The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Friday, 23 June 2023 12:24

Nature is full of sensations and sounds, so David Haskell wrote song books

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In Hellbender Press interview, heralded writer describes the way natural sounds shape our world

David George Haskell encourages you to pay attention to the sounds of the natural world.

It’s what led him to write four books; two have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, including his latest book, “Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction.” 

A link on Haskell’s website provides a gateway into natural sounds he describes in the book through the essay “The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging.” Visitors to this essay’s page can read the piece or listen to a recording of Haskell reading it, accompanied by recorded bird songs providing a soundtrack for the topic.

Haskell is fascinated by sound. His dissertation, written in the 1990s, was a study of bird sounds. Predators hunt birds largely by ear, which has influenced the evolution of birdsong. His writing is a powerful and beautiful way to understand our relationships with the world through bird sounds.

Haskell appreciates the importance of learning statistics and names, but he emphasizes knowing the sounds of birds in your environment is like adding a new sense to your life. It is enriching to share with students and the essay is derived from years of teaching experience. Whether teaching writing or science, he used listening exercises with students to open their ears.

He continued his thoughts by encouraging us to connect our senses with the real world. Knowing the song of a Carolina wren, or knowing each song sparrow has its version of music, enriches and roots people in the real world. This goal is important because understanding the environment comes down to immersion.

Sounds Wild and Broken” invites readers to listen to the world more closely. Haskell asks where this amazing world of natural sound, human music, and language came from.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, there was no song, no speech, and no music. So, in the book’s first part, he takes people on a journey into deep time but also into our own species’ path, including the first musical instruments, and celebrates the diversity of sound on earth and tells its story.

Later in the book, he discusses how we should be participating members of the sensory world. We are pumping so much noise into the world we are drowning out the voices of other species. In other places, we have the opposite effect by destroying habitats and silencing other creatures who depend on those habitats to live. So, we make noise, and we silence others. Those problems are solvable if we understand we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

The sense of smell is another gateway to exciting stories about trees. Haskell’s short book “Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree” follows his nose into the stories of the trees. We are living beings with rich sensory lives, but senses don’t just give us pleasure; they are introductions to stories.

When we smell a cup of coffee, that smell has a lot of different meanings. That coffee might have been grown in Central America, where the beans introduced caffeine and the aromas not so much to please us but to repel insects. Due to human ingenuity, we have turned it into an energizing drink. This is an example of one of the many stories presented in the book.

The Forest Unseen was Haskell’s first book, and is filled with sensory observations. The inspiration came from the Buddhist monks living in Sewanee, Tennessee. He saw them create a Mandala, a beautiful sand painting, over a few days. The mandala represents the cosmos, the process of creating it, and is a meditation. There are layers of meaning. You see the whole universe through an area the size of a dining room table.

Haskell wanted to bring the approach to an ecological context. What would it be like to look at a tiny area of forest the same size as that Mandala for a whole year? He picked the spot by wandering through the woods until he found a flat rock he could sit on.  The area in front of that rock became the forest mandala. He borrowed from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for the concept of the forest mandala, but he does’t claim to be a Buddhist.

“The Forest Unseen” resulted from those meditations. It was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Throughout its pages, Haskell speaks about diverse subjects, from the geometry of snowflakes to the improbable life cycle of a horsehair worm, both seen in the one square meter of his forest mandala. He visited it throughout the year and created meditations for each month.

Natural history is the foundation of his writing

In “Songs of Trees,” he presents views of individual trees in urban and rural areas. At first glance, they appear to be different, but there are parallels. He sat with these trees over several years: one in the center of Manhattan; one in Jerusalem; one in the Amazon rainforest and one in the boreal forest. He observed, there is still nature in cities and remote areas. 

The film, “The Atomic Tree,” is based on the final chapter of “The Songs of Trees.” Adam Loftin and Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee began with Haskell’s writing and produced this online virtual reality experience, narrated by Peter Coyote. Viewers may navigate 360 degrees to see images and surroundings. The featured tree began life in a forest but was moved to Hiroshima to be nurtured by five generations as a Bonsai tree.

The 400-year-old tree survived an atomic bomb blast that melted a stone Buddha’s head and was later given to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Haskell said bonsai appear to be the ultimate example of people controlling nature, but people who care for this tree are, in some respects, its servants. 

The Atomic Tree trailer

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Published in News, Voices, 15 Life on Land

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