If the pandemic was good for anything, it did give writers time to write. It gave musicians time to play and compose. It gave listeners time to listen. Combine these three opportunities together and this time of global pause has now led to an emerging dawn chorus of books on listening to the sounds of the natural world. Here are two of the best ones.
Karen Bakker’s The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants is the single best survey of research on the sounds of nature since R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and then Tuning of the World. Bakker, originally a water scientist, spent many years reading and researching what was a new field for her. As a result, her book is not an account of personal research, like most popular books written by scientists, but is instead the result of a deep dive into the material from the outside.
But is it fun to read? Yes, and it also puts a new spin on the standard narrative of the field. The Inupiat knew for centuries that whales made sounds—never mind the usual tale that it was the military who discovered this in the 1950s. When cetologists finally started listening to what the Inupiat knew, they began to realize how complex the societies of these whales actually are.
The book emphasizes some of the lesser-known stories in bioacoustics: how graduate student Camila Ferrara was the first researcher to take seriously the idea that turtles make sounds. How was this missed this before? Scientists never thought to listen to them. Coral reefs grew healthier when Tim Gordon played the sounds of thriving reefs underwater. His recordings attracted clownfish and parrotfish, as well as the coral larvae themselves, who, it turned out, were attracted to the music of a healthy reef. Underwater sound just might help us save the planet.
The subtitle of her book, How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants, might be the work of the publishers’ marketing team, but the book puts forward the idea that it is not just promoting traditional knowledge but also pushing toward the future: big data enables us to dig deep into the sounds of nature. Hours, days, weeks of sound recording—so much information that no human can listen to all of it. That’s what we have machines for: to find patterns, order, recommendations, surprise.
Human technological progress has given us far too much information, although it’s important to remember that bioacoustics can teach us to be better listeners and to value the natural world by paying more attention to it. Strangely, The Sounds of Life is largely silent on the two largest groups of creatures that built up this field: insects, whose sounds were initially easier to analyze because they are more rhythmic than tonal, and birds, whose sounds have established the thinking on the sounds of nature since the invention of the sonogram and advances in sound recording technology throughout the 20th century.
I’m not sure why Bakker has so little to say about starlings, lyrebirds, crickets, or cicadas. Possibly it’s because so many other people have written on these subjects and she wanted to go beyond them to cover something new. Still, in a book that is such a compendium and covers elephants, bats, bees, and trees, the omission is a bit surprising. Maybe she’s saving that for volume two? Bakker is such a diligent researcher than I’m sure she would find things most of us have missed. Still, The Sounds of Life is one of the most important research tools in bioacoustics to emerge in quite a while and will doubtless be the standard for many years to come.
(Read “Nature’s Hidden Sounds” by Karen Bakker, an editorial appearing in Terrain.org.)
Kim Haines-Eitzen’s Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks—And What It Can Teach Us takes a more personal approach. As a scholar of religion, Haines-Eitzen begins with the subject of her research: the world of Christian wanderers 17 centuries ago. Although she didn’t wander for years through the Middle Eastern desert, when on break from her teaching job as a historian at Cornell, she and her family often retreated to a cabin in the Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern Arizona. She connects these worlds directly: “The ancient Christian monks who left their villages and cities for the quiet of the desert knew what we are increasingly recognizing today: the sounds around us shape our sense of place, of who we are, and our feelings of belonging and our feelings of alienation.”
Athanasius of Alexandria, a patriarch from the fourth century, wrote of a monk named Antony for whom the silence of the desert suddenly became a cacophony of demons. He fought them off with chants and songs. Haines-Eitzen envisions Antony as a proto-deep-listener, recalling from his hermitage insided an ancient tomb the sounds of thunder, lions, the howling of the wind. It took him twenty years to finally find quiet in a desert that increasingly became full of monks looking for the same thing he sought.
Haines-Eitzen moves between her scholarly work on these ancient listeners and her own experience journeying to the desert. The pandemic sent her deep into this landscape for the most extended period of time. She felt closer than ever to those monastics who voluntarily chose a kind of quarantine to get closer to the divine. As a modern secular person, she had much to learn: “The lockdown gave me time to reconsider my own conflicted relationship with silence. In some ways, I set out years ago to understand early Christian monasticism and to practice field recording as a way to find silence…. I kept asking myself: In the midst of a pandemic, can we think of silence not so much as absence, but rather as the full presence of quiet—a rare opportunity to… recover a place where we might dwell, perhaps briefly, in contemplative attention?” This blend of the personal and the scholarly is an honest record of a pandemic spent in wonder.
Sounds of Life and Sonorous Desert are two of the finest works in bioacoustics to appear in recent years. Both come from Princeton University Press, which has stepped up its commitment to innovation in an effort to make science and nature more accessible to detailed inquiry while still pushing for scientific rigor and high production values. The economics of mainstream publishing tends to make such a direction difficult for business, so we must applaud them for this commitment.
That being said, it is not easy to combine academic rigor with fluid writing and accessibility. As a fellow academic with literary aspirations, I’ve learned how hard this can be and how many scholarly habits must be unlearned. Bakker’s book includes footnotes on every third or fourth sentence, which can easily distract the reader. Forty percent of its pages comprise an appendix, endnotes, bibliography, a huge collection of valuable information, but if it is all that valuable, shouldn’t some of this have been worked into the main text and not simply added on at the end? Haines-Eitzen’s book is innovative in its use of QR codes to present soundscapes to tap into while you’re reading the book. Yet I wish she had gone deeper into her personal experiences, using her research as a springboard to investigate her own life, rather than the other way around. That would have made for a more fascinating read.
I look forward to the next books from each of these innovative and thoughtful researchers, to see in which way their writing and listening evolves.
Read (and listen to) more work and interviews by David Rothenberg appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo by Tony Cordaro, courtesy Pixabay.