Andrew Skeoch - A Life Worth Listening To

It was a gorgeous morning, with a clear sky and the bush revived by recent rains. We'd walk and stop. And when we stopped, we'd listen. Honeyeaters flitted among the canopy, giving little contact calls, while weebills, robins and pardalotes sung in the sunshine. 

Listening is so engaging, especially when outdoors in nature. During those pauses in our morning walk, we were listening for what was going on. We were identifying species, and associating their calls with behaviours. We were hearing the stories of what was happening around us in the bush. 

It seems very obvious to me now but there was a time when all this was new to me. Over twenty years ago, in the darkness before dawn, I climbed a small ridge in the Australian outback. With me I carried a borrowed pair of microphones and a digital audio recorder. 

Despite a childhood fascination with all things natural, I'd never tried recording birdsong. I was learning about the technology, the fieldcraft of where and when and how to record. Even as I climbed that rocky ridge in the dark, I was both learning to record nature, and also how to listen. 

After setting up the gear, I waited as a pink flush suffused the eastern horizon. I could discern far off birdsong: corellas in the river gums and a distant thrush. Then from a nearby mulga came a single, haunting birdsong; a series of piping notes slowly descending in pitch. Every ten seconds or so the bird repeated its plaintive song, and presently another of its kind joined in, followed by others further off. The combined effect of their singing was as eerily wonderful as it was unexpected. I felt in that moment, that their songs were an integral part of the place, as though I was hearing the land giving voice to itself. 

[Scroll down and PLAY Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters file] 

By the time the light grew, my mystery songsters had stopped and fluttered away unseen. I had no idea what species I'd just heard. I was puzzled for some time, but eventually found I had recorded the pre-dawn song of Spiney-cheeked Honeyeaters. It is a unique vocalisation, only given in the dark, and quite unlike their whiney, bubbling daytime sounds I was familiar with. 

Hearing those spineys not only awakened me to the aesthetic beauty of the natural soundscape, it inspired a desire to share what I was hearing. Together with my partner Sarah, we decided to set up an independent label to publish nature soundscape recordings. It was the beginning of a career that has seen us travel first Australia and increasingly the world, visiting many extraordinary wild places from tundra to the tropics, and making available over eighty soundscape albums. 

Over the time, I have thought much about listening to nature, and what we can learn by doing so. Many people acknowledge that in our modern, urban lives, we develop a kind of deafness from filtering out the junk sound that is so prevalent. For myself, even though I thought I was quite tuned in to nature, it came as a deep surprise to listen attentively for the first time. 

That morning in the desert, I responded with both feeling for the aesthetic beauty of the birdsong, and curiosity as to what I was hearing - so both mind and emotions. I think it is important to bring our complete self to listening as we begin reawakening our ears to nature.

I've come to understand that there are multiple layers of information to be heard in the natural soundscape. To illustrate this, here is a recording of birdsong from where Sarah, my wife, and I now live in the box/ironbark woodlands of central Victoria. 

[PLAY the Box-Ironbark sound file] 

I suggest that we can listen to a soundscape such as this in 'four dimensions'. 

Firstly, we're hearing sentience ... the voices of other living creatures. Even without natural history knowledge, we can respond with empathy at simply hearing life around us and feel aesthetic beauty or personal connection.

But of course it's very normal to then ask "what species am I hearing?" Identifying birds and animals by their unique voice is an essential skill for any naturalist. With a little experience, those calls can be correlated to behaviours, and one can recognise not only who is calling, but what activity or interaction is occurring.

Thirdly comes an understanding that we're listening to more than just a collection of species. We are actually hearing a whole ecosystem, and there are layers of information that can be assessed. Each habitat has a sonic signature which changes with the acoustic conditions, and as creatures vocalise at different times of day or season. When these phenomena are evaluated, sound can give us a measure of population abundances, dynamics, and the health of an ecosystem.

The fourth dimension I find particularly fascinating. In a natural soundscape, we are hearing time. Each of the voices of nature has evolved over vast periods of earth history, and what we hear today is the result of a long sonic development.

Life's use of vibration to communicate is likely have begun over half a billion years ago, with the first multicellular animals in the world's primitive oceans. Once on land, creatures eventually conquered the airwaves, gaining the ability to broadcast sound through the atmosphere. Insects and early amphibians were probably the first, evolving into what we hear when crickets chirrup on warm evenings, or frogs chorus after rain. Dinosaur calls may have been ancestral to birdsong, while the mammal lineage has lead to the vocalisations of primates, and eventually to our own complex human uses of sound, through music and speech. 

It is a intriguing story, although much of it speculative, as sound is ephemeral and leaves only suggestive fossil evidence of its occurrence. We can only guess at the living soundcapes our planet has witnessed in past ages. 

Meanwhile, we are changing that natural soundscape at the very moment we are beginning to study and appreciate its richness. We know the extent to which habitat destruction and climate change are altering our biosphere, and sound confirms that picture. 

However the ways that sound may indicate change are turning out to be very complex, and not necessarily what we would expect. Habitat disturbance may actually lead to more biological sound, not less. For instance, it is often noisy species such as lorikeets, honeyeaters, kookaburras and ravens that find new opportunities in the altered habitats of our suburbs. 

I've noticed that, rather than the amount of sound in nature decreasing, it is the more delicate and subtle expressions that we're losing. Rather than getting quieter, nature is becoming less nuanced. Sonic nuance is a form of refinement, a result of biodiversity and habitat stability. The loss of these gentler voices of the natural world I believe should be the focus of our concern, as they represent the greatest tragedy. Here is a voice that we may lose in coming decades:

[Scroll down and PLAY Regent Honeyeater sound file] 

This delicate song is from a regent honeyeater, a species once common but now reduced to a few hundred in the wild, and despite captive breeding releases, still declining. Their population may yet recover through efforts at habitat restoration and population monitoring, and it would be an inspiring achievement to again hear their lovely voices throughout our bushlands.

It is not only the sound of individual species that we stand to loose, but whole soundscapes. The Tarkine region of western Tasmania is recognised as the largest expanse of temperate rainforest in the southern hemisphere. These forests are ancient - they once covered the whole of Australia, and date as far back as the time of the dinosaurs. Yet they now face an uncertain future.

The Tarkine is a place which every Australian should regard as precious. Like the Great Barrier Reef or Uluru, it has recognised world heritage values. Yet for many it remains remote and unfamiliar. An audio recording however can bring it alive. This is the sound of the Tarkine …

[Scroll down and PLAY the Tarkine Dawn sound file] 

The delicate songs of robins and fairy-wrens, and the exhilarating cries of the currawong, allow us to enter into the life of this special place. They also give us a measure of what we stand to loose, and how necessary it is that we commit to a sustainable future.

Sound is crucial to the functioning of the natural world, no doubt in ways we have yet to discover. The study of bioacoustics, and the emerging field of ecoacoustics, will both offer perspectives as we transition from 'saving' nature, to the work of actually restoring natural systems and landscapes. 

We're also finding that healthy soundscapes are important for our wellbeing too. Opening our ears to nature may inform how we choose to shape our urban sonic environments. Listening has been described as the universal sense, and there is good reason to believe that if we can get our soundworld right, the rest will follow naturally. 

Wildiaries • March 2016