, worry, you owe too much money.’

Here's the thing: we live hundreds of miles from the ocean, so what we listen to, to help us get to sleep each night is a CD of ocean surf sounds. Every night, it's just waves crashing over and over, the aural equivalent of snowflakes, each one just a little bit different from the last. This time the water eddies before it rises again, the next time it sounds like it's raining a little. Somehow it all adds up to a snowbank of sound so sweet you can rest your head on it and drift away.

But, this week, the part of me that likes to question everything has begun to wonder about the integrity of the sound. Isn’t it just a little too pure? A little too clear? These are surf sounds from a world that is far removed from the polluted one I live in. Oh yes, the refuge feels good, but am I being lulled into not just rest and restoration but some kind of passive complacency? Maybe our surf CD is nature porn for the ears in the way some nature photography is nature porn for the eyes? You know those photos on calendars and greeting cards where the apples' cheeks are too red and too cheeky, the lawns too vibrantly green. There are no dark spots on those apples, no dog crap on those lawns, of course, and also no smog, no clearcuts and no fishkills. Those photos can send the message that we don’t have to lift a finger to ensure a safe environment for our children.

And, I wondered, is the surf CD having that effect on me? Did the sound engineer edit out the drone of an airplane or the roar of a hi-speed motor boat? And, just what is the sound of an oil slick, hitting the shore?

On the other hand, maybe I'm just making trouble for myself. After all, our ancestors crossed the Savannah and stood open-mouthed at their first glimpse of the sea. And then they built boats to go exploring. Isn't it a human trait to sense the ocean as the beginning of something magical, a place that is both a part of yourself and separate from you, where you can be transformed?

So, maybe the surf CD is just a glorious way to help get us to that place of transformation, back to those very first water sounds any of us ever heard as we sloshed around inside our mothers. Well, tonight, I'm too tired to figure it all out. And, so, I put on the surf and go to sleep. And, in the morning a different set of water sounds, the gurgle and chuckle of the coffeemaker, will wake me up to face a fresh round of contradictions.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives, and sleeps at her home in Bethesda Maryland.



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