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  • Nathan Yoder

Recommended Listening: Patricia Wolf - Life On Smoking Mountain

It's rare that we highlight pure field recordings here at DC. Typically, we write about these raw sounds when they back discernible melodies, providing additional depth and texture. Maybe this is because our music preferences have been shaped by a lifetime spent listening to mainstream, cookie-cutter pop music (which we still appreciate, by the way). Or maybe, we simply lack the patience to sit with only nature sounds for thirty-plus minutes.


But every so often, a sonic postcard (or booklet of postcards) captures our attention. We were pretty into Coen Oscar Polack's Haarlemmerhout last summer, and then featured this David Toop volume and this Particle Count compilation in the fall. And just yesterday, Portland-based multidisciplinary artist Patricia Wolf shared a local exploration of a place very near and dear to many PNWers.


Earlier this month, Wolf spent time around Mount Saint Helens, documenting sounds which students will eventually hear while on virtual field trips. From an educator's perspective, I've just gotta say that this is such a rad idea. The volcano blew 41 years ago yesterday, but the historic event still draws a good deal of attention today. It is a classic "where were you when..." moment for many long-time Oregonians, and I can assume, Washingtonians. In 1980, the eruption destroyed nearly all above-ground flora and fauna in the surrounding vicinity, but listening to Wolf's recordings, you'll hear that this area is now teeming with life.


The first three recordings on Life On Smoking Mountain capture a vibrant dawn chorus - a surprisingly loud introduction divided into brief snippets. The next group of soundscapes were all taken around Coldwater Lake, just north of the mountain. These tracks feature honking geese and crackling noise (perhaps a fire?), but the best moment comes when the faint drumming of a sage grouse rises midway through number five. Now I'm not sure if you've thought about the sage grouse as much as I have this spring (thanks, Ashley Ahearn), but hearing this bird in the wild is pretty special. The final five Life On Smoking Mountain tracks are stand-alone recordings. Listeners are guided through valleys, past rushing water, and are rewarded with 18 seconds of ant hill to close!


This is a "recommended listening" album which I think a lot of people will enjoy, but few more than me. Sitting with these sounds is such an appropriate way to celebrate this iconic volcano and the landscapes it has shaped in the years since its eruption. If you're someone curious to hear what St. Helens sounds like today, find Life On Smoking Mountain through this link, but first, try to pick out the sage grouse drumming in the sample track below.