Has Nature Gotten Louder During the Pandemic?
According to Chris Watson, the man behind your favorite wildlife soundtracks, we're just becoming better listeners
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Bearded seals sound like opera singers beneath the waves. Shrimp crackle. Elephants slurp when they drink through their trunks. Dry grass can sing. An iceberg splits with the same yawning creak as a tree beginning its fall to earth.
This is the world according to Chris Watson. If you’ve ever watched a David Attenborough–narrated documentary—a statistical likelihood by this point—then you’ve heard sounds captured by Watson. The 66-year-old has helped provide the aural background for almost every film fronted by Attenborough since 1998, from The Life of Birds and The Life of Mammals, to both series of The Blue Planet, to The Green Planet, the BBC’s upcoming documentary on plant life, set for release in 2022.
And while the world has changed a lot this year, Watson’s listening habits haven’t. When I reached him at his home in the suburbs of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northeast England this spring, he was reveling in the newfound quiet the pandemic had brought on.
Watson lives a few miles from the highway and local airport, but the usual din of engine noise had fallen away. This had him getting up at obscenely early hours to record the dawn chorus of birds. “It’s been a sort of voyage of rediscovery, because I’ve been using similar techniques that I use in the tropical rainforest and the desert to get recordings in my back garden,” he told me.
Since the coronavirus began, many people have expressed wonder and delight at hearing the sounds of nature more clearly in densely populated areas. “One good thing about noise, unlike lots of other forms of pollution, is that when it stops, the problem goes away instantly,” says Watson. “And that’s the very rapid transition we’ve experienced with this lockdown.” In April he noticed that a blackbird in his back garden seemed to be singing longer and more vigorously than usual. Watson soon surmised that the males were singing their hearts out because they could suddenly hear how many rivals they had nearby and thus had to get more creative to compete. The song wasn’t actually louder than before, but it was more varied.
Watson believes that we all have the capacity to hear these kinds of differences in nature, if only we remember how to listen. “We’ve evolved from good listeners—that’s how we survived,” he says. “It used to be that what we heard and how we reacted to it was a matter of life and death.” In our modern lives, however, we’ve been conditioned to do practically the opposite: to block out sound simply to get through the day. “We go into buildings with dreadful acoustic design, we’re in public spaces where we can’t have a conversation, we’re in open-floor-plan offices where we can’t hear ourselves think,” Watson explains.
Now, though, due to the pandemic, even those of us in urban environments find ourselves with a precious and fleeting opportunity to hear the sounds that the other inhabitants of the planet are making. And if we have just a little bit of Chris Watson in us, once we start listening, we’ll never stop.