The Practice of Aural History

Jack Loeffler shares a lifetime of collected voices, a testament to what connects us

Loeffler and Jimmy Hopper running the San Juan River, 1971. Photograph by Terrence Moore.

Imagine yourself camped in the Kuakatch Wash in an isolated area of the Sonoran Desert. It is just after dawn. You’ve made your first cup of coffee thanks to the old Coleman stove in your truck. You are sitting in your camp chair. Your sound recorder is turned on, lying in your lap, attached to a pair of microphones by cables. You are wearing stereo headphones. Your microphones are aimed to the east. You are listening to the biophany, the chorus of life that is awakening in the Sonoran dawn. 

And then you register the sounds of alarm calls from a species of birds to the south. Another species slightly to the north begins to scream their alarm, and yet another and another moving ever northward through your field of hearing. You pull out your binoculars and in the distance you spot a low-flying hawk moving south to north. 

For a few moments, you register your sense of being kindred with these fellow species, and your personal perspective is immensely expanded as your self is subordinated by the sense of place in time. You are but a tiny dot of consciousness within the flow of Nature.

Loeffler in Chaco Canyon, 1980. Photograph by Philip Shultz.
Seri shaman Armando Torrez, ca. 2008. Photograph by Jack Loeffler.
Loeffler recording Enrique Yara in Watrous, New Mexico for La Música de los Viejitos, 1981. Photograph by Katherine Loeffler.
Loeffler and Ed Abbey, ca. 1986. Photograph by Katherine Loeffler.
Loeffler and Jimmy Hopper running the San Juan River, 1971. Photograph by Terrence Moore.
Rina Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), 2010. Photograph by Jack Loeffler.
Camillus Lopez (Tohono O’odham), 2011. Photograph by Jack Loeffler.

Another time, you’re seated in an old chair in a cottage in the village of Punta Chueca, a Seri Indian village on the Mexican mainland coast of the Sea of Cortez. You are recording an elderly shaman singing part of his repertoire of Seri songs. In Spanish he informs you that he is going to sing the song of the leaf-cutter ant. Slowly his countenance changes, and he begins to sing. At the end of the fourth cycle through the song, he slowly regains his human expression and considers what he intends to sing next. By the end of the session, you realize that you have recorded a selection of songs that reveals the way that Seri Indians relate to their home habitat. They embody their fellow species in song. As ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan says, the Seri Indians know far more about the nature of their homeland than any scientist can ever know. Nabhan also pointed out that the Seri language is its own phylum, related to no other known language. 

I’ve been aiming my microphones at sources of audible expressions of the consciousness of our planet since 1964, and have thus gained the finest education I could possibly imagine. My aural history archive now contains thousands of hours of recordings of music, the spoken word, many diverse habitats throughout the North American Southwest and beyond—the myriad sounds recalling the half-century timespan of the spirit of place that pervades this region of the planet. I recently donated my extensive aural history archive to the New Mexico History Museum, where funding is presently being sought to make this digital archive available to the public.

I call it aural history because that term has a much broader sense of integrated perspective than oral history, which is linear. The practice of aural history is the process of compilation of recorded sound that may result in a great compendium of perspectives during a period of time in a geographic region. 

Like the birds of the Sonoran biophany and the Seri Indians’ embodying song traditions, my aural histories seek to capture the interconnected wholeness of cultures in Nature. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do so in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado; in the Navajo Nation, the greater Southwest, the American West, and the Colorado River Watershed, among other places. During my explorations, I’ve encountered the themes of rootedness, connection, and the commons. These themes have served as a great network that unites these aural histories, cohering many wholes into one. 

In 1975, I was fortunate to receive the first of several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to record Hispano folksongs throughout New Mexico and southern Colorado. One of the stipulations to receiving the grants was that I had to somehow put the music back into the culture. Thus I became a radio producer, and my first series of 149 thirty-minute programs was entitled La Música de los Viejitos. This series ran on KUNM and other public radio stations in New Mexico and Colorado for several years. To date, I’ve now recorded between three and four thousand Hispano folksongs, as well as folksongs from Anglo, Basque, and various Native American cultures. It’s taught me the extent to which music roots culture to homeland. 

Then, in 1982, I was approached by faculty members at the University of New Mexico and citizens of the Navajo Nation to produce a three-part documentary radio series addressing the relocation of around seven thousand Navajos from their traditional homeland. In 1974, The U.S. Congress passed Public Law 93-531 that would settle what many regarded to be a land dispute between Hopi and Navajo Indians, and thus divide a land area of 1.8 million acres on Big Mountain jointly used by both tribes. This resulted in the relocation of Navajo Indians from their traditional homelands. Many Indians and non-Indians alleged that this would actually open up this mineral-rich land to corporate resource extractors, as happened in the late 1960s and seventies on Black Mesa.

This harks back to the days of Manifest Destiny in the mid-nineteenth century, when the U.S. government rounded up and marched eight thousand Navajos to Bosque Redondo, where they were incarcerated alongside Mescalero Apaches for four long years. Although this year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 1868 treaty that allowed the Navajos to return to their homeland from Bosque Redondo, the Navajos were still vulnerable to similar forced relocations, however different the era and the stated rationale. 

I spent several months travelling throughout the region of Big Mountain in northern Arizona, interviewing traditional Navajos who faced unwilling relocation. The most successful of the three radio programs I produced was called Monster in Dinétah; the monster was the U.S. government. 

One person I interviewed was Roberta Blackgoat, a highly venerated woman who helped lead the resistance against Navajo relocation. I spent an afternoon walking with her as she herded her flock of sheep and goats. After we had shepherded them into a corral for the night, she invited me into her hogan (the traditional circular Navajo living structure). We sat and drank coffee while I recorded her through evening’s twilight. She had this to say: 

My great-great-grandmother is buried on this side just a little ways from wherever you’ve been herding sheep. And my next great-grandmother’s buried right across the canyon here. And my grandmother, I saw her when I was about six years old and she died. She’s buried on the south side of here. Some of her children are buried here. And us grandkids, my sister and brothers are buried around here too, and my children and also my grandchildren. So I just couldn’t say I’m going to leave or I need to be relocated. I can’t do it. My roots are just about that big, maybe three or four down deep, so they can’t be pulled out. … I’ll just load up my gun and then walk out towards them if they start coming to me.

In 1984, I received a grant to produce yet another radio series entitled Southwest Sound Collage. I’d already begun conducting recorded interviews in anticipation of this series. On January 1, 1983, I returned with my compañero, noted author Ed Abbey, to his writing cabin from a weeklong camping trip in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, when we decided to record him ruminating on what life had revealed so far. His book of essays, Desert Solitaire, and his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang had catapulted him into a growing coterie of hardcore environmentalists who were intent on protecting the North American Southwest from further extraction of natural resources. Abbey considered himself an anarchist and a naturist. He regarded pantheism as a far wiser spiritual path than monotheism.

He said:

I consider myself an absolute egalitarian. I think that all human beings are essentially equal, deserve equal regard and consideration. Certainly, everyone differs in ability. Some people are bigger, stronger; some are smarter; some are more clever with their hands; others are more clever with their brains. There’s an infinite variation in talent and ability and intelligence among individual humans, but I think that all, except the most depraved—violently criminally insane—generals and dictators—are of equal value. There’s another basis for this kind of egalitarianism. Just by virtue of being alive, we deserve to be respected as individuals. Furthermore, that respect for the value of each human being should be extended to each living thing on the planet. … We can and must learn to love the wild animals, the mountain lions and the rattlesnakes and the coyotes, the buffalo and the elephants, as we do our pets. And developing that way, extend our ability to love to include plant life. A tree, a shrub, a blade of grass deserves respect and sympathy as fellow living things. I think you can go even beyond that to respect the rocks, the air, the water. Because each is part of a whole …

It was after I produced this thirteen-part series of half-hour programs that I asked Ed to critique them. He listened to the entire series twice, and then said that the interviews should be compiled into a book. He introduced me to the folks at Harbinger House Press in Tucson, and thus my first book, Headed Upstream: Interviews With Iconoclasts was published in 1989, shortly after Abbey perished at the age of sixty-two years and forty-five days.

I think of Headed Upstream as a book of friends, because almost everyone in that book was indeed a friend, some of whom are still with us. Anna Sofaer spoke of her Sun Dagger work at Chaco Canyon. John Nichols landed hard on capitalism. Gary Snyder addressed the concept of bioregionalism. John Fife revealed why he started the Sanctuary Movement for political refugees from Central America. Dave Foreman talked of Earth First! Doug Peacock spoke of his life as a Green Beret medic during the Vietnam War. Garrett Hardin articulated the concepts that went into his seminal essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Philip Whalen discussed the genesis of the Beat Generation. Stewart Udall addressed the ethical considerations he had faced as secretary of the interior. The great historian of Native American issues, Alvin Josephy, addressed the provocative question, “It’s not that will Indians vanish, but will Indian-ness vanish?”

Creating this book firmly placed me on course as an aural historian, one that provided me with a means of following my fascinations. Then in 1995, I was awarded a grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation to produce a radio series entitled The Spirit of Place. I loaded my recording equipment and camping gear into the camper on the back of my old Chevy pickup truck and headed out. I was on the road for four months and travelled throughout the American West interviewing American Indians of many tribes.

Mylie Lawyer, a Nez Perce matriarch living in Lapwai, Idaho, told me this story: When her grandfather was a boy, he and his friend were out playing when they saw what they first thought was a buffalo herd coming toward them from the east. They’d caught the first glimpse of the Lewis and Clark expedition about to pass through the homeland of the Nez Perce Indians. 

Sharon Dick, a Nez Perce fisherwoman who caught salmon in the traditional fashion from her vantage on the Columbia River, worried that with the coming of dams, the salmon would one day cease to run and thus deprive her people of their spiritual sustenance.

Ed Edmo, a Warm Springs Indian who lived in The Dalles, Oregon, told me how he had watched the waters of the mighty Columbia be stoppered by the dam that resulted in the flooding over of a meeting ground where members of many tribes had traditionally gathered annually for countless generations.

A California Indian basket-weaver who wished to remain anonymous told me that she was thwarted by a forest ranger as she gathered those grasses specific to the type of baskets that her family had woven for many generations, a practice now forbidden by some rule or regulation. She rued the fact that the ranger had no understanding of the intrinsic nature of this habitat.

I also recorded Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi Indian who had served as supervisor to the Hopi schools, and later as chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council. He told me part of the creation story of how the Hopi people first emerged into this world through the Sipapuni near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers. They wandered about the dry desert until they arrived in what was to become their homeland, after consulting with Massau, a spiritual being who provided them with seeds of corn, a gourd of water, and a digging stick. Thus the Hopis affiliated with their homeland on the three southern promontories of Black Mesa. Their village of Old Oraibi is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited village in the coterminous United States.

The more I spoke with these Native peoples, the more I came to understand that the monoculture into which I had been born had lost touch with our species’ place in the flow of Nature.

In 2001, my friend Craig Newbill, then the director of the New Mexico Humanities Council, introduced me to members of the humanities councils of the seven states that withdrew waters from the Colorado River. They were submitting a grant proposal to be administered by the Arizona Humanities Council to the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a traveling exhibition addressing the history of the apportioning of the Colorado River, a long-term project begun in 1922 that became known as “The Law of the River.” I was asked to write an additional proposal to produce a radio series to both enhance the exhibition and reach a radio audience. Subsequently I was provided with funding from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation to produce a six-part radio series entitled Moving Waters: The Colorado River and the West. This was for me the equivalent of going after a graduate degree in water law in the arid West.

I travelled throughout the Colorado River Watershed, visiting the headwaters of the Green, San Juan and Colorado Rivers, and even paddled a rented canoe near the Colorado River delta in the Sea of Cortez where river water now rarely flows. I interviewed 75 people, including Native people, various agency bureaucrats, environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, politicians, water lawyers, and two former secretaries of the interior. I entered into the bowels of the Hoover Dam that former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Floyd Dominy regarded as “the Taj Mahal of engineering.” (It was Dominy who was responsible for the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, the most contested dam in America.)

I interviewed another close friend, William deBuys, a fine writer and scholar who provided me with an excellent overview of the enormous significance of the many issues that comprise the bigger picture of what the Colorado River represents in Western American culture. Bill went on to write A Great Aridness, a provocative book that introduces us to the profound consequences of global warming and climate instability due to ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

By now, I have engaged in far more aural history projects than I can recount here. But each one has contributed to my greater understanding over this last half-century. The North American Southwest is my homeland through which I continue to range to thus learn what I can.

As mentioned earlier, I recorded a conversation with Garrett Hardin wherein he described to me his thinking that resulted in his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” His subsequent essay, “An Ecolate View of the Human Predicament,” was brought to my attention one December day when Ed Abbey and I were hiking though the Sonoran Desert. Abbey and Hardin had become pen pals, and when we returned from our hike, Abbey loaned me the Scientific American in which Hardin’s most recent essay had appeared. As chance would have it, I was soon in Santa Barbara, where he lived, and I interviewed him. 

I asked him to review what he had said in his most recent essay. In Hardin’s own words: 

…If we start talking about global resources as if they are globally owned by everybody, and everybody should have access to them on the basis of their perceived need, we will have created a global commons. My point being that we must not create a global commons, however well-intentioned we are. Instead, it is better to continue a system based on private property, which in this instance means national property—nations being the only large organizations that can enforce their own laws—to continue to consider the globe as divided into numerous nations. Each nation has to take care of its own property. If it doesn’t do a good job, it will suffer for it.

What interested me most about Hardin’s thinking was his focus on the commons: as a reservoir of natural resources to be extracted for human use that needed to be privatized as part of the global economic standard. I find the International Journal of the Commons’ definition of this term to be most apt: “The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.” Hardin’s interpretation seems to me to be a perspective restricted to a standard forwarded by corporate capitalism that remains the prevailing standard that shapes modern monocultural attitudes. This continues to rankle even thirty-five years after our interview. 

Subsequently, my daughter Peregrina and I interviewed Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for economics for her book, Governing the Commons. This is her reply to Garrett Hardin’s thesis regarding the commons:

The work we’ve been doing in recent times in terms of moving beyond this—we’re not rejecting this but moving beyond—is showing that when you model individuals as having richer preference functions, limited knowledge but ability to learn, that they’re willing to engage in cooperative action if they trust the others involved. And trust has become, in our research now, a really key link. Garrett Hardin, for example, doesn’t use the word anywhere in what he wrote. … If people have rules imposed on them, and they don’t trust the process that generated those rules and don’t think they’re appropriate, they’ll cheat whenever they can.

I asked Ostrom if she concurred with the Russian anarchist, philosopher, and scientist Peter Kropotkin, who forwarded the notion that evolution of species and human culture owed more to mutual cooperation than mutual antagonism. She vigorously responded affirmatively. However, in all fairness, Hardin had pointed out in his original essay that collective access to the commons works only until the population grows too great.

The concept of the commons has remained in the forefront of my own thinking for many years. In 2010, while working on an aural history project entitled “Thinking Like a Watershed/Watersheds As Commons,” I asked my late great friend Rina Swentzell, a native of the Santa Clara Pueblo, what she considered to be the commons.

Rina responded: 

From a Pueblo point of view, the commons is everything. It is the context that we live in. The community was always thought of as being whole. Everything was interconnected. There was always a center to it as well, and I was a center and you were a center. There were many centers as a part of the whole thing. There are so many simultaneous things that can happen at once, which is all part of the commons. The wind is blowing, the water’s flowing, and we’re actually walking around and talking. It’s all part of this idea of what we all share. It’s that notion of sharing.

In that Pueblo context, then, the focus was always, what is it that surrounds me? We felt that it was the earth, the sky, the clouds, the wind, and that incredible term that we have that for me says it all: it’s the p’o-wa-ha—it’s the water-wind-breath, the thing that we’re feeling right now. And that connects, it moves through our entire world in such a way that it connects everybody and everything. That becomes the commons in a sense. What is that blowing through the window right now that’s giving us all vitality actually? That’s the flow of life. It’s the ultimate of what is common to every living being. What do we have in common with the trees, with the rocks, with all of that that makes our life what it is today?

Swentzell’s Puebloan perspective is absolutely on the mark. What do we have in common with creation? Everything. Indeed, we are part of the commons. We are part of the flow of Nature, not separate from the flow of Nature. From this perspective, every living entity through time has both shared in and contributed to the commons. The commons does not exist exclusively for human use. 

This has led me to consider the notion that indeed, human consciousness is itself a commons. Every culture is shaped by the prevailing system of shared attitudes; a single cultural system of shared attitudes is shaped by its concurrent system of biases. In other words, the American culture of the present is largely shaped by a paradigm based on economic growth, largely to the exclusion of ecologically sound principles. The common pool resources to which Hardin and Ostrom refer are finite and will soon run out “once the population has grown too great.” As Abbey aptly noted, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Over these last fifty-some odd years, I have engaged in the practice of aural history. I have listened to the perspectives and points of view of many people from many distinct cultures. While I have interviewed many who were shaped by today’s global mono-culture, I have also spoken with many more of diverse cultural perspectives. Thus I have been made privy to an astonishing diversity of human insight. I have engaged in deep conversation with Hispanos, Basques, and indigenous people: Hopis, Navajos, Tewas, Keresans, Nez Perce, Tohono O’odham, Chiricahua Apaches, Utes, and Yaquis, many if not most of whom still retain their inherited sense of traditional practices and values. Most of these folks have been shaped in large measure by the nature of their respective homelands, by their home ecosystems, watersheds, bioregions. I have been allowed to listen to a wondrously wide range of collective wisdom and have come to the conclusion that without the great expanse of diversity of perspective, we are excluding levels of consciousness that are vital to our own continuity.

This long aural history journey has led me to the realization that I must do one more project: a multi-part radio series and anthology entitled Restoring Indigenous Mindfulness Within the Commons of Human Consciousness. We are part of Nature’s continuum, and we must come to realize that intuitively. As my friend Camillus Lopez, the great Tohono O’odham lore-master, once said to me:

“If we look at Nature and do not see ourselves in it, then we are too far away.” 

Jack Loeffler has produced over four hundred documentary radio programs based on his original recordings, authored or co-authored eight books, written dozens of essays for diverse publications, and has produced numerous sound collages for major museums including the Museum of International Folk Art and the New Mexico History Museum. In 2017 and early 2018, he co-curated, with Meredith Davidson, the Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum.