by Sherry Marr
Recently I read a book titled Earth’s Wild Music – Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World, by Kathleen Dean Moore, an author, philosopher and activist who writes from Oregon and Alaska.
The title alone captivated me: the thought of how Mother Earth sings to us in her many voices: wind, birds, rivers, dolphins, trees, bees, bears. It is the song of life each of her creatures is singing ~ even us.
To paraphrase Franz Kafka, a poem must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. In Earth’s Wild Music, I tell stories about the planet’s imperfect music, the consequence of our civilization’s having lost its way…I write from that place where my deep love for the world’s music – birdsong, frog song, crickets and toads, whales and wolves – meets the terrible facts of onrushing extinction…
“But even as I was celebrating this splendid world, it was slipping away. I was midway through an essay on frog songs, when developers bulldozed the frog marsh for condominiums…As I celebrated their songs, humpback whales grew thin, starving in a warming, souring ocean. And all the while, executives of multinational extractive industries were gathering around mahogany tables to devise business plans that they knew would take down the great systems that sustain human life and all the other lives on Earth. Oh, the peril. The ecological peril. The moral peril.
It is the responsibility of the nature writer to bear witness, ring the church bell, trip the alarm, beat the warrior drum, send the telegram, blow the whistle, call all-hands-on-deck – and sometimes, weeping, to write the condolence letters.
Moore says in the 50 years she has been a nature writer/observer, 60% of all mammals have been erased. North American birds have lost a third of their number. One out of five species are on the verge of extinction. Twice that number may be lost by the end of the century. Two-thirds of primates are endangered.
Unless the world acts, I will write my last nature essay on a planet that is less than half as song-graced and life-drenched as the one where I began to write.
Each time a creature dies, a song dies.
“We do not have the luxury of writing in ordinary times,” Frederick Buechner has said. “‘You will find your calling at the intersection of your deep love and the world’s deep need.”
I will howl against the approaching silence of the empty sky. I will carve a flute from a bird’s bone and whistle like a bosun on a sinking ship. I will accept sorrow as a last great offering from a desperate world. But then, I will shape anguish into something that is fierce enough to stand in defense of all that we love too much to lose.
Well. You can see why this book resonated with me. As species disappear, along with them go their songs. “In a time of terrible silencing,” Moore asks, “what can we hear if we listen carefully? What can earth’s wild music tell us about how we ought to live?”
If there comes a time when the voices of songbirds are stilled, the music of other, maybe new, beings will bell or mumble from the mudbanks to the mountaintops. The mountains will continue to roar, and the seas will sing on the sand. Earth will evolve new forms of wild music that we can never imagine but long to hear. In the next New World Symphony, others will play the parts, but the music will remain.
There is comfort for me in that thought.
I am reminded of studies done by naturalist Bernie Krause, who developed soundscape ecology, recording how the sounds of the natural world are being impacted by our noisy human existence. For decades, Bernie has been listening, in natural settings, to whole wildlife communities vibrating together like a giant orchestra.
But, over time, he noted that under the cacophony of our noisy world – with its jets, helicopters, chainsaws, tractors, traffic, sirens, mining, drilling, shipping, building – the wild ones lost their synchronicity. Repeatedly, their songs faltered, and it took time for them to regain it after every interruption. Of 1300 different habitats Bernie studied, over half have now gone silent. To Bernie, clearly we are the ones who are out of tune.
Bird calls and songs are vitally linked to the ecosystems they inhabit. Bird songs shift with changes in habitat. As vegetation reclaimed formerly cleared land in California, Oregon and Washington over 35 years, birds lowered their pitch and slowed their singing so their songs carried better through heavier foliage.
I am fascinated that mother finches sing a particular song to their chick in its egg, to prepare it for life outside the egg. Chicks are now being born smaller, the better to withstand warming temperatures.
I love hearing about people who play music to whales. I heard about one man from eastern Vancouver Island who lowered an underwater microphone into the ocean, and played his clarinet. Not only did whales join in, they began to improvise riffs off of his melody, so it became an inter-species jam session. So cool.
My friend who lives in a floathouse up the coast hears wolfsong onshore just metres from her dwelling. Magical. She says she can also hear otters noisily crunching their meals underneath her deck.
In a side note, in 2015, Bernie and his wife narrowly escaped with their lives from a wildfire on Sugarloaf Mountain that devoured their home and his life’s work, notes and recordings. He advises us to spend time listening to the natural world we have become so disconnected from. In the quiet, as gentle winds move the branches in a forest, we can touch on peace and harmony in a very real way. In the green spaces, we can feel our kinship with the beyond-human realm. If we sit quietly for long enough, then look up, we will see the natural world observing us, the way we are watching it. There are unseen eyes everywhere, millions of small universes all around us, carrying on the important business of living.
Moore ends her book with the following lines:
On the reeling planet that we hold in our hands,
may gentle rain fall forever on green hills,
may ice come in its time to glaze the bays.
May salmon faithfully return when sandpipers call.
May songbirds sing in the apple trees.
And may the children hum themselves to sleep in a safe and sustaining
May it be so. In our best dreams, may this all always be true.
For your challenge: Write a poem about Earth’s wild music. It can be the song of a single being, or Mother Earth’s full, glorious symphony. Let’s celebrate the many beautiful songs that sing us through this world.
1. How Birds Die
Get caught by a kitty cat: 2.4 billion.
Collateral damage of industry: 700 million.
Hit a window: 600 million.
Hit by car: 214 million.
Get poisoned: 72 million.
Hit a powerline: 25 million.
Get electrocuted: 5 million.
Hit a turbine: 234 thousand.
Get blinded by city lights and stray.
Search in vain for starlight’s guide.
Get out of sync with climate change:
depart too late, arrive too early.
Land in a lake of arsenic.
Get your wings fouled in oil.
Eat plastic. Eat foil. Eat lead shot.
Eat lead shot and have a seizure.
Eat poisoned insects and carry their doom.
Lose your acre of breeding ground, and so
circle the parking lot that was a marsh.
Circle and circle, cry and cry.
Be a snowy owl in the era of Harry Potter,
caged by a reader, expected to prophesy.
Be the wild pet of seven billion mammals with hands.
Be the last one of your kind, singing and singing.
— Kim Stafford
2. How Birds Live
Fence wire—a throne for singing and singing.
Thorns in the blackberry thicket—jewels of safety.
A vacant lot, rife with a chance mix—heaven.
Wing bars of crimson, mustard, moss—kinfolk.
A fat worm, a ripe seed, a caught beetle—enough.
Twig feet on a twig after a thousand miles—rest.
Bill tucked under a wing—spiral home.
Cast-off thread and thistledown—snug nest
A silence into which to put a few water notes—duet.
Breeding season, egg season, fledgling season—destiny.
Wings in the mist riding, gliding—no trace.
Heart-surge song rising from inside—beauty’s custodian.
A short, intense, breathless life—grace.
— Kim Stafford
Window Shopping for Trees, Side B
Under stage lights of needles,
bark sings a ballad
to anyone listening
— Jason E. Coombs
from Worth More Standing: Poets and Activists Pay Homage to Trees
an anthology edited by Christine Lowther