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Sounds Wild and Broken, by David George Haskell

I already live on a knife-edge of awe, stunned disbelief and overwhelmed incomprehension when it comes to the natural world we inhabit. A passage such as this, near the beginning of David George Haskell’s wonderful book Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, can stagger my mind:

The first living sounds came from bacteria that sent infinitesimally quiet murmurs, sighs, and purrs into their watery surroundings. Bacterial sounds are now discernible to us only with the most sensitive modern equipment. A microphone in in a quiet laboratory can pick up sounds from colonies of Bacillus subtilis, a species of bacteria commonly found in soils and mammalian guts. Amplified, these vibrations sound like the hiss of steam escaping from a tight valve. When a loudspeaker plays similar sounds back into flasks of bacteria, the cells’ growth rate surges, an effect whose biochemical mechanism is as yet unknown.

In short, we are surrounded by the voices of nature that we aren’t even consciously aware of. And, at the risk of being anthropomorphic, it appears that bacteria talk to each other

I’m the sort of person who can’t even drink a damn cup of coffee without my mind sometimes being carried away, thinking about the fact that each tablespoon of fertile soil has some 50 billion microorganisms in it, all working to help nourish a bush that is gathering energy from a giant orb of chemical fire 93 million miles away. That bush, itself one of over 400,000 species of plants on Earth, produces a bean that human beings, themselves an absurd culmination of so many complicated biological evolutions that it is incomprehensible, somehow figured out that if they roast it, grind it and pour boiling water over it, makes a beverage that their digestive systems, itself host to some one trillion microbes, sends washing through the bloodstream chemical reactants that provide a feeling of enhanced alertness to the minds, minds which themselves are incomprehensible in how they work. Throw in the civilization aspect of the gathering, transporting, manufacturing, merchandising and marketing that goes into getting that cup of coffee to my lips...well, yes, it can overwhelm me.

And that's just a cup of coffee.

Haskell takes us into an amazing world of sound, from the bacon-fat sizzle of snapping shrimp in tidal marshes, a cacophony created by water bubbles generated by the slamming shut of a tiny claw—a cacophony unheard by us as we sit on the shore or in a boat enjoying the view, to the deep rumblings of elephants—a rumble too low to be heard by humans—which other elephants can hear transmitted through the ground kilometers away through sensors in their feet, which transfers the sound up their skeletal structure to their ears.

Or consider the undersea sound conduit:

To human eyes, the open ocean seems uniform. We might imagine this sameness penetrating all the way to the ocean bottom. Yet for sound, the ocean contains an invisible conduit, a passageway through which sound travels for thousands of kilometers. This “deep sound channel” is about eight hundred meters below the surface. Gradients of water temperature and density—cooler and denser in the depths—trap sound within the channel. When sound waves veer up or down, they are bent back into the channel by either warmer water above or denser water below. This watery lens transmits sounds across entire ocean basins, especially low sounds whose passage in water is unhindered by water’s viscosity. Whales take advantage of this channel, and their moaning, rumbling, throbbing calls were, until humans invented the telegraph, the only animal signals capable of crossing the ocean.

As you can imagine, the sonic waves of modern shipping do indeed create havoc in the sensory environments of ocean creatures.

Along with the multitudes of amazing sounds of nature, Haskell provides lots of practical information on how our ears work (I’m getting harder of hearing as the years go by, and I was marveling at the fact that simply brushing my thumb slowly and gently over the page of the book somehow created enough air turbulence to generate a sound wave that traveled the couple feet to my ear and was loud enough to hear), and how sound itself evolved. From eons in which the only sounds were those generated by wind and waves, with no living creatures to hear it, through the gradual rise of the hum of bacteria, the noise of insects, and the sonic burst of the development of animals. He hypothesizes that the latter was partly linked to the evolution of flowering plants, which flipped animals’ evolutionary advantage from being silent to avoid predators toward being able to communicate sources of food.

The book also examines the extinction of sensory diversity that accompanies the other forms of extinction we are inflicting on the planet. It is a form of extinction that tends to be overlooked.

Our ears are directed inward, to the chatter of our own species. Introductions to the sounds of the thousands of species that live in our neighborhoods have no place in most school curricula. We generally regard human language and music as outside nature, disconnected from the voices of others. When a concert starts, we close the door to the outside world. Books and software that teach us “foreign” languages include only the voices of other humans. Public monuments to sound are rare and honor a handful of canonical human composers, not the sonic history of the living Earth.

(Even with the opinion expressed in the above passage, I note that Haskell devotes much appreciation to the catalogues of birdcalls.)

In short, a remarkable book which will give you a deep appreciation of the fact that what we commonly perceive as our lives is really just a tiny sliver of a vastly greater reality. We don’t even fully understand the workings or our own human brains, and yet somehow we use those brains to discover the workings of complex systems of physics, biology, biochemistry and more. The diversity and intricacy of it all is indeed a wonder.