David George Haskell
Can you hear biodiversity? Yes, and by listening we can more fully connect with the joys and the brokenness of the community of life.
We often encounter the idea of “biodiversity” as counts or percentages: the number of species or the rate of loss. But close listening to the sounds around us shows that biodiversity is also sensory. Sounds, aromas, and other sensory connections are essential to life. They provide the tight weave of interconnection necessary for abundant and thriving life for individuals and communities alike.
Click on the links below to listen as you read and let your ears travel into some snippets of sensory diversity.
Sewanee’s woodland reveals its summertime character in daytime birdsong and the thunder of katydids at night. In these sounds we hear the vitality and diversity of life. The energy in each song comes from the plant community. Green leaves snare sunlight and use the captured energy to weld sugar molecules from air. Animals bodies then use this energy to sing. An impoverished plant community therefore leads to a quieter animal soundscape. We can, in other words, hear whether or not the forest is thriving. Because every singing species has its own voice, the diversity of sounds in any place also reveals how varied the animal community is. Scientists now use recordings of forests and other ecosystems to assess biodiversity, a less intrusive and more cost-effective method than surveys involving trapping and counting animals. Listening is thus a conservation tool.
Into the marvels of sonic diversity come the sounds of our machines. Listen to a chorus of fish and snapping shrimp off the coast of Georgia. Now hear what one small outboard engine contributes. We smother the songs of the living Earth with our clamor. Noise, then, is a threat to biodiversity because it severs the links that unite ecological communities into communicative networks. Noise is also a cause of injustice in the human community because loud roads and industry are often routed into low-income or minority neighborhoods. Not just an annoyance, noise inflames the body from within, contributing to heart disease and other ailments.
Our actions also, paradoxically, result in a quieter world. Compare these two pairs of field recordings. Each pair is a recording from a rural site then one from a city close by. The first is from Tennessee and the second is from Queensland, Australia. We are silencing the grandeur of natural soundscapes.
What to do about these assaults and losses? We need to take action, of course, both individually and collectively to live within the community of life instead of acting in opposition to the interests of ecological communities. These actions might be most effective and wise when they are grounded in a practice of listening. How can we be prudent managers of forests, informed designers of built environments, or good neighbors if we do not first listen to the voices of others? Other people, for sure, but also other species. In the coming months, let’s go outside and open our ears to what the crows, trees, and rivers have to tell us.
David Haskell is a writer and a biologist. His latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken, explores the story of sound on Earth and is an Editor’s Choice at the New York Times. He is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, USA. Find him at dghaskell.com