Books

David George Haskell: What my grandfather taught me about birdsong

We are living in an age of decline, as each generation sees fewer birds and hears less music in the air than the last. Yet our singing planet can be saved – if we would only stop and listen, writes biologist and author David George Haskell.

Illustration: Vincent Roché

“The fields and hedges were full of song. Most of those birds are gone now.”

My grandfather recalled his childhood as we dug potatoes in the veg patch. I was barely tall enough to lever the garden fork, but loved being outdoors with the smell of the soil and the songs of birds. “Listen, over there. That’s the song of the robin. Beautiful. Now watch him go for these worms that we’ve turned up.” In my grandfather’s words I learned that we live in an age of loss. Fewer species. Less bird music in the air. Yet life’s vitality remains, even in a small garden patch.

The story from my grandfather about the decline of birdsong inoculated me against what scientists call the “shifting baseline”, the generation-by-generation adjustment to loss.

If no-one tells us that we live in a world whose songs are impoverished we come to think of silent fields as “normal”. Stories from family, teachers or the media help to resist this change and motivate us to love and protect the world’s beauty more fiercely. His story was also about the importance of paying attention. He would have had nothing to tell me about changes in the living world if he had spent his childhood with his ears closed.

Listen! What can we learn by attending to the many sounds of our world? This is the invitation and question that guides my book. I find sounds fascinating because they travel through and around obstructions. They reveal things that the eye cannot see: the robin in the hedge or the motorway over the hill. Sound connects us like telepathy, carrying information almost instantaneously across space.

These connections have a deep history. The first singing insects evolved 270 million years ago. Fish have probably been singing in the oceans for just as long. These primordial soundscapes then got richer over time as new voices evolved: frogs and early reptiles, followed by mammals and birds on land. In the seas, more fish and crustaceans, and then whales and other marine mammals, joined the chorus.

Along the way, songs and calls served to link animals into communicative networks, allowing life to thrive. In dense rainforests, deep dark oceans or muddy rivers visual communication is impossible, but sound provides vital life-giving links that connect mates, unite social groups, mediate competition between species and join parents and offspring.

We now live in the most sonically diverse time in all of Earth’s history. The planet is wrapped in song; air and water alive with the voices of thousands of species. Let’s stop, listen and celebrate these marvels. In Japan, they’ve officially honoured “100 Soundscapes” around the country from the sound of cultural festivals, to ocean waves, to birdsong. I find this inspiring because it draws people together in appreciation. Imagine if every country honoured its sensory richness in this way.

But this grandeur is in decline. Some of the loss is caused by habitat degradation. When diverse rural landscapes are turned to monoculture, sound becomes bland. The same is true of overfished oceans and felled forests. In other places, too much noise is the problem. In the oceans, shipping, seismic oil exploration and sonar combine to create sound levels intolerable to many species. On land, the cacophony of some cities or industrial areas is so loud that birds cannot hear one another. A few species adapt by singing louder and higher, but many are lost. This noise also creates injustice in human communities. Low-income neighbourhoods often bear a disproportionate share of the burden of traffic and industrial noise. This is not just an annoyance; noise inflames the body and causes heart disease and other ailments.

Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity
and The Crisis Of Sensory Extinction by David George Haskell
is out now (Faber & Faber, £20)

Many of these problems are solvable. Better city planning and ship engineering can reduce noise. Localising economies can reduce the need for oil and trans-oceanic shipping. Better farming and forestry practices can meet human needs without annihilating biodiversity. I believe that listening can help bring about these changes. It can also teach us about the ecology and biological diversity of our homes, a great foundation for action.

I often feel alienated from the living Earth, a member of a species distant from “nature”. But opening my ears teaches me otherwise. We humans belong here. We are members of the living Earth community, even if we’re not doing a good job of being neighbours to other species. Our challenge is to pay better attention to the marvellous singing planet and work more harmoniously with other species. Listening can create a future where grandparents tell stories not of former glories but of ongoing, expanding beauty.

You can buy Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity and The Crisis Of Sensory Extinction from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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