Are You Listening?

WORDS BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH

PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIANNA LAGO

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

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“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time, we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”

—Linda Hogan

Few creatures speak to the symphony of nature as clearly as crickets. Like miniature violinists, male crickets make their sound by stridulation—the rubbing of specialized body parts together, producing a mating melody to find females. This acoustic courtship may be in jeopardy due to noise pollution, according to a new study published in Behavioural Ecology that found females less likely to respond to males when white noise or traffic sounds were present. As small as they may be, crickets are essential to their ecosystems; their diets are rich in plant matter, making their waste prime fodder for fungi, keeping the ecosystem’s nutrient flow going strong.

 

How about another of Earth’s naturally gifted musicians, the songbird? A different study published this week—this one in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences—found a similar disturbance. According to one of the study’s authors, Christopher Templeton, “Simply hearing cars drive by is enough to significantly reduce how well songbirds are able to perform cognitively intensive tasks, such as learning new skills, remembering the locations of objects, controlling impulses, and learning by watching other individuals.”

 

At the risk of exhausting you with evidence, yet another body of research was published this week on noise pollution, this one being the biggest review of changes to the marine soundscape ever gathered, an amalgamation of over 10,000 scientific studies. From the fishing industry interrupting aquatic animal communication and navigation to changes in Arctic acoustics due to ice loss, the report’s findings are loud and clear: We can no longer drown out the ways we’re altering the ocean and all its inhabitants.

 

Sound pollution has effects on human physical health as well, including increased risks of heart disease and high blood pressure. A report published by nonprofit Bruitparif last year found that the average residents of the noisiest areas of Paris lost three healthy life-years due to conditions created or amplified by anthropogenic sounds such as airplane, car, and train traffic. And then there are the mental health effects: the psychological reverberations of trying to focus or find peace of mind while constantly bombarded by noise.

 

Even the larger systemic strife we are experiencing today—whether economical, ecological, political, or racial—what of that cannot be traced back to our ability to listen, to each other and to the Earth? Nature is always speaking to us. She has been crying out for decades now, cries that have largely gone unheard, drowned out by every venture of distraction known to humankind. Of course, nature also sings solutions, if only we would be silent and listen—two words with the same letters, each dependent on the other.

 

Unfortunately, we’re too busy trying to solve our problems how we created them, filling the sonosphere with the sound of our own voices. Elon Musk recently declared that he would award $100 million to whoever invents the best carbon capture technology. But nature has already done that: they’re called trees. Trees, which we keep tearing down. Trees, which we could never plant enough of to sustain our current emission levels. We are desperately trying to find some solution to sustain a model that is unsustainable—and deep down, we know this. When we act against our intuitive knowing, we create cognitive dissonance and internal discord. We create disharmony

 

Like the conductor of some seamless symphony, nature speaks not only by way of warning signs, but that intuitive knowing as well: a subtle voice that can be easily lost amidst all the noise of modern life. Anyone with a mindfulness practice knows that peace and quiet go hand in hand, that we find harmony when we open our ears to the harmonization that is all around and within us. That we are capable of more than cacophony, that we are part of an orchestra. And so to anyone who asks me where they can start or help, my answer is always the same: listen in.

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