When the Earth Started to SingOpen story
This sonic journey written and narrated by David G. Haskell brings us to the beginning of sound and song on planet Earth.
David George Haskell is author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, winner of the 2020 Iris Book Award, the 2018 John Burroughs Medal, and named one of the Best Science Books of 2017 by NPR’s Science Friday. His first book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, was winner of the National Academies’ Best Book Award for 2013, finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, winner of the 2013 Reed Environmental Writing Award, and winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature. His latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is an Emmy and Peabody Award–nominated filmmaker and a Sufi teacher. His films include: Earthrise, Sanctuaries of Silence, The Atomic Tree, Counter Mapping, Marie’s Dictionary, and Elemental. His films have been screened at New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW, and Hot Docs, exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum, and featured on PBS POV, National Geographic, and New York Times Op-Docs. He is the founder and executive editor of Emergence Magazine.
Daniel Liévano is an editorial illustrator and author based in Bogotá, Colombia. He is deeply inspired by semiotics, linguistics, and the meaning of language. Notable clients include The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, Penguin Random House, and Radioambulante. He won a Gold Medal from The Society of Illustrators for his first graphic novel, Gravity, and the AOI World Illustration Award for the animated illustration accompanying “When the Earth Started to Sing” for Emergence Magazine.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee talks with biologist and author David G. Haskell about his latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken: a journey through deep time that traces the evolution of sound. Their conversation touches on the legacies of kinship that are present when we listen, and how deep experiences of beauty can serve as a moral guide for the future.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee: Sounds Wild and Broken is a remarkably comprehensive book exploring the history and evolution of sound, the relationships embedded within sound, and the threat to much of the living world’s sonic diversity and experience due to the mass extinction of sound-generating species. What led you to want to explore sound in such a deep and profound way?
David G. Haskell: Well, my ears, and the birds that tickled my ears. Birds really were the gateway drug, as it were, to deeper listening. I came from a family where attention to the living world was part of how we operated—my parents taught me how to identify some bird sounds—but when I went to grad school and came over from Europe to North America, I met people who devoted a good chunk of their lives to studying birds and the sounds of birds at Cornell University, and they taught me all sorts of cool ideas and technologies. But mostly the gift was to go outside and just pay attention in the everyday, to learn to identify species, and individuals within species, and then hear the thousands of different nuances of night and day and of spring and summer: all of the variegations of the world revealed through the remarkable sonic diversity of birds. It was like adding a new sense to my body. It wasn’t just enhanced hearing; it was as if I’d suddenly been connected into the living Earth in a way that I hadn’t known before.
Working with my students—taking them outside and trying to share the joys of listening to birds, and doing listening exercises with the undergraduate students at Sewanee—I came to [understand that] trees all have different sounds and different voices as well, something that many people around the world have known for millennia. My imagination, my curiosity, was drawn to the various sounds of trees, and I wrote a book about tree sounds and tree stories. Trees are rooted in the Earth in what we call soil but what is really the dust of the ancestors. And so the trees drew my imagination back into the past: Where did all this amazing, diverse sound come from? What stories are buried down there in the soil? And how do they intersect with the everyday human experience of sound—of listening to music and talking? So there was a convergence of the birds and the trees and the soil reaching into my human nature as a musical being and a speaking being, and I was trying to puzzle it out and understand, how do these things fit together?
EV: It also seems there’s a fascination within you about our relationship to deep time and to journeying back into the past. In the book you open with an invitation to connect to a time when there was only stone, water, lightning, and wind, and to listen and hear this primal Earth—a place that, for three billion years, was nearly silent. Can you talk a bit about this period of silence and how we can connect to that time today?
DGH: Time is the place where kinship comes from. As biologists, we look back into time to find kinship. That’s true of our own families, right? We find our sisters and brothers and cousins who are related to us through relationships that happened in the past, and the same is true with a deeper kinship. So looking and listening, particularly back into deep time, it is extraordinary that you can go to a mountaintop now, or a seashore or a rushing river, and hear sounds almost exactly as they have been for billions of years. You can’t see the world as it was back then—you can only infer what the world looked like or smelled like from fossils and paleontology—but you can literally hear waves beating on the shore as they have been since the Earth cooled enough for liquid water to form. So this contemporary sound that many of us find very attractive and soothing is, in fact, one of the oldest sounds in the world; the same with lightning and wind, strafing over rocks and sand. The sounds of geology and of hydrology and of the air are the primal sounds of the Earth, and it’s a delight to be able to immerse oneself in those still today.
EV: There are some key periods in the history of evolution on Earth where whole worlds of sounds appeared, and one of these moments was the introduction of flowering plants. Can you talk about what happened when flowering plants appeared?
DGH: It seems an absurd assertion that somehow flowers are responsible for the diversity of soundscapes on the planet. Flowers are visually beautiful and beautiful to the nose—we can appreciate that—but what’s their link to sound? It turns out that flowering plants did some extraordinary things once they evolved: they formed belowground links with nitrogen-fixing bacteria that essentially pumped lots of fertilizer into the soil, allowing ecosystems to become large and productive. Through their flowers and their fruit, they started to coevolve with insects, with beetles and moths and katydids and flies; and if you look at the evolutionary tree of most modern groups, and particularly the most diverse groups of insects today, they explode when flowering plants come along because of this reciprocal interaction between the insects and the plants themselves. Anytime life diversifies, there’s a potential for lots of experimentation with communicative methods. The plants also founded the base of the food web that fed other creatures, like mammals and birds, and so indirectly, mammalian and bird voices were stimulated by the evolution of plants, although the link is a little less tight than it is for the insects. So when we hear those diverse soundscapes, we should thank the evolution of flowers, at least in part.
EV: There’s another point in your book that really struck me: this creative force in evolution that is very directly felt by all of us every time we speak; and how our ability to speak and sing and make subtle and dynamic sounds is the bequest of ancient mothers.
DGH: When I’m speaking, what I’m doing is using a very sophisticated set of muscles in my mouth and my tongue and the back of my throat. Between the vertical part of the throat and the forward horizontal part of the mouth there’s a hyoid bone, a horseshoe-shaped bone, where all these muscles are attached. We need that apparatus in order to make sophisticated and nuanced sounds. Why do we have a mouth like that? It didn’t evolve first to make speech—certainly not human speech, because we’re very recent arrivals on the scene compared to most other mammals. We have sturdy bones, and muscular throats, and sophisticated and well-controlled muscles to suckle. As youngsters we need mouths like that to feed on the gift of milk. So the evolution of lactation by protomammalian mothers around two hundred million years ago put selective pressure on youngsters to have stronger, better-coordinated mouths. The gift of milk, which is an extraordinary gift from mothers, is one of the defining features of mammals. Part of my response to hearing a human voice and thinking about its evolution is one of gratitude to our great-great-great-great-grandmothers who started this process of a nutritive connection between mothers and their offspring, an evolution then put to work in the service of making complex sounds.
We’re hearing the legacy of plate tectonics and great migrations of creatures from one part of the Earth to another just by lying in bed and listening to birdsong in the morning.
EV: You spoke earlier about kinship, perhaps the most repeated word in the book after “sound.” You write about how kinship is really woven into every aspect of the relationships that sound inhabits. That there are threads of kinship that are present in our history, our evolution, our relationship to place and each other. Could you just speak a bit about the importance of kinship in understanding our relationship with sound?
DGH: The kinship that you mentioned is a kinship between the living world and what we usually regard as the nonliving world, although the boundaries get somewhat hard to define. So, for example, when we hear the songs of birds that live in forests, particularly dense forests, they tend to be slow, whistled melodies, because that is the kind of sound that transmits well through that habitat. You go out to the prairie, and you hear lots of rapid trills and ups and downs in the frequency suite, because that is the sound that works well there. Go to the ocean shore and you hear cries of gulls and oyster catchers that carry over the tumult of surf. And so the physicality, the materiality of the world, has, in a way, woven itself into the sonic diversity of the creatures that live within that world through this process of the evolutionary adaptation of each creature as they find a voice that works well within the habitat in which they live. This applies below the waves as well: fish and whales are making sounds that transmit well over the right kind of distances for the ecology of their own species. This relationship between materiality and the form of songs applies not just in air, but in water and solids as well. And it applies to human voices: our voices were a product of forest-dwelling creatures that only recently came out into the savanna, and so we’re hearing our own primate ecology in our voices. There’s a link between the so-called physical world and the biological world that is hiding in plain sight: Mostly when we hear a birdsong, we just think, “Oh yeah, that’s an American robin,” or whatnot. We don’t think, “Oh, that song has within it the imprint of the forest in which that robin has been living.” We’re hearing the legacy of plate tectonics and great migrations of creatures from one part of the Earth to another just by lying in bed and listening to birdsong in the morning. You don’t even have to get out from under the covers and you can hear this magnificent legacy of kinship, not just in the present moment but in deep time.
EV: There’s a section in the book where you’re in a rainforest and you describe how the diverse sounds you hear are so different from how humans make sound or music. There are many stories unfolding simultaneously without hierarchy, each expressed in a voice suited to the aesthetic of its own species. And you say that listening to them is a liberation from the tight control that we humans often impose on the flow of sound. How do you think listening like this can change what we hear?
DGH: I think it gives us an appreciation for the benefits of anarchy; not anarchy as a destructive force, but anarchy in the sense that there is no governing central authority, as there is, and as there should be, in human music. When I listen to an orchestra or go to a concert, I want to hear some coherence in tempo and melody, and that’s part of the point: to hear narrative and beauty emerging from the creativity of a composer. That music is composed, of course, for a human aesthetic. In the rainforest, and indeed most other habitats, the sound is just a lot more intense in part because there are orders of magnitude more species there, but also because the insects have a different evolutionary path from one another. The crickets have a different way of listening and a different thing that they’re listening for in the sounds; different species of birds have different ways of appreciating sound and hearing the sound of their own species; the mammals, the primates, all have different voices. All of that is converging and singing at once in the rainforest, but it’s not disordered; there is a lot of coordination—species timing their songs so that they don’t overlap, and spreading out so that the frequency spectrum is fairly well occupied. Paradoxically, if you’re in competition with another species, it helps if you have the same kind of song, because you can understand one another, and the competition is a lot more efficient that way. So it’s not just about avoiding overlap; sometimes natural selection has produced overlap for nefarious purposes of competition and predation.
So there are all kinds of stories, but those stories are not coming from the mind of one person. As a writer, I’m all about controlling the words on the page. That’s the point of being a writer. I’ve got to produce words that make sense for other people, and it’s exhausting to be that way all the time. But to listen in the forest is to belong within a much bigger set of narratives. The narrative of the living Earth is not just about me or, indeed, my own species; it’s about the convergence of multiple narratives that have to make it work with one another, and sometimes making it work is heartbreakingly painful for creatures. It isn’t all a big lovefest out in the forest—there’s a great deal of pain and brokenness in the rules of ecology—but there are also forms of convergence. And particularly in the forest, where competition is so intense, there are forms of cooperation; because the more intense the competitive environment, the deeper the cooperation has to be for creatures to thrive.
And so we’re hearing the tangle of all these narratives. I think partly it’s a delightful break from the particular human way of thinking and of listening, but more broadly I think it teaches us that this is the challenge of our time: how do competing narratives, thousands of them, find their way to one another so that they intersect without bringing the whole edifice down? The rainforest is an ecosystem that in many ways is self-sustaining. It builds soil, it holds nutrients within itself, it’s a crucible for innovation, for new species and new adaptations. Despite the complications, great triumphs of creativity and cooperation and productivity and fruitfulness arise from the forest. Imagine if we could be that way. And I think in our better moments humans are indeed that way—we’re a species that can be incredibly cooperative and negotiate lots of complicated tangles; but often, and particularly in relation to the rest of life, we tend to literally bulldoze our way through, imposing one narrative rather than creating spaces where a multiplicity of stories can be present at once.
EV: It seems like within the forest ecosystem there’s a tremendous opportunity to experience a very nonhuman-centered way of being and listening: it literally washes over you.
DGH: Going to a spice market is another way of doing it—through your nose—and to feel the multiplicity of waves of chemical communication. Any place where our senses are overwhelmed, we’re humbled. In the rainforest I can’t deal with it; I can’t pick out just one or two voices to listen to as I normally would in a temperate forest. I have to let the whole wash over me and overwhelm my senses, and in that humbling inability to grasp it all as a listener is a lesson about the diversity of life and the diversity of communicative methods within life.
EV: In the book you write about how, within the community of environmental activism, we often speak of crisis in the lexicons of chemistry and statistics—concentrations of gases and estimates of extinction rates—and that while these are essential ways of knowing and thereby healing the world, they omit the lived experiences of animal senses, probably human senses too. Why is this so important?
DGH: I want to emphasize that measures of chemistry—say, parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, and of methane and of chemical pollution—and tracking species extinctions are absolutely vital, and in no way am I arguing that we don’t need to be attentive to those. But life is not made merely of numbers and graphs; life is about relationship and connection. Without connection, every living being withers and dies. And what does that connection entail? It involves the senses. How do we get food into our bodies? Through the sense of smell and taste and through tactile senses. How do we connect to one another as humans? Through spoken language, through music. How do we learn about the rest of the world? Through being embodied creatures. And so the fact that many of the sensory modalities that we use, and other creatures use, are being cut and fragmented now is a crisis on the same level as the crises of chemistry, of pollution, and of species loss. In fact, to speak of them as separate things is a lie, because climate change and species loss and the loss of sensory connection between creatures and sensory diversity are intersecting and tangled with one another. One of the drivers of diversity loss is the degradation of the sensory environment, including the sound environment. One of the consequences of climate change is a loss of acoustic diversity. We need to teach ourselves that the senses are essential, not just for the thriving of life, but for us to be good neighbors and kin. If we’re not listening, how can we possibly attempt to be a good neighbor to brother and sister wolf, to the whales in the ocean, to the birds in the forests? If we’re not paying attention through our own senses, we have disengaged from the primary mode in which every creature since the origin of life has connected to its environment. And if we’re not listening, we’ve got no stories to tell the future.
One of the most important things I learned about conservation was from my grandparents, who told me how many fewer birds there were singing in the British countryside now compared to when they were young in the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve since read thousands of papers about bird declines in Britain and Europe and beyond, but their story is the one that really sticks with me because it came from people I knew and loved. We in the present moment need to pay attention to these sounds so we have something to tell the future, so that future generations can learn from us in that way. Another way of putting this is that ethics is an embodied science, if you like, or an embodied way of knowing. Rather than being in a seminar room with the doors closed to the rest of the world, we need to use our smell and our hearing and our taste and our fingertips to assess the state of the world around us—we need our senses in order to be well-grounded ethical beings.
EV: You talk about how sensory disconnection severs one necessary root of human ethics, which, as you describe, is an embodied understanding. Not listening is ruinous, whether through choice, apathy, or the dislocations of the global economy.
If we’re not paying attention through our own senses, we have disengaged from the primary mode in which every creature since the origin of life has connected to its environment. And if we’re not listening, we’ve got no stories to tell the future.
DGH: I think that the global economy is one of the massive problems here. Most of the stuff around us came from places that we have no direct sensory connection to. And, in fact, that disconnection is not just a side effect of the global economy; it is a necessary part of continuing the destruction. Because if you separate people from the consequences of their actions, then those actions will continue and short-term profit and gain will be made, but long-term loss will ensue.
So how do we address this? We pay attention in our everyday world and listen for what is beautiful and broken around us, but also, we reach out in solidarity to the people who are living in tropical forests, or people who know of the ecosystems on which we depend, and ask: What are you sensing? What can I learn from you? What do you need from me to help you in your work and your struggle? We evolved to pay attention to what’s close to us and not to cast our imaginations far away, and now we have the challenge of doing both: being attentive to the everyday world around us, and also attentive to what is beyond the horizon by design. If we’re not attentive to that, I think it becomes challenging to ground our ethics.
This all sounds very dire, and there are dire problems, but the great thing about the senses is, they’re joyful. I mean, sure, I’m learning about some brokenness in American suburbia when I’m listening to sounds on a walk around a suburban neighborhood or city soundscapes, but I’m also taking great delight in the mockingbird or the blackbird that’s singing its heart out in the springtime despite what’s going on all around it. So the senses bring us great pleasure at the same time that they’re orienting us to the important work of ethical discernment.
EV: You speak about the crisis of inattention. And you wrote about how birds have been learning their songs for at least fifty-five million years, and mammals for maybe around the same amount of time; and how during that time, “vocal learning and cultural evolution were both soil and fertilizer for the growth and blossoming of sonic diversity” everywhere, but that humans turned this process upside down and started to erode life’s diversity in our recent history. You describe how the cause of this switch from flourishing to destruction lies in our inattention, that we humans forgot how to listen to the voices of other species. How can we reawaken this practice of attending to the voices of other species as a response to this destruction without getting caught in the hopelessness of what is unfolding around us with the climate crisis?
DGH: I think listening in the everyday is one way and is a starting place for this, because—at least in my own life—the ability to smell the aroma of trees as they’re opening their buds in the spring, to tune in to the cycles of the seasons through the various frogs and insects that sing in the neighborhood or out in the woods, is a source of renewal. I think of the senses as a way of tapping my body and soul back into the Earth to renew myself; that then allows me to go on and do the work of right action and of hope, because I’m nourished by my family, by sensory connection. By “my family” I mean the wider family of the living Earth. I think that is a very important part of renewing our relationship to the Earth.
My claim is not that listening to the birds and the crickets is the only thing that we need to be doing, but I do think it is a necessary part of a reorientation. For example, as a scientist, I was involved in some discussions with some big NGOs and some big timber companies about the fate of forests in the southeastern United States, and it turned out that almost nobody in that room had any lived experience of the tens of thousands of acres of forest that were under discussion—not on the conservationist side and not on the corporate side either. So the voice of the forest itself was almost entirely absent from that particular meeting. What if these discussions about how we manage the land included going out and putting our hands in the soil and smelling the soil and listening and talking to people who have lived sensory experiences of the ecosystems that are managed? From this we would get a guide, and for me that guide is often dismissed as “just a superficial aesthetic experience.” In fact, I think aesthetic experience, when it’s a deep aesthetic experience, is the most integrative experience we can possibly have. We integrate our mind, our emotions, our body, through the senses; everything we’ve learned from our culture, the context of the present day, all of that wraps up into our mind. And when we’re having a profound experience of beauty, our brain lights up and we are highly motivated to action.
Using aesthetics—well-informed, deeply rooted aesthetics—as a moral guide is something that needs to come back into fashion. Of course, there are ways in which aesthetics can deceive us through manipulation of the senses and so on, but the power of aesthetic deception is just a reminder that aesthetics are really important to humans. This is an old argument, of course; it’s present in lots of philosophical and religious traditions, but it’s fallen out of fashion now. Not too many science classrooms spend much time discussing deep experiences of beauty in the chemistry laboratory, or in a mathematical equation, or in an ecosystem; and yet that beauty in the equation or the chemical reactions that we’re studying, or the ecosystem that we’re coming to know, is what motivates most scientists. These deep experiences of beauty are what motivate most activists and creatives. So giving aesthetics its due, I think, is part of what listening can do for us.
This interview was conducted live during a virtual event in partnership with Point Reyes Books and has been edited for brevity.
This sonic journey written and narrated by David G. Haskell brings us to the beginning of sound and song on planet Earth.