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Studying Nature in Nature

Studying Nature in Nature

Getting into Soil and Water 2020

For the past four summers, Iowa State University’s College of Design Associate Professor Alex Braidwood has been teaching a field study class at Iowa Lakeside Lab Regents Resource Center called Acoustic Ecology. Lakeside Lab is a biological field research station in the northwest corner of Iowa founded in 1909 with the stated goal of providing a place for “the study of nature in nature.” This mission continues to this day. As part of this mission, the Acoustic Ecology course that Braidwood has developed brings together undergraduate and graduate students from the sciences and the arts each summer

to investigate the soundscape of Lakeside Lab and the surrounding areas. The region is dotted with prairie, wetland, and even woodland preserves where Braidwood both collects audio for his own work and exposes students to the process of nature sound recording during the two-week, two credit course.

The Acoustic Ecology class is a dynamic field study experience that involves a great deal of work in the field to put into practice the things that are discussed and demonstrated in the classroom. The course also involves a series of listening exercises to get everyone familiar and comfortable with the idea of active listening, a skill anyone can spend more time working on. The group moves through various exercises, some stationary and some mobile, to regain a level of focus on their ears and on listening – not just hearing, but listening. Hearing is the mechanical action performed by the ear and its subsequent parts. Listening, however, is much different. Listening involves the mind and has a level of intention to it that is not necessarily present in hearing. Listening is also a skill that can be improved upon.

These types of experiences provide an introduction into the lessons that will follow over the two-week class and are reinforced throughout the coursework. The class is part seminar, part field study, part technical demonstration, and part studio/lab. Students are shown early in the course a variety of audio recording techniques as well as taught how to use different sound recording devices and microphone configurations. The benefits of different recording systems and tactics are discussed, and students are given time to practice in the field as the class takes exploratory trips to various locations. The goal of the trips is also to determine sites and specific locations for capturing early morning recordings that begin pre-dawn and continue after sunset. This time of wildlife vocalization is referred to as the “dawn chorus” and is one of the more dynamic times for capturing an acoustic signature of a given place. After bringing the various field recordings back to the lab, the sounds are analyzed, processed, marked up, and observed. Students make observations about species diversity, uniqueness of the environment, impact of human sound, and anything else they find relevant for discussion.

In addition to recording techniques and equipment, the course covers a variety of professional audio editing and mastering techniques for the creation of audio pieces to be shared online. The end result is project-based and completed in the form of narrative audio pieces edited together to tell the story of what has been collected and observed. These audio pieces are in an audio format similar to popular edited podcasts such as RadioLab, 99 Percent Invisible, and This American Life.

If interested, registration will be open in early 2020 on the Iowa Lakeside Lab website. For summer 2020, the course has been renamed “Interacting with Nature Sound” to better communicate the goals and outcomes of this field study course at the intersection of art, science, and nature.

This intersection of art, science, and nature also describes the other work Alex Braidwood is involved with at Iowa Lakeside Lab as Director of their Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program. Since 2016, Braidwood has been in this position and has grown the program into a residency that brings artists working in any medium to Lakeside Lab from all over the country, and now, the world. The program welcomed its first international artist, a Dutch composer, in 2019. The residency has a competitive application process and focuses on artists who work at the intersection of art, science, and nature. SciArt, as it is sometimes referred, is an exploding area of contemporary art, and individuals working in this space find a great deal of value embedding in a place like Iowa Lakeside Lab. Artists are invited to visit classes, participate in field study outings, and share their work with the Lab community as well as the public in the Great Lakes Region of Iowa through bi-weekly public open studio events.

Braidwood has positioned the residency program within the lab on the ideas exemplified in his tagline for the program which is, “Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways.” This really does summarize how artists engage with the Lab as they explore the different possible relationships available to them in this unique environment in the northwest corner of Iowa.


Alex Braidwood

Associate Professor, Graphic Design
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artist-in-Residence Program Iowa State University

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