Elizabeth Wainwright reviews Geographical’s book of the month for May 2022 – Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell
Most of the Earth’s history has been sonically uncommunicative. And then, life spoke its first words, and has been in conversation with itself ever since. Now, says author David George Haskell, ‘every place on the globe has an acoustic character made from the unique confluence of this multitude of voices.’ Sounds Wild and Broken pulsates with the wonder, joy and music of these wild voices – tectonic plates, rivers, forests, birds (on Haskell’s website you can hear sound recordings linked to places in the book). But this music is at crisis point, because the voices are fragile and human noise is drowning them out.
The book explores connected acoustic crises – our failure to hear and celebrate the sensory richness of our world; the silencing that comes with habitat destruction; the inequities of noise pollution in cities; and the destructive sound of industry in the ocean (‘if there is an acoustic hell, it is in today’s oceans’). This book, then, is an invitation to turn our ears – organs that are ‘always open’ – back to the living Earth, because, while theoretical knowledge of biological and climate decline is important, Haskell says, it’s sensory diversity that stimulates wonder and action.
Together with Haskell’s wider work, the book provides a guide for paying attention and finding emotional connection. Haskell uses his narrative and scientific skill (he’s a professor of biology and environmental studies, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist) to enthuse others and serve his love for the wild. The book is deep with observations and soaring in lyricism. Haskell is a poet–scientist and his song is irresistible.
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He explores how Japan’s cultural foundations encourage expressions of sensory attentiveness and respect. And we learn lessons in kinship and connection to place in Australia – farmers who, once sceptical of city-based artists and scientists coming to ‘listen’ to the nearby river, now tune in each morning to a live-feed transmission of a hydrophone dropped into it. The sound feed is live and local, and so carries ‘immediate relevance and emotional power’. Being able to hear the particularities of our own place, and the rhythms and stories of home, opens up ‘foundations not only of delight but of wise ethical discernment.’ We hear the place, not just ideas about the place.
The blackbird becomes a window into the adaptability of some urban birds – their voices are louder than their rural equivalents, they breed earlier and have higher stress levels. Noise pollution takes its toll on humans, too, and this is borne by lower income and minority neighbourhoods. ‘The burdens of noise – ill health, poor learning and increased mortality – are unjustly distributed. Racism, sexism and power asymmetries create dire sonic inequities.’
Rachel Carson, author of the groundbreaking Silent Spring, believed that by poisoning the world, we also poison ourselves. Haskell argues that in silencing the world, we silence ourselves, because there’s no separation – despite walls and headphones and technological prowess – between humans and the non-human world. This connection could lead us towards empathy, accountability and actions that can come from directed wonder, such as activism or legislative change. But it can be easy to skip wonder and leap to action without hearing the world speak; without really understanding the problem first.
‘Sounds depart as soon as they arrive’, but the energies and patterns they leave are creative and generative, Haskell explains. A future that’s sonically diminished is also creatively diminished, because sounds connect us, and ‘when living beings connect, new possibilities appear. Animal voices are catalysts for innovation.’ The songs of crickets and whales; of humans making music through mammoth-ivory flutes; of wind through trees and rocks – these and so many other sounds have interacted with and shaped the world around us, like the red crossbill’s call, which has evolved to be higher in pitch than the wind in the trees of its native Rocky Mountains. By silencing them, we silence what made us and what might yet be made. Listening and sound give us a sensory foundation for ‘joy, belonging and action’.
Listening has changed me and how I work. Deep listening – not surveys or consultations, but real listening with all its nuance and particularity and vulnerability – has made me rethink approaches to international development and local politics. And so, I quietly cheered as I read Haskell’s words: ‘When the most powerful species on Earth ceases to listen to the voices of others, calamity ensues.’ Yes! Because listening is ‘a window into life’s creativity and a political and moral act’.
Sounds Wild and Broken is a rich and poetic call to rediscover communion with the wonder of sound, with the wonder of the world and with our place in it. It represents a timely invitation to listen and, through doing so, to come to our senses It represents a timely invitation to listen and, through doing so, to come to our senses.