Woman in headphones listening music in nature
When we open our ears to the marvels of natural soundscapes, we experience the energies of the world in a unique way—and begin to understand the mysteries behind them. (Photo: littlehenrabi/iStock/Getty)

Learning to Listen to Wild Sounds

Woman in headphones listening music in nature

When we open our ears to the marvels of natural soundscapes, we experience the energies of the world in a unique way—and begin to understand the mysteries behind them. But when we habitually ignore what we’re hearing, we both miss out on one of the best parts of being human and enable the loss of an enormous diversity of species on this planet. So argues biologist and acclaimed author David Haskell in his new book Sounds Wild and Broken. Considered by many as the premier nature writer in America today, Haskell believes that one of the most important things we can do to heal the earth is remember how to listen. In this episode, Haskell walks us through the rich history of sound and offers a powerful lesson in sonic awareness.

This episode is brought to you by Outside Learn, a new online education hub loaded with instructional courses guided by best-in-class experts, like climber-filmmaker Jimmy Chin. See our growing list of offerings at learn.outsideonline.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.


Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Two friends are walking down a busy city block. One of them lives in the city and the other is visiting from the countryside. 

And as they're walking and talking, all of a sudden the friend from the countryside says, "Listen! Do you hear that?" 

And the city friend says, "No. I don't hear anything. What is it?" 

So the country friend leads them down the block, walking faster and listening intently. They turn down an alleyway. And about halfway down this alley, there's a dumpster, with some discarded cardboard in front of it. The country friend squats down and starts gently turning over the cardboard, then says, "There it is!"

It's a cricket, singing in the back of an alley.

The city friend, totally in shock, says, "How could you possibly have heard that?"

The country friend just smiles and walks back out the alley to the main street, reaches into a pants pocket, and tosses some change onto the sidewalk.

Up and down the block, in this loud city, people freeze and look around. And the country friend says, "You hear what you listen for.”

This is Michael Roberts, and that story is one I was told years ago at summer camp. But I've been thinking about it a lot lately while working on this week's episode, which features the biologist and author David Haskell. He has a new book titled Sounds Wild and Broken, and in it he makes a powerful case that we are ignoring the many natural sounds all around us—and because of that, we’re both missing out on one of the best parts of being human and enabling the loss of an enormous diversity of species on the planet.

David begins his argument by describing what it used to sound like on earth in the beginning, before there was life.

David Haskell: We can still hear this. When we go to a mountain top. We hear the wind whistling across bare rock.

Or a seashore. And you hear the waves beating on rocks and sand.

Those were the sounds of the primeval Earth. And for hundreds of millions of years, billions of years, in fact, those were the only sounds. 

Thunder and lightning being one of the more dramatic sounds. Mostly it was just wind and waves and rain until…

Michael: You're listening to Permostridulus, an ancient cricket. Or, well, it's David's recreation of the sound of Permostridulus rubbing its wings together, since the poor creature is now extinct. It is believed to be the first land-based organism to make communicative sounds.

That's an interesting story, but before we get to it, who is David Haskell?

Paul Kvinta: I guess I would call him one of the premier, if not the premier nature writer in America today.

Michael: This is Paul Kvinta, a longtime contributing editor of Outside Magazine. He profiled David in 2017, and recently wrote another story about him for us that focuses on the ideas that David lays out in Sounds Wild and Broken.

Paul says that David has a couple unique strengths that set him apart from other scientists and authors.

Paul: One is he has this zen-like ability to observe nature for hours on end. Just a super patient monk-like guy, and that combined with a beautiful writing style, a very poetic writing style.

After his first book came out, EO Wilson said that David had created a whole new genre of nature writing. That was somewhere between poetry and science.

Michael: That first book was The Forest Unseen, which was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. To write it, David selected a 10-foot square of forest floor in the expansive woodland of the University of the South, in Tennessee, where he has taught for decades. He went out to the spot daily for a year.

Paul: He referred to that little patch of forest floor as his forest mandala. The idea for David was that all of the stories of the forest, you can find here in this 10 by 10 square foot area.

Michael: David wrote fascinating essays about algae, fungi, and bacteria. He also applied some curious methods to his field work.

Paul: You know, these birds would fly in and out of the mandala and it's February and we're on top of a mountain in Tennessee and it's probably, you know, five degrees. David takes off all his clothes so that he can experience what these birds are experiencing. And of course, in so doing, he almost catches hypothermia.

Michael: David's next book was Songs of the Trees, which had him closely observing 12 individual trees around the world, spending many hours at a time with them on multiple visits. There was a balsam fir in the backwoods of Ontario; an ­olive tree in the old city of Jerusalem; a cottonwood sapling in downtown Denver that had been repeatedly reduced to wood chips by beavers.

It was another compelling, if somewhat odd approach to natural history, making it perfectly on-brand for David.

When Paul was reporting his profile, he spoke to one of David's undergrad students who recounted stumbling upon her professor literally talking to a tree when they were at a field camp on the coast of Georgia.

Paul: One day she's walking around on around, around walking through the dunes and she sort of sees David on the other side of the dunes at a distance. And he is standing underneath this Palm tree and he's got this audio equipment, like a microphone. And he speaks into the microphone and then he holds it up to the tree, kind of like he's interviewing the tree and the young woman just thought, wow, what is that?

Paul says that David has always been like this--curious, contemplative, a bit awkward. But also that David's wandering life journey has gifted him a perspective that you don't typically find in a scientist.

Paul: When he was, you know, growing up as a child, his parents talked about him, sitting by the pond in the backyard, just sitting there watching and observing. He was born in England, raised in France. When he went to school and he went to high school in France, the British school there, just fell in love with Shakespeare and British poetry, all the greats of, you know, British literature. But then when he was at Oxford, that’s when he was forced to specialize and that's when, you know, he's, uh, loves nature, ecology, and that's, that's what he honed in on. And that's what he ended up getting his PhD and he studied birds at Cornell. And then spent 20 years teaching ecology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Which is a funny thing because, when you hear the guy talk, his accent is all over the place. Pretty much what people say when they meet David Haskell is you're not from here, are you?

David: Over the years, as I expanded my listening out into the everyday, I just got more and more curious about what created the Sonic diversity all over the world. And in particular, where humans fit into this. Is human language and human music somehow outside of the creative processes of life, or do we belong within.

Michael: That question is at the heart of Sounds Wild and Broken. The way David goes about answering it is to chronicle the evolution of biological sounds, and detail how humans fit in--or don't. For him, every natural sound is both something to enjoy, and an opportunity to understand where it came from.

David: So sound is, and my experience is wonderful because it offers us this moment by moment experience of the, the energies of the world. But then those energies behind them have, have stories. What species of bird is that? And how did that bird get to be here in North America and not on some other continent? So the sound is fascinating on, on the sensory level.

And then it's, it's an invitation to think about the narratives, the tails that lie behind each sound.

Michael: Which brings us back to that ancient cricket, Permostridulus, the first animal on Earth to say: Listen to me!

I'm going to bet that you'd never heard of Permostridulus until now, because few people have. This bothers David quite a lot.

David: There are fossils, widely celebrated fossils of all kinds of firsts on planet earth. You know, the first flight, the first bird, the first dinosaurs, the first multicellular creatures, the first singer, the first creature that made communicative sound. That seems to me as something we ought to celebrate, we ought to know about. And it took me months of digging through the scientific literature to even piece together who was the first singer on earth. I mean, one of the things that makes us human makes us who we are is the fact that we have sophisticated forms of speech. So for the species that communicates orally through making little vibrations, and there we are curiously untuned, To the richness of sound in the world around us We have this incredible opportunity for joy and for, for celebration and we're not doing it.

Michael: In the case of Permostridulus, what deserves to be celebrated is a critical step in biological evolution–the big change that allowed for song and for a chorus.

David:  Complex animals evolved structures that could allow them to escape from predators. And this was, I think the really key moment, because it turns out for hundreds of millions of years, even complicated animals, as far as we know, we're not making communicative sounds  and that's probably because it was so dangerous to make a sound. If you made a sound. You got gobbled up. Cause there were lots of predators. And I think it's no accident that the first known singers on the planet are, uh, creatures like the kind of crickets that can jump and fly away from attacking predators, frogs that can leap away birds, fast, moving animals. You go out to the swamp, all the frogs are singing, but the salamanders are completely silent.

Why is that? Salamanders don't have the ability to escape from predators, whereas frogs do. In general, even today, you can listen to the slow moving creatures of the world, the snails and the salamanders, and you won't hear much sound. Song comes from those that can get away or can fight back vigorously.

Michael: We don't know what Permostridulus was saying when it dared to speak up 300 million years ago. But, we do know that not many other animals joined the chorus at first. And then, about a hundred and fifty million years ago, there was a rather sudden explosion of sound. In the oceans, one of the factors was the way creaturs were having sex.

David: It seems that there was a trend for species to mate with one another, not by casting the eggs and sperm into the water, the way many ocean species do, but by actually crawling on top of each other and meeting, having sex. And crabs and lobsters, lots of other creatures, do this and some fish do this.

Now that seems like a, I mean, it's interesting, but what possible effect does that have on species diversity or the diversity of sound? Well, it turns out when species mate in that way that gene pools get a lot more localized. If you're only exchanging genes with the creatures that you can physically mate with, by finding their bodies and climbing on top of one another, that's a very isolated and small gene pool, which leads to a lot of speciation.

On land, one of the key triggers seems to have been the evolution of flowering plants. And what flowering plants did was provide a lot of food in the form of nectar and fruit, but also lush leaf growth to feed insects. Flowering plants also produced a huge amount of species diversity. So that encouraged the insects themselves to diversify into multiple, multiple different species.

All of that seems to have triggered a great expansion of species diversity and species diversity of sound-making creatures.

Michael: And those creatures evolved their sounds. They did this to avoid predators, attract more potential mates, and to make sure that they could be heard within the distinctive environments in which they live. David tells a story about hiking in the Rocky Mountains in the spring and listening to the song of the red crossbill, a bird that has seemingly learned how to compete with the loudest of natural noises.  

David: It was a beautifully quiet day. The kind of quiet you only get when there's a lot of snow, not much wind, just gorgeous to stand up. Then this is about 10,000 feet of elevation. It's a very thin dry air. And, the bird was singing this sweet warbled song up and down, up and down.

And then a big rush of wind pushed into the valley and it made every single tree in the valley roar. But, the bird kept singing. And what was amazing was the frequency of the bird song was higher than all of the raw of the wind. So there was all this very, uh, I sort of felt it as a very dark, rumbly kind of energy, low frequency energy coming from the trees and the bird was just skipping over them.

When you listen to elk doing their bugling in the Rocky mountains, they do the same thing. Even though they are huge, huge animals, they have very high pitched calls. And those calls soar above the sound of wind in the trees. And this is one example of how the sounds of animals fit with their environment.

Michael: There are many other examples. But where all this gets really fascinating is when we consider that most perplexing animal: the human. Because, just like crossbills and elk, we too have tailored our sounds to our environments. That's coming up after the break.


Michael: Several months ago, before biologist David Haskell had published his latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken, he invited Outside contributing editor Paul Kvinta and his wife to his home for dinner.

Paul: So we had a meal. It was great. He served us salmon. His girlfriend's there. And, we were having a delightful time. And, we're about to segue into dessert and then David just says out of the blue, “So do you guys want to see my mammoth flute?” 

We’re like, “what?”

 And he sort of disappears into the bedroom and comes back out with \a little flute. It was about 10 inches long, slightly curved. And carved from the tusk of a mammoth. And he proceeded to say that the earliest instruments made by human beings, that we have evidence of, are these mammoth flutes that were found in these caves in Southern Germany. And they're 40,000 years old. And he says, “you know, this is a recreation of the first musical instrument that people ever made.” 

And we're like, “wow.” And, “can I hold it?”

And so he lets me hold it. And then I asked him to play it and he tried and he couldn't produce hardly, it was just this, this breathy noise, you know?

David: Now nobody is going to be particularly impressed by that. No second date for that. A flute player. This is not the great moment of revelation when suddenly a beautiful music emerges. It's like, wow, this is pretty darn hard to play.

Michael: Fortunately for the future of human music, the earliest flute players were living in the ice ages, taking refuge inside caves in Europe during frigidly cold winters. There wasn't much to do other than practice your mammoth flute. And eventually, we got pretty good at it.

MIKE VO: That's modern professional musician Anna Potengowski on the mammoth flute.

So, David himself traveled to one well-known cave in Germany called Hohle Fels, where he was struck by the dramatic soundscape. And, what became viscerally clear to him while he was there was that humans, just like birds and other animals, developed our songs in direct relationship to our environments. And that continues today, even as we listen to so much music through headphones and earbuds.

David: So the cavern has this long, tunnel-like entrance. And then you emerge at the end of the tunnel into this enormous cavern  inside the mountainside. And the cavern is about the size, I'd say sort of a large church, very big space. And the minute you walk in there, the sound changes because every water drop falling from the ceiling echoes and resonates in the chamber.

And you say one little word, and the word seems to magnify because it bounces off of the walls. It expands within the space and it lingers. I made some sound recordings when I just snapped my fingers. 

And the sound of the finger snap lingered for a second or two. Outside the same finger snap disappears in a fraction of a second. So this is a space that is acoustically, very, very rich, very resonant. And what's interesting is that the musical instruments that were crafted in that space are a great match for it. If you play a flute in that kind of resonant space, it sounds gorgeous. And so right from the Dawn of instrumental music, there was a tight association between the music, the form of the music and musical instrument and the space in which it was played. 

That continued. And it continues even to the modern day 19th century concert halls. When they were made the musical instruments on the stage had to change in order to fill up that space. The tension and piano wise now is 10 times what it used to be. So the pianos can be way, way louder in the 19th, 20th century, compared to earlier centuries.

In the 1970s. Most popular music was played from a stage. If you listen to recordings from back then, it sounds like you're sitting in the audience, the band’s up on stage, you're hearing some reverberations in the console today, we're listening with earbuds and we want intimate kind of sounding sounds. A lot of whispers, a lot of voices really close to the microphone, kind of whispering and yeah, as they sing. That's completely different from how people saying a century ago, even 50 years ago, a century to three centuries ago where you had to project your voice to fill up an opera house. So when I'm hearing these, these differences between say the reverberant of an opera house, or the kind of sound that you get listening on the laptop, or with your earbuds, my imagination goes back to the ancient caves where the first musical instruments were invented and there was this tight association between space and instruments themselves.

Michael: David points out that there is also a tight association between music and the natural world, even if we try our best to pretend there isn't. In his book, he cites the refined setting of a concert hall. When we head inside for the symphony, we enter a space completely cutoff from outside sounds. We are surrounded by upholstery and polished metal and lacquered wood panels. And yet, when the music starts, what do we hear? Plants and animals.

Michael: In this nineteenth-century violin, we feel the qualities of trees that pre-date the age of oil and gasoline.

An orchestra comprises dozens of plant species, animal body parts, and metal ores. So music really does link us to the ecology of our planet.

But of course, not all the sounds humans create are pleasant. And in the same way that we pay so little attention to wild sounds, we ignore the destructive power of all the racket we're making. The result, says David, is that we are destroying soundscapes at a devastating scale. In our cities, in our forests, and most acutely, in our oceans.

David: If you look out at the sea, the surface of the sea, you don't hear a lot of sound coming up from the sea. You hear stuff on the surface waves and waves beating on the shore. But, the ocean is full of sound. Until recently it was full of the sounds of millions upon millions of whales talking, singing, chattering to one another.

David: Fish, billions and billions of fish communicating. For example, Cod in the breeding season produce all kinds of cool rumbly croaky sounds under the water, unheard by humans and yet vital for, for them to find one another. And then arthropods, particularly shrimp and some of their relatives making lots of songs.

So the ocean has for at least a hundred million years been full of animal communicative sound, full and full of song. The ocean soundscape takes a big hit when commercial whaling comes along and also when industrial fishing happens. So, by directly removing those creatures from the ocean, that's one way in which the ocean voices and ocean vocal diversity is diminished.

The other thing though, is noise pollution. So for the species that are left, they live in a tumult of noise. Some of that noise is from boats and the noise is most severe around shipping lanes of which, which are becoming more and more busy every year because we're, we're a maritime species. Look around in most people's houses. Most stuff arrived on this continent by boat.. 

Because of how sound spreads in water, those sounds, unlike say a truck on an interstate, which is pretty loud when you're right next to the interstate but you got a few miles away and you can't hear it, in the ocean that that sound can travel miles and miles. And, if it gets down to the deeper levels of the ocean can travel for hundreds of miles, almost completely unimpeded.

So noise pollution spreads much, much further and indeed much faster in the ocean than it does on land. So shipping noise is part of this. Sonar particularly very, very loud Sonar that navies put out when they're doing war games can utterly destroy the hearing and in fact, kill some marine animals. A huge one, though, is seismic exploration for oil. So the way we find oil under the ocean is by putting ships out on the sea that go back and forth like a lawn mower, covering huge areas of the ocean and dragging behind these ships are rays of little air guns that may bang sounds like pop pop again and again, every few seconds over months and months. A side effect of that is that those sounds are so loud that you can hear them all the way across ocean basins. And those creatures that can swim out of that way, like whales, just completely evacuate that area of the ocean. That's a no go zone. Other creatures like krill are just killed.

It is possible to put a hydrophone up in the north Atlantic. And here seismic surveys happening down off the coast of south America, up near the Arctic, off the coast of Africa from all around. They’re so loud that the sound is, is detectable on a planetary scale.

Michael: David has called today's oceans an "acoustic hell." As he put it, to get a sense of what seismic explorations feels like to a whale or dolphin, imagine a jackhammer in your living room. But, it's even worse than that.

David: A particularly important thing to understand about ocean dwelling creatures is that sound is very different for them. We experienced sound, some in our bodies, but largely through our ears. In the ocean sound flows directly unimpeded from the liquid medium around the water, into the body, which is also mostly water.

And so our skin has a pretty good reflective light. We don't get most sounds coming into say our kidneys and leg muscles for ocean living, aquatic creatures sound flows into that bodies and permeates them. And so being in hostile health sounds is to be completely immersed from the inside out in this sonic violence, which is one reason why at very, very high amplitudes actually the sound can bust up different cells in the body.

Michael: That's an unsettling image, and a very depressing picture of life under the ocean. But there's a reason to be hopeful about the future: unlike many of the other destructive forces we inflict on the planet, sound doesn't last.

David: One of the good things about sound pollution is, if we change our behavior, immediately the sound goes away and we've rectified the situation. 

That is different from climate change, right? So when we've been pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, if we stop, we're still locked in for climate change because the CO2 is going to linger in the atmosphere, same thing with chemical pollution. So I do think there's a, there's a, a story of, of hope and potential there. But that hope is something, hope is a verb. We have to make it happen.

Michael: So how do we make it happen? The answer starts with that story I told you earlier, about that cricket in the alleyway. We need to remember how to listen.

David: If you hear a fire truck or some big explosion outside, of course you're going to pay attention.

But by consciously trying to tune into the sounds of non-human species, the sounds of birds and insects and frogs, my mind has maybe a little more material to work with, a little more context. And then, that somehow weaves its way down into the level of unconscious paying attention. And that's one of the things I hope to offer is the idea of paying attention. What will enrich life and will reveal all kinds of other layers of meaning. But sonic diversity matters not just because it is grand and glorious and joyful, but also because sound is a creative force. When creatures can connect one to another through sound, new things emerge.

And what I hope is that the book serves as an invitation to people to open their ears to the marvels, but also the brokenness of sound in the every day. And that will guide us towards what actions need to happen in our own community, in our own lives. 

And then collectively we need to increase awareness and then to act. But action that is without listening, action that is not rooted in the sensory richness of the world, I think is action that will potentially be misplaced and so listening is a way of grounding ourselves in the reality of the world beyond fake news, beyond manipulations. When we listen with connecting into the actual nature of the world.

Michael: David Haskell's new book is Sounds: Wild and Broken. You can learn more about it on his website, dghaskell.com.

You can read Paul Kvinta's feature profile of David along with his new story about Sounds: Wild and Broken on Outside Online.

This episode was written and produced by me, Michael Roberts. Paul Kvinta interviewed David Haskell. Many of the sounds you heard were provided by David; others came from Epidemic Sound. Our music is by Robbie Carver.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. One of the many benefits of membership is access to Outside Learn, our new online education hub loaded with instructional courses guided by best-in-class-experts like climber-filmmaker Jimmy Chin and alpinist Conrad Anker. If you're not already a member, now is a great time to join: we're offering a 25% discount to new members. Go to outsideonline.com/podplus and enter the code pod25 at checkout.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.