Listening and loss

Recently, on a run in the fields around the village where I live, I realised that I could not hear a skylark. At one level, this is not surprising, because the agricultural landscapes of Cambridgeshire are as species-poor as any ecosystem short of a car park. But this was a place where I had heard skylarks last year, and the year before. A farm access track through wheat had created a kind of accidental skylark plot, giving the kind of open weedy ground cover that scientists have shown that skylarks like, providing a slim toehold in the sea of pesticide-perfected arable crops.

My first thought brought a familiar lurch of anxiety – were there perhaps no skylarks this year? Was my rather barren corner of England not to be enlivened by the lark’s heart-stopping seesaw song, rising above the agricultural prairie below? It seemed all too possible. Skylarks have been declining in the UK since the 1970s, and no amount of agri-environment spending or skylark plot design has made much difference. Skylarks are simply disappearing from our skies and fields.

But a second thought followed, almost equally unwelcome. Was the problem with me and not the landscape? Were there in fact skylarks singing away, but I simply couldn’t hear them? This was, unfortunately, also quite likely. In recent years my hearing has deteriorated. I have struggled to hear quietly spoken students in lecture halls, and indistinct colleagues in meetings. More depressingly, I have stopped being able to hear birdsong.

For me, hearing loss was a gradual process, an imperceptibly slow change that involved a narrowing and a thinning of soundscapes. My mind did not register the change, and my brain adapted. I got good at listening, I got quite good at lip-reading, and found myself choosing to sit so that peoples’ faces were not shadowed. I did a lot of guessing what people said from context (not always successfully I have to say). And I no longer heard many of nature’s sounds: the subtle chuckle of stream water, the thick whisper of wind in poplars, bumblebees on the rosemary.

With birds, it was hopeless. Vaughan Williams did his best with the violin in The Lark Ascending, but the reality is more varied, more exhilarating, and to me almost completely inaudible. I found myself scanning the sky for singing birds so that I could cup my hands behind my ears and maybe hear a faint wisp of song: a mug’s game. In Nature Cure, Richard Mabey describes movingly the sense of loss he experienced when he could no longer hear birdsong. I felt some measure of the same loss, a small extra sad erosion of my sense of nature.

Last year I bit the bullet and was fitted with hearing aids, courtesy of the National Health Service. They were brilliant.  Indeed my hearing was at first too brilliant, and I was deafened by the running washing up water, disturbed at hearing conversations across coffee shops and on trains. I also discovered that meetings are not necessarily more interesting when you can hear everything.

I thought I would be self-conscious about having hearing aids, and surprised myself that I wasn’t. They were an unwelcome indicator of senescence, but they felt like just one more age-defying prosthetic. I like to think of them as enabling devices that offer new powers – like a wetsuit, binoculars or a bicycle.

The big win of having hearing aids has undoubtedly been that I can hear birdsong again. Back garden songbirds have been a deafening delight this spring, and I have started once more to hear birds before I see them. But last summer it was undoubtedly the endless improvisation of the skylarks that gave me the most delight.

Losing and regaining hearing has made me more sensitive to the sound worlds people live in. I learned how impatient people can be at those who cannot hear, or hear badly. And I realized how many people choose to live in a world of curated noise. People walk the streets, talk to friends on the trains and run the bare footpaths between Cambridgeshire fields, with earphones plugged in place. Their phone, podcast or music streaming service is a constant companion. The continuous stimulation of ear and brain seems a necessary prop a sonic backcloth to life, a kind of aural comfort blanket. What drives this dependence on recorded and transmitted sound? A concern that without stimulation we will die of boredom? A fear that that incoming sound will be disturbing, or discordant? A refusal to have our sound world will be penetrated and spoiled by that of someone else? Do we have a fear of silence?

The natural world is never silent, any more than it is ever truly empty. Acoustic ecologists analyse the complex soundscapes that life creates. Clever algorithms tease apart different species from their sounds, calls or song, separating and identifying different species and sometimes individuals from the apparent chaos. The machines work perfectly happily beyond the human register, as anyone who has played with a bat box knows.

But acoustic ecologists also tell us that we live in a world that is gradually losing natural sounds as species are lost from familiar landscapes and populations shrink. Soundscapes are as vulnerable as smellscapes, and almost everywhere more transformed. Human made sounds overlie all others. Traffic, garden machinery, aeroplanes provide a roaring carpet of mechanised sound, against which we pour endless music into our ears in search of pleasure and meaning, not knowing and not caring what we listen to, happy to have the streaming algorithms curate and armour our sonic defences.

Every spring, I suffer what I have come to anticipate as a regular anxiety of the turning year. I sense a fear that the natural world will not kick-start itself again after the short cold days of winter, that bumble bees will not re-appear on the rosemary, that swallows will not turn up by the pond, that swifts will not burn their way through the skies above the streets.

There isn’t a word for this anxiety, although I think many people attuned to nature suffer from it. It reflects the stress of ‘living in a world of wounds’, which Aldo Leopold described. I think of it as a kind of ‘spring fear’ (perhaps something of it is captured by the delightful German word torschlusspanik, the fear of time running out). It is a consequence of knowing too much about the homogenisation of ecosystems and the destruction of natural diversity in the modern world.

My gradual loss of hearing has taught me something about the gradual loss of biodiversity that we are experiencing. Year by year, non-human life is thinned out, losing numbers and diversity, leaving only the familiar co-habitants, the tough and hyper-adaptable, the parasitic and the domesticated. These changes seem unstoppable, endless, a slow decline of a vibrant world into some shadowland of uniformity.

The opening paragraphs of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the world refashioned by organochlorine pesticides in terms of lost sounds. She wrote of ‘a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh’.

I usually don’t wear my hearing aids when I am running. So, there I was, on a field corner, with no skylarks to be heard, and two questions running round my head. Were skylarks really singing, and I simply could not hear them? Or were they missing, marking one more step in their long decline? Could my prosthetic ears conjure skylarks back into life, or were they gone? Was this spring perhaps to be the first of many such springs, or even the first of all future springs, without the skylark’s song?

Silence, and how we deal with it, are key challenges for conservation. In a world of wall to wall noise, we need to take time to listen. We must talk about what we can hear, and what we are missing. Otherwise we will remain oblivious to the growing silence around us. And we may miss the fact that no neat device exists to bring lost soundscapes back, except in sad recorded archives of a once rich natural world.

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