By Pat Leonard
If an in-person visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, is on your itinerary, be sure to swivel your eyes to the right as you walk into the observatory from the main entrance. You’ll see a large graceful oval made of American walnut reclining against the wall, as if left there temporarily. But there’s more to this simple sculpture than meets the eye. The Lab’s new “Sound Ring” is a unique speaker system created by world-renowned artist Maya Lin. The Ring is the latest installment in Lin’s What Is Missing? memorial to extinct, endangered, or threatened species and habitats, designed as a gift to the Lab for its conservation efforts around the world.
“Viewers are drawn closer by the intriguing echoes of a huge singing ring,” said John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Woodcocks twitter as they fly from east to west, Common Nighthawks ‘peent’ from overhead, and Olive-sided Flycatchers ring out ‘quick, three-beers!’ from distant limbs off to the south. Haunting wails of a lonely loon carry us to a moonlit Adirondack lake. Then, hearing a chorus of clarinet-like notes overhead, we are standing beneath a family group of Indri lemurs in a Madagascar rainforest. The sounds surround us with stories of beauty, fragility, vulnerability, and loss. They cry to us for help, lest they disappear forever.”
“To me, memorials represent a stepping-off point,” said Lin during the May 30 unveiling of the Sound Ring. “We can’t do anything about what has already been lost, but can we learn enough from the past to rethink a different and better future?”
The Sound Ring joins other sculptures and videos by Maya Lin plus permanent and traveling exhibits that are part of the “What is Missing?” memorial— the last memorial Lin says she will create. Binding it all together is the What Is Missing? website which highlights loss, connects to conservation groups around the world working to protect species and habitats (including the Lab of Ornithology), and will envision how we could live sustainably with the planet. The website engages individuals to help build a global memorial to the planet. You can visit What Is Missing? to add a memory about something you have witnessed diminish or disappear from the natural world or add a story about conservation or recovery.
“As an artist, I want to get people to think outside the box and give them hope that there is something they can do as individuals,” explained Lin. “The loss of species and habitats is all about land use and resource consumption. We have to make species protection through habitat conservation a huge priority because what we’re doing right now is spending our kids’ and our grandkids’ future.”
The Lab’s Macaulay Library archive played an important role in Lin’s creation, providing the recordings used in the Sound Ring to reproduce habitat soundscapes, including the North American forest, the Indian Ocean, and an Amazon rainforest. Individual species include everything from frogs to gibbons, Humpback whales to jaguars—and of course, birds. Additional sounds and soundscapes will be added over time, controlled by an iPad in the visitor center. There’s no one “sweet spot” for visitors to stand—the sounds have a depth and range that works no matter where you’re positioned in relation to the Sound Ring. Lin says her intent was to create a “spatial acoustic experience.”
And if you can’t make it to the Cornell Lab, listen to these sample clips from the Sound Ring. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in the sounds. Then visit the What Is Missing? project website to explore how your personal actions can make a difference for endangered wildlife and threatened landscapes.
Here’s a few species included in the Sound Ring:
Read more about Maya Lin and her collaboration with the Cornell Lab:
- Maya Lin’s “What Is Missing?” Project Uses Lab Sound, Video
- Cornell Lab Helps Artist Maya Lin Ask “What is Missing?” on Earth Day 2012
(Photos by Jason Koski, Cornell University Photography)