Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.
— Lao Tzu
When the music’s over
Turn out the lights
— The Doors
▲ click to hear the songs of humpback whales ▲
In 2286 an alien probe comes to Earth looking for signs of intelligent life by listening for whale song. Hearing nothing but silence, the probe proceeds to generate catastrophic planetary storms to destroy Earth. Any sentient culture that destroys creatures as pure and beautiful as whales, and silences their songs, must be evil and removed from the Universe. Fact or Fiction? Actually, it’s from Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home but the silencing is real.
The planet is teeming with life, all literally bursting with sound. On land we hear these sounds every day and most people are familiar with the noises of the forest: the hooting, chirping, moaning, howling, tweeting, clucking, whistling, squawking and hooting that creates a complex sonic melody. The sound of nature is everywhere but we don’t always take the time to listen.
For many years I have conducted the ritual of hiking into the wilderness for three days of fasting and solitude — a Nature Fast — a way to cleanse both the body and the mind. One of most powerful experiences from those trips is the slowing of time and the clarity of my connections to nature. With nothing to do — no preparing, eating, or cleaning — time slows to a crawl and the active mind slows down, the internal voices become quiet. Sitting next to a stream, or by the ocean, the sounds of the world became crystal clear, a revelation of the acoustic harmony of nature. As I sat still for hours creatures approached me and made their noises, sang their songs. I remember their sounds vividly, their bright sounds a chorus against the backdrop of wind blowing through the mountains, the rustling of trees, lightning and thunder in the sky, and waves crashing on the beach.
In his fascinating book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, Bernie Krause describes the sounds of the natural world as being as carefully orchestrated as the most beautiful classical score. Each song, each voice, is created in a way so they can be heard distinctly; so the animals can hear and distinguish one from the other. They do this against a backdrop of waves, water and wind. These are ancient sounds, as old as the universe, as old as time. There are also sounds underwater made by a great number of animals. While snorkeling or diving on a coral reef you can hear the music generated by the myriad sounds of parrot fish biting the rocks, butterfly fish nibbling on coral, trigger fish munching on plankton, the snapping of shrimp, and the gurgle of anemones. Listen to a recording of a living coral reef in Fiji that Krause captured with a hydrophone.
The sounds of a healthy coral reef
These sounds should be appreciated for the music they make, the symphonies they conduct, they way they resonate with our souls. Instead, they are now serving as bioacoustic indicators of human’s profound impact on the planet. The assault, intentional or otherwise, on Mother Earth. Their voices often muted, less dense, or more chaotic with very little distinction between voices. The players in the band slowly drop out, one by one, as the melody fades. As such they lose touch with one another, cannot hear each others voices, and disappear. Listen to the sounds of a dead section of the same coral reef in Fiji. You can still hear wave action but most of the fish are gone and you only hear a few hardy shrimp.
The sound of a dead coral reef
Is this the future of our planet, the silencing of Mother earth? Coral reefs are currently facing enormous threats from human activities, including global warming, acidification of the ocean, overfishing, and rising sea levels. Coral reefs are being destroyed at an alarming rate and we may be the last generation to witness pristine coral reefs and hear the melody of their healthy ecology. These global changes will also have strong negative effects on many other animals that have evolved in our productive seas: whales, seals, birds, and many fish are likely to experience profound change over the next 100 to 1,000 years from our activities. Thus, the future ocean, in our current trajectory, will become more silent.
But there is another form of silencing, one that is a dark part of our culture. As we destroy nature’s song we are also reluctant to talk about it. Because if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t occur. Derek Jensen in his poetic memoir A Language Older Than Words describes the role of silencing in the destruction of our natural world:
This silencing is central to the working of our culture. The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them …The problem is not difficult to understand: we pretend that anything we do not understand—anything that cannot be measured, quantified, and controlled—-does not exist. We pretend that animals are resources to be conserved or consumed, when, in reality, they have purposes entirely independent of us. ... And it is wrong to make-believe that animals are not sentient, that they do not-form social communities in which members nurture, love, sustain, and grieve for each other, that they do not manifest ethical behavior. We act like these pretenses are reasonable, but none of them are intuitive or instinctual; nor are they logically, empirically, or ethically defensible. Taken together, a way of life based on these pretenses is destroying life on this planet. But a real world still awaits us, one that is ready to speak to us if only we would remember how to listen.
This then is the challenge of our time. To transcend our unsustainable culture, to end the silencing and speak openly about our destructive behavior towards the planet and how to change that trajectory. Global warming serves as a good example. Even though 98% of scientists agree it is occurring we are led to believe it is a conspiracy, an economic pursuit of scientists for more funding, a communist manifesto, or even that our future human-altered planet will be better then at present. Anything but the truth which, heaven forbid, would take a tiny bite out of our ever burgeoning material wealth.
Bernie Krause refers to the collective sounds that animals make as a Biophony, which is unique for each environment and changes with the weather, time of day, and season. Partitioning of sounds occurs across the acoustic bandwidth as animals adjust their vocalizations to avoid overlap with the vocal territory occupied by other creatures. It is similar to different band member playing different instruments that occupy different note ranges. Actually these similarities may not be a coincidence. While on assignment at Masai Mara in Kenya Krause noticed the similarities between a spectrogram of his recordings in the jungle and the modern form of musical notation. Listen to the sounds he recorded and notice the acoustic range of the sounds and how they are represented in the spectrogram and how they compare to the sheet music below.
Sounds from Masai Mata, Kenya, predawn.
An epiphany from his observations was that the biophony is a proto-orchestra: an ordered soundscape that may have been the inspiration for the origin of human music. As Krause writes in his book (P. 104-105) —
Close links between humanity and the soundscape have always been an essential lens through which we understand the world. … Those of us living close to the natural world have learned the permutations of these dynamics well. It is likely that buried deep within the human limbic brain is ancient wiring that springs to life every time we reconnect with these delicate webs of acoustic finery. It didn’t take early humans long to find useful ways of incorporating biophonic information into hunts, ceremonies, language, and the dialoguing exchanges of music — our first organization of sound.
Are we really ok with destroying the music of life? Our primal muse from which we have created so much joy, love and celebration of life? I think not. So what can we do to keep the natural sounds alive? To keep the planet’s symphony going? In the end before the coral reefs die, before the forests disappear, we need to stop and listen to the chorus of the natural world. The melodious song of every bird, the assertive grunt of each fish, the majestic groan of the redwoods, the breath-taking songs of the whale. These primal voices compel us to care for their sounds, their orchestra, the first music heard by humans. Because in the end we are all connected — animals, plants, humans, the planet — all are derived from Mother Earth and by taking care of the planet we are ultimately taking care of ourselves. We are all children of the Earth, born of the Earth, will return to the Earth. We all sing the same song, play in the same symphony. We just need to keep the singing alive and listen to the music and it will guide us home.