Review: “Sounds Wild and Broken”, by David George Haskell
WILD AND BROKEN SOUNDS: the wonders of sound, the creativity of evolution and the crisis of sensory extinction, by David George Haskell
Since the Middle Ages, travelers have traversed the rugged Massif Central region of southern France on one of the most beautiful routes of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage leading to the purported Tomb of Saint James in northwest France. ‘Spain.
Thousands of hikers still visit the shrine each year. Like their medieval predecessors, some seek a miracle. David George Haskell wants each of them, and each of us, to know about the miracle of evolution buried in the Rocky Massif.
Animals have evolved over hundreds of millions of years with barely a trill, a call or a glance, Haskell reveals in his exquisite new book, “Sounds Wild and Broken.” In search of the origins of song and the sound of life, he is drawn to a revolutionary chirp. A fossilized insect wing in Permian rock in the French countryside bears an unusual crest. Rubbing two wings together, his former cricket played a rasping rasp, diffused over the flat surface of the wing like a loudspeaker.
“There should be a sanctuary here,” Haskell writes. “A monument to honor the first known earthly voice.”
Instead, pilgrims pass without realizing, symbols of all we miss in a world of vanishing birdsong, crescendos of insects and choruses of frogs. The most powerful species on earth no longer listens to others, silencing them at a devastating rate. “The vitality of the world depends, in part, on our turning our ears to the living earth.”
Haskell’s joy of discovery makes him irresistible to listen to. The calls of spring peepers rise from its pages and from the swamps of upstate New York; male tree frogs broadcasting not only their location, but also their size and health. Mating calls sound over 50 meters away, allowing females to check a potential match before jumping too close. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Haskell records the song of the red crossbill as it soars higher than the wind through evergreen trees, revealing how place helps shape evolution sound. In the clamor of the Ecuadorian Amazon, he decodes the alarm cries of animals which, beyond the transmission of danger, confirm sophisticated networks of inter-species cooperation in the rainforest.
Just as “birds living in loud, dense aggregations can extract acoustic detail from a hubbub,” Haskell is a deeply nuanced, meditative writer who finds beauty amid the din of exploitation. It celebrates the surviving song of life even as it bears witness to profound sensory loss. In a section on ocean soundscapes, he reflects on the 1970 album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which became a rallying cry for the environmental movement. De-stressing with these recordings is now the ultimate illusion. Once teeming with millions of whales and billions of fish singing from their breeding grounds, the oceans have become acoustic nightmares of naval sonar and shipping noise.
Haskell is on the point that sensory connection can inspire people to care in a way that dry statistics never will. His claim that the songs of grasshoppers and house sparrows could motivate ethical action is both too fanciful to be believed – and too imperative to be dismissed.
Haskell’s previous books, ‘The Songs of Trees’ and ‘The Forest Unseen’ – the story of a single square meter of old-growth forest over the course of a year, and a Pulitzer finalist – have suggested the emergence of a great poet-scientist. “Sounds Wild and Broken” affirms Haskell as a laureate for the land, his finely tuned scientific observations made more powerful by his deep love for the nature he hopes to save.
In the 12th century, one of the first guides in the world, the “Pilgrim’s Guide”, detailed the routes and gave practical advice to travelers along the Camino de Santiago, promising the miracles to come: “Health is given to the sick , sight to the blind. … Hearing is revealed to the deaf.
Haskell has given us a glorious guide to the miracle of the sound of life. He helped us hear. Are we going to listen? Are we going to heed the cries of alarm from our traveling companions?
Cynthia Barnett is the author of “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans” and environmental journalist-in-residence at the University of Florida.
WILD AND BROKEN SOUNDS: the wonders of sound, the creativity of evolution and the crisis of sensory extinction, by David George Haskell | viking | 448 pages | $29