Why do I Record Wild Soundscapes?

People ask why I record wild soundscapes. So here are a couple of reasons.

Hearing is both the most immediate of our senses and the sense that suffers most abuse in our urban culture. We're so bombarded by loud mechanical noises in our daily lives that we've largely abandoned the skill of listening we would have relied on for survival throughout our evolutionary past. So we fail to notice a huge amount of what takes place in our surroundings, which as a result seem monotonous and devoid of interest. We fill the apparent void with yet more coarse artificial stimuli for which we fork out hard-earned cash, failing to realise how enthralling, satisfying and cost-free the subtleties of the natural world are. But if we can learn to listen again the other senses will follow, opening up a glorious world of living detail we usually pass by without recognition.

But there's a much greater gain than mere enjoyment. In the rush and scramble of our aggressively technocratic "what's in it for me?" way of life where everything we do and acquire (even our home) has to have a monetary gain attached, we've forgotten that we're intimately and inescapably connected to the rest of the living world. Although our view of ourselves as the masters of all we survey is ancient, we're not and never have been. In the past our capacity to exploit this assumed position was mostly constrained by the practical limits of physical strength and by constant reminders of our relative fragility in the face of natural forces.

I'm not suggesting that we haven't significantly shaped the landscape and influenced the mesh of life in it throughout our history - all living creatures do that. There's probably little of the primordial wild left anywhere humans have settled. Indeed world-famous wild habitats such as England's Cambridgeshire Fenland and Norfolk Broads are man-made, as probably is much of the Sahara Desert.

Cambridgeshire, UK - Fenland dawn

However, those environments and the processes that led to them differ little if at all in principle from the transition of scrub woodland to savannah caused by the grazing of elephants. But since the Oil Age and the introduction of cheap portable power sources less than two hundred years ago, the constraints that limited the speed and extent - and indeed the very nature - of our influence have been progressively eroded. As a result, we've been able to distance ourselves from, and have forgotten the connections we have with, the wild, which has for most of us merely become either an exploitable resource or a playground. We've supplanted many natural processes with artificial ones - synthetic fertilisers replace manure on our fields reducing the soil to little more than an inert matrix for keeping our crops upright, we've bred high yield but fragile milking cows that need to be kept indoors and fed on high-energy fodder instead of being able to graze freely on grass, our pesticides wipe out more than just the specific crop pests we aim them at, and broad spectrum herbicides allow us to grow monoculture crops genetically manipulated for specific resistance to our poisons.

Even those of us who express an interest in the wild have largely replaced genuine recognition of our evolutionary connection with a patronising concept of "stewardship" that still defines us as in charge. So we create "wildlife sanctuaries" with the tacit assumption that everywhere outside them is up for grabs, and many appointed custodians of our natural environment have the crudest ideas about how to relate to it. One semi-rural local council I know of has an open spaces management policy primarily dedicated to stripping the landscape of wild flowers and reducing it to a rather uneven bowling green dotted here and there with the odd scrap of barren flailed hedge.

Beneficial or profitable as these choices may seem to us, all of them have wider influences on the natural world around us which in the long term we ignore at our peril. We've forgotten our connection to the wild - how much we rely on wild animals, plants, insects, fungi and micro-organisms for our very survival, and how much they rely in turn on intact complex webs of dependencies which we arbitrarily damage.

wild places - a montage

That we neglect, but have not lost, our connection with the wild is demonstrated at the simplest level by such phenomena as the use of sea shore sounds by meditators and emerging evidence that bird song can calm and reassure hospital patients. Our minds have evolved for a couple of million years to respond to it - it's part of our nature, and if we ignore it we're abandoning part of ourselves.

So as well as the physical and biotic degradation of our environment, a big penalty we pay for this neglect is a loss of humanity. We become harsh and insensitive - in seeking what we want we cease to consider or care about its repercussions on the complex web of life. Sympathy with (by which I don't mean sentimental drooling over) the living world is the essence of humanity, and it can only be maintained by recognition of the subtle interconnections between all living creatures (not just the cute and the rare). As a wise friend of mine said a while back "humility is recognition of your place in the scheme of things". Intellectual understanding of "ecology" alone is not enough.

Humility and humanity - knowing where one stands and openness to life - lead to effectiveness and contentment. If enough of us achieve them, maybe we can curb the despoiling of the planet by that phenomenal oxymoron the "consumer economy". So an important purpose of experiencing and recording wild soundscapes - and, I hope, listening to wild soundscape recordings - is to re-educate our minds to the subtleties of the living world so we can recover the recognition of our true place in it. Then we might cease our constant clawing and scrabbling for more and start really living. Apart from which, of course, wild soundscape recording is a fascinating and challenging activity that yields results which can bring joy to others as well.