Listening to Nature

Monday 26th of October 2020

Three weeks ago I listened to an item on the radio which has stayed with me. It was on a news broadcast, the Today programme on Radio 4. One of the presenters interviewed a marine researcher, Michelle Forney, from the University of Cornell Centre for Conservation Acoustics. She talked about making underwater recordings of whales near Juno in the south-east part of Alaska.

What the scientist was pointing out was that the recordings which have been made over the last few months were very different from what she and her colleagues would normally hear. Whereas what they have become used to has been the sound of ships or boats being in the foreground and having to “listen past” that in order to hear whales, that has now been reversed. This is because of the decrease in marine traffic, especially cruise ships, during the pandemic.

Michelle Forney admitted that the absence of cruise ships is a mixed blessing - local communities are adversely affected because of their economies being so intertwined with the number of visitors. However, she expressed a desire to find a balance between the need for local communities to thrive and the needs of the whales.

One of the aspects that she talked about as regards the whales was the nature of their “conversations”. There was a suggestion that with less “background noise” from vessels, the whales might communicate differently. In human conversation, if there is a lot of noise, say at a crowded party with other people, we will have a more stilted exchange. Michelle Fornay said that there is some “anecdotal evidence” that whale “song” is more varied and complex when there is less noise in the oceans, but admitted that there is a need for further research. I can’t help wondering how difficult it is to analyse changes in something that seems quite so mysterious and atmospheric and which we don’t really understand.

Part of what has stayed with me is that when talking about her desire for balance and in terms of finding sustainable ways to reduce the noise in the oceans, Michelle Fornay mentioned what whales might “crave”. I was intrigued by this and it set me thinking. Does it make sense for us as human beings to talk about what elements of the natural world might “crave”, whether it be whales or anything else? That seems to suggest a possible degree of anthropomorphism, us seeing the animal kingdom “in our image”. However, I wonder if it may be a little more than that.

The way that we use the word “song” for the sounds produced by whales may also be a clue to what is going on here. Calling it a song may be one way of acknowledging the changes in pitch and frequency and rhythm of the sounds which whales produce. However, more than that it suggests purpose. A song is something that we human beings set out to “make” as a particular form of communication. At the very least, we are acknowledging a form of intelligence behind the sounds which the whales are making.

If we go a little further, is it possible for us to enter with some degree of empathy into the sounds that whales are making? This may not just be a function of understanding the actual or potential use of these elements (e.g. around mating or group foraging for instance) but rather about relating more generally to the idea of communication within a group and how that is perceived by others. Human songs bind individuals and groups together but it doesn’t seem impossible that this happens with what we call whale song as well.

Songs are transmitters of what we would think of as “culture” for human beings. We don’t normally think of “whale culture” but this may be another insight that we can gain from our use of the term “song” for what comes from whales. Whereas human culture has come to be fixed through forms which endure, “whale culture” does not have that aspect. The fact that all of this takes place in a liquid environment may amplify that sense of something fluid.

We tend to think that when something is not preserved in the forms familiar to us that it is if it is “washed away”. In Blackfoot Physics, F. David Peat presents a different idea, specifically in relation to song, drawing on various native traditions from around the world. He says “indigenous people consider songs to be living beings” (p. 148) and that a song “can have an autonomous being apart from human minds and voices”.

Is it possible that whales as much as humans “sing” these songs which come from elsewhere? If so, would we have to acknowledge that there is something happening in nature which is bigger than what we might think possible? When talking about song, F. David Peat makes the following comment: “sound, vibration and song are believed by many to be the creative, generative forces within the cosmos”.

Where we started was in human beings listening to nature in the sense of making recordings in the oceans. What I have ended up suggesting is that the listening that we do to nature may need to be at a different level. Perhaps the act of lowering a hydrophone into surroundings which are very different from what we are used to above the waves can be a metaphor: in the marine environment the senses are very different. Sight is distorted and touch takes on another context. Smell and taste are dissipated. Sound is rather different as sound waves are transmitted through sea water. Perhaps what we need to do is to listen to nature in a new way. This will need to be different from how we have tended to do this in the past. Not only that, but it involves us listening in a way that we perhaps don’t really want to do. Perhaps we have tended to allow many other considerations to block out the voice of nature. Like the whale song in the hydrophone, there are many other sounds which can eclipse the softness of the voice in favour of more insistent concerns. Even now, the issues of climate change can easily become “background noise”. On the other hand, maybe we are starting to realise how urgent the whisperings are becoming.