Ecological Soundscapes in Colonial-era New England

Change of the Ecological Soundscape of New England in the Colonial Era

       Soundscapes surround us wherever we go. Whether we’re sleeping, eating, shopping, hiking, or dreaming, sounds are constantly entering our ears and being registered by our brain. Whether we realize it or not, soundscapes make up a significant part of how we perceive the world around us. As auditory neuroscientist Seth Horowitz says, “Hearing is a vastly underrated sense… hearing is a quantitatively faster sense [than sight]” (Horowitz, 1). My question is if hearing is such an important sense, then why is it we often overlook it when examining history? The soundscapes of different time periods, both human and natural elements are essential in understanding the progression of history. What I hope to find in my research is the change of the natural or “ecological soundscape” of the New England region in pre-Colonial times versus when settlers came to the area.

The land treatment practice of Natives versus settlers is an important aspect to examine when trying to determine the differing soundscapes. While the Natives often lived in small, nomadic tribes that hunted, gathered, and used sustainable farming practices, the European settlers generally built large, sedentary settlements where they typically over-grazed, over-farmed, and deforested the land. These two contrasting lifestyles no doubt had very different impacts on the soundscape of the area. The Natives lived in relative quiet, with the necessity silence to be in tune with the wildlife sounds that were pivotal to their survival. The sounds of the European settlements on the other hand, would have sounds of mooing livestock, plows working rocky land, and sawying lumber mills. Using my works cited, specifically Cronon’s Changes in the Land, I hope to investigate more the ways that the lifestyles of the two groups changed the ecological soundscape of New England.

Another specific aspect of the soundscape that changed after colonization is the impact of the fur industry on the wildlife of the region. Before Europeans came to the region, animals such as bear and beaver were either hunted by bow and arrow or captured with small traps. Upon the arrival of the Europeans, large metal jaw-like traps were spread over the land to capture the valuable pelts of the animals. Guns were also introduced, echoing the land with booming gunshots and killing more animals than ever thought possible before. The exploration of different hunting practices and the abrupt exploitation of the wildlife is investigated in Dolan’s book Fur, Fortune, and Empire and Sherrer’s article Probing the Relationship Between Native Americans and Ecology. This wildlife’s effect played a pivotal role in the change of the soundscape.

The dichotomy in the soundscape affected by the introduction of European languages to the New World is another fascinating contrast between pre and post-colonial epochs. In Kimmer’s article Learning the Grammar of Animacy, she discusses how different Native languages are from English. She explores how Native language is much more ecologically based; they have words for phenomena in nature that English does not. Their words also sound similar to the sounds in nature that they represent, which is fascinating. Another interesting aspect is that in most Native American languages they call natural things such as trees “who” instead of “it” like would be said in English. I want to look into more how the two contrasting languages not only changed the soundscape as they obviously would, but also the landscape and how they treated their environments differently.

In my research, I hope to study more in depth the impact the soundscape had on the landscape and the landscape on the soundscape in pre-Colonial and Colonial eras. Even with this preliminary research it is easy to see there is a relationship between them.  So far, I have three main aspects of research: the effects of land treatment, hunting, and language on the changing soundscape of Colonial New England. To put this in context with the wider study of soundscapes and acoustamology, looking at historical time periods through their sounds gives a broader yet more personal perspective of what was happening at the time. According to Mark Smith, who wrote an article on the sounds of antebellum America, “… historians have only began to overcome their deafness to aural worlds of the past” (Smith, 137). In my research, I hope to un-plug our ears at least for a minute and be able to listen to the sounds of a compelling time of change in history.

Annotated Bibliography


Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. Print.


William Cronon is a Professor of Hisotry, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also the President of the American Historical Association and a well-known write of several books on the topic of ecological change in a historical context. Cronon’s work is intended for an academic audience; although his writing isn’t particularly dense, the specificity of his subjects suggests an academic audience is being targeted. This work focuses less on soundscapes than other works cited and centers more on history and ecology. Ideas of soundscapes are easily inferred from these two subjects though, making this work a viable source to use for my topic. Especially helpful is its specific examples of differing land treatment from the Native Americans and the settlers and how this changed the ecology of the New England area in countless ways. This is wonderful to use in my research because the soundscape of these changes can easily be inferred and built upon by the research of Cronon.



Kimmerr, Robin W. “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” The Leopold Outlook 12.2 (2012): n. pag. Print.


Robin Wall Kimmerr is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology SUNY College in Syracuse, New York and relates her research to her Potawatomi heritage in creating programs in the restoration of native ecology, specifically plants. Kimmerr holds a PhD in botany from the University of Wisconsin and is the author of numerous scientific papers on plant ecology, restoration ecology, and traditional knowledge. This article is most likely targeted to scholars interested in soundscapes pertaining to linguistics and the social implications behind this. The journal article is focused specifically on Native American language and how it is linked closely to the ecology of the land, unlike English. This is beneficial to my research because it delves into how society existed before settlers began flooding into North America. It also talks about the linkage of Native American sound and nature, which the English language does not achieve.



Ferrington, Gary. “Acoustic Ecology and Environmental Studies: A New Academic Home for the Teaching of Ecoacoustics.” Soundscape 2.2 (2001): n. pag. Print.


Completing a B.S. in Humanities at Portland State College and an MS in Institutional Technology at University of Southern California, Gary Ferrington now teaches at University of Oregon in educational media and multimedia. He is also the secretary for the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology and he serves on the editorial committee for the journal Soundscape. The intended audience for the article is those interested in acoustimology and sound; the entire journal is designated to exploring different soundscapes. Compared to the other works cited, this article focuses on what an ecological soundscape actually is. This is valuable for my research because with this information I will know what to look for in the other articles that count technically as part of an ecological soundscape.


Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. Print.


Eric Dolan is a historical writer with a focus on the subjects of the environment and wildlife. He has published eleven books that have won numerous awards. More so than the other cited works, his writing is aimed more for the general public interested in the changing ecology of the Colonial landscape. His book is focused on the wildlife of the Colonial era instead of the people, which is essential to examine when looking at the ecological soundscape of New England. This is helpful to my research because this book illustrates the changes the wildlife went through when settlers came to America and this can be applied to how the natural soundscape changed.



Sherrer, Nathan. “Probing the Relationship Between Native Americans and Ecology.” Diss. University of Alabama, n.d. Web.


Nathan Sherrer is a graduated with honors from the University of Alabama with a degree in biology and a minor in religious studies. The intended audience for his dissertation is those academically interested in the relationship between Native Americans and their relationship with ecology. His work concerns the Native American relationship with the land before settlers came, although its different than Kimmer’s article in that it examines the Native’s relationship with the natural landscape more than the language’s relationship with it. This is important in my work because it’s important to understand the Native’s relationship with the land before the settlers in order to determine how it changed after the Europeans came.