The Eccles Centre Visiting Canadian Fellowship allowed me to explore the British Library’s valuable materials on conservation and sound materials for my research into the life and works of ecologist Dr. William W.H. ‘Bill’ Gunn, writes Laura Jean Cameron. My project represents the first extensive examination of Gunn, a figure who shaped the fields of ecology, environmental consultancy and sound recording in a formative period for the conservation of Canadian natures.
First, thanks very much to the Eccles Centre for the Visiting Canadian Fellow Award which was ‘offered to help support one month of research at the British Library by a senior scholar from Canada’: this was a wonderful opportunity. With the assistance of excellent British Library employees, such as Cheryl Tipp of the Sound Archive, I was largely successful in realizing my aims concerning my main line of research on the life geography of ecologist, Dr. William W.H. ‘Bill’ Gunn (1913-1984), an international pioneer and key popularizer of ‘nature’ sound recordings. In addition, I made an exciting surprise discovery in a related area of environmental history research: it has become the basis of a book in its own right.
My research program for the period of this award mainly focused on the life geography of ecologist, Dr. William W.H. ‘Bill’ Gunn (1913-1984), an international pioneer and key popularizer of ‘nature’ sound recordings. As the creator of high quality field recordings, including the wildlife soundtracks for CBC’s ‘The Nature of Things’ for over twenty years, Gunn recorded soundscapes across Canada as well as locations in the Galapagos Islands, East Africa, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica. In addition to his founding roles in several nature conservation organizations, he was one of Canada’s first and most respected environmental consultants. Gunn’s research in ethology and migration was actively applied to public education, management and industry, including the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the design of Toronto’s CN Tower. This research, which demonstrates the potential of geographical approaches to issues of science, fieldwork and subjectivity, represents the first extensive examination of Gunn´s life and work which shaped fields of ecology, environmental consultancy and sound recording in a formative period for the conservation of Canadian natures. The Eccles award allowed me to explore the British Library’s textual materials on conservation and early sound recordists as well as valuable sound materials, such as the BBC radio programs using Gunn’s recordings held by the British Library Sound Archive, and material from the archives of BBC radio producer Jeffery Boswall. There were numerous transnational links to explore, and I was able to listen to the Library’s holdings of interviews with the acclaimed French sound artist Jean Claude Roche before going to interview him myself. Gunn’s mentors included broadcaster and sound recordist Ludwig Koch who played a parallel role in Britain by encouraging British appreciation of wildlife: the Library has excellent materials on Koch both in sound and text. Building on methods developed in my study of ecologist Sir Arthur Tansley, the interplay of archival analysis, fieldwork and oral history methods will be integral to developing a well-contextualized life geography. As mentioned, a component of the project involves the critical analysis of Gunn’s sound productions including those held by the British Library and such work is supported by my Sonic Arts of Place Lab and creative collaboration with musicologist/sound artist Matt Rogalsky. Encouraged by Cheryl Tipp and Philip Hatfield, Rogalsky and I are proposing a sound installation, possibly in the Library’s outdoor courtyard, that would utilize Gunn material from the B.L. Sound Archive.
In addition to the above work, I discovered correspondence between a key figure in Canadian nature conservation, C. Gordon Hewitt, and Marie C. Stopes, paleobotanist, writer and birth control activist. The edited collection of letters along with a thoroughly researched introduction (provided largely by materials at the B.L.) will: 1) provide transnational context to the lives and works of these remarkable individuals and their relationship, 2) shed light on the intriguing character of Charles Gordon Hewitt, and 3) explore the life of Marie Stopes in relation to her experiences in Canada, including her nation-wide tours in 1909 and her 1910 commission from the Geological Survey. The B.L. material led to me believe further material might still be with the Stopes family descendants: a trip to Birmingham led to more discoveries (in the Stopes-Roe attic) and a trip to Dorchester/Portland Bill allowed me to explore the Stopes Museum and meet with a local Stopes expert. As well – and connecting back to the Gunn research – while in Portland Bill, I visited the Portland Bill Bird Observatory, founded by naturalist Sir Peter Scott, for whom Gunn provided bird recordings for an LP project. Additional research in Cambridge University Library benefitted both projects.
My visits to the British Library significantly contributed to two projects(!), results of which will be disseminated in the form of articles, lectures, teaching materials and a book about Gunn that, akin to my publication, ‘Openings’ (McGill-Queen’s) with its complementary hypermedia essay, will address both eyes and ears. For outreach beyond the academy, Dr. Rogalsky and I plan to co-author a one-hour audio documentary and prepare materials for an installation telling Gunn’s life story in sound and site. Thank you again for an extremely productive research adventure.
Laura Jean Cameron is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada.