Introduction to Fieldcraft

For the wild soundscape recordist, fieldcraft is primarily about being insignificant in the landscape, so the creatures we wish to record remain undisturbed by our presence. It's also about our own safety, and the more remote the places we record in, the more important that becomes.

So there's one basic rule - nothing beats reliable local knowledge. To be successful and safe at anything but roadside "snapshot" recordings, you must do your homework on the intended site before you set out, preferably by contacting people who live in the area. Then, if you find that authoritative local knowledge conflicts with information on this web site, follow the local advice.

The loud frenetic character of urban living tends to make us noisy, impatient and lacking in the self-control needed to pass unnoticed in the wild. It dulls our senses and makes us remarkably unobservant and clumsy. It also encourages us to sentimentalise the natural world as a kind of idyllic theme park where we can carry on as we do in town without adverse consequences. But thinking like that makes us interlopers in the real natural landscape. It causes us to "stick out like a sore thumb", alerts every living thing for miles around to our possibly unwelcome presence, and can at worst put us in danger. So the most important thing is the right attitude.

A reasonable level of detachment is essential - the ability to avoid instant uncontrolled reaction to excitement that would alert wild creatures to our presence. It's also necessary to refine our perceptions so as to become alert to what is really going on around us, to learn to move without noise or haste when necessary, to remain still and silent when movement is not indicated, and to exercise infinite patience. But most important are humility and respect. Humility is not self-castigation, it's a recognition of our real place in the scheme of things. That recognition leads to respect for the rest of the planet, whether animals, plants or natural events and phenomena. And out of respect coupled with attention come understanding, effectiveness and safety.

You do need to be fairly fit. In Britain, the best recording sites may be five miles or more from the nearest road, so the ability to walk a round trip of twice this carrying a load of maybe 30 lbs without fatigue is necessary. That said, if recording is restricted to the early morning hours many good sites can be found within a mile or so of a minor road or vehicle track. Remember that the return journey is always harder than the outward, as you will be tired and possibly cold or wet. A few basic practical field skills, including map reading, an understanding of weather reports and tide tables, and simple first aid for cuts, scrapes and insect bites, are essential.

Selecting the right clothing is crucial. For recording it needs to be quiet as well as visually unobtrusive and adequate for protection against the elements. Excessively loose outer garments should be avoided as they flap audibly. Hikers' walking boots are unsuitable except where extreme terrain makes them necessary, as they unavoidably make one's tread heavy and can damage ground cover vegetation. Remember that wild animals have acute hearing. It's extremely difficult to be completely silent, but such noise as one does make must blend in with the natural soundscape and not signal a threat.

The totality of fieldcraft is an enormous subject, but everyone who ventures into the wild needs a basic set of common skills - map reading, navigation, observation, stealth, concealment, tracking, hazard assessment and so on. Fortunately some of the more esoteric aspects - developed primarily for the military - are beyond the requirements of the wild soundscape recordist, mainly because the wildlife doesn't usually shoot at you. So it's possible to become adequately proficient in quite a short time, without undertaking combat training.

An excellent and thoroughly readable book on this subject - that covers quite a bit more than we field recordists mostly need - is the "SAS Handbook of Tracking and Navigation" by Neil Wilson, published by Silverdale Books, Leicester, UK in 2002 (ISBN 1-85605-658-9).