New ways to understand the wild world
Wild soundscapes are falling silent as the resilience of the habitats from which they are produced face ever increasing pressures. In response highly original research in the field of soundscape ecology seeks to develop new approaches to better comprehend ecological changes through listening to the biophony.
"Wild soundscapes offer us a way to remember and recognise the evolutionary link that bonds life." - Missing Wolf, Fellow
Five years on
So it has already been five years since my Fellowship, which launched me into the wonderful and mysterious world of soundscape ecology. Today I would like to introduce a new project of mine to you, one that stems directly from my Churchill Fellowship in 2017.
We are all sadly familiar with the rapid degradation of the natural world, but this can feel rather abstract, removed, sort of separate from us. Somehow the impending collapse of the earth’s biosphere - of which we are a part - evades our comprehension. However, careful listening to the soundscape may yet offer further ways to detect, interpret and demonstrate ecolsystem degradation, bringing human attention to these changes, and helping to orientate ourselves to the ‘other’ life around us.
So what is soundscape ecology?
First, a bit of background. The field of soundscape ecology is one that is rapidly evolving, developing methods and concepts for studying all the sound produced in a habitat at one time and place, which is known as the soundscape. As a result, soundscape ecologists consider the soundscape to be the acoustic embodiment of a habitat as an ecosystem, formed of the interactions between the geophony (a-biotic natural sound), biophony (biological natural sound), and anthropophony (human mechanical or industrial sound).
Why does this matter?
Biophonies, along with the wild habitats from which they are produced, are under stress. Dr Bernie Krause, a world leading soundscape researcher whom I worked with on my Fellowship, has one of the oldest collections of soundscapes in the world. During an interview in 2021, Dr Krause stated that “the message is unassailable”: 50% of his archive of wild soundscapes, from 1968 to the present, came from habitats which are now so radically altered that they're either altogether silent or can no longer be heard in their original form.
As Dr Krause has noted, every living organism creates an acoustic signature, so the soundscape completes the ecological ‘picture’ and can even supplant what we see entirely. Careful listening to the soundscape is therefore an incredibly important practice, which restores a previously ‘overlooked’ dimension to ecological investigation and to our comprehension of the world around us.
The falling quietude of the biophony is an acoustic expression of life, signalling the systemic degradation of the natural world, in line with habitat destruction and biodiversity decline. Understanding the conditions required for the biophony to thrive is crucial in perceiving human impact on the natural world, and the needs of the other life around us. Learning to listen to the integrity present in wild soundscapes, to the knowledge they can give us, knowledge specific to the experience of them, will allow us to better comprehend and so protect life, be it human or wild.
The Wild Soundscape Research Project
So the big idea in essence is pretty simple: to track ecological change over time as signalled by all the biological sound produced within a habitat, the biophony. However, doing this successfully is a challenge due to the complex nature of the biophony.
There is a myriad of factors that must be considered when making inference about the ways in which the soundscape is changing. The research seeks to tackle this challenge by advancing the intersections of science, technology and arts of soundscape ecology. I will do this by extending on the work of soundscape ecologist such as Dr Krause, developing a systematic approach that attends to the soundscape directly in the detection and interpretation of changes through critical listening.
This systematic, interdisciplinary approach involves measuring and engaging with ecological change by working in a holistic way recording in situ, and developing an intimate sense of the soundscape recordings through repeated and focused listening, alongside visual analysis of the acoustic spectrum as a spectrogram.
Working in collaboration with Dr Krause and his archive, my objective is for a team of three recordists, including myself, to revisit sites from the Bernie Krause Natural Sound Archive (BKNS). The sites selected are of protected areas across the western United States that represent intact wild habitats, the soundscapes of which will be used to assess ecological changes. We will field-record with calibrated equipment and work to a well-rehearsed protocol to make new soundscape recordings forming a contemporary data set.
Once the fieldwork is complete, the contemporary audio will be contrasted with the corresponding historical recordings from the BKNS made at varied points throughout the past half century. The comparison will take place by applying the newly develop systematic interdisciplinary approach with computational acoustic metrics.
What I hope this will achieve
My hope for the WRS 2022 pilot study is that we successfully develop a method to better detect and interpret the changes present in the soundscape. That with these methods, researchers, conservation groups and individuals are able to enhance the ways we protect and care for the wild world. That through the biophony, we can help to tell the story of the changing ecology, to connect people to the expressive sounds of the other life around us, and the messages expressed about how our world is changing.
That through soundscape research and arts, we can challenge the culture of separation between human and the wild ‘others’ around us. That listening to the biophony can give us, as humans, a way to reconnect, to reorientate ourselves, to the wild.
A little note
To hear these recordings can be to engage in the emotional impact of what is happening, to hear how interrelated we all are. When we separate ourselves from other species, we create division that drives conflict. The conflict between human and non-human furthers the degradation and loss we are witnessing and hearing in the natural world. I would go as far as to say that the conflicts between humans we see around us today have the same root.
Wild soundscapes, of biophony and geophony, offer us a way to remember and recognise the evolutionary link that bonds life. The interrelation between beings present in wild soundscapes, when reflected upon, provides an opportunity to move towards notions of kinship, rather than of division.
I am not saying that attention to wild soundscapes can do that alone, but the meaning of being human may well be found in the voice of the wild. As the soundscape so eloquently demonstrates, all life shares the same space and what happens to one affects the other. This reminds me that, as humans, we are just as much a part of the wild as any living creature - and so paying attention to the lessons hidden in the wild seems like a pretty good step to me.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.