Biophony

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9 minutes of reading

O for that warning voice, which he who saw 

Th’ Apocalypse, heard cry in Heav’n

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

After the world has ended

After the silent spring

Into the waiting silence another song begins

—Neil Gaiman, “After the Silence”

The environmental movement, it might be said, was born in silence. In Silent Spring
(1962), Rachel Carson issued a dire warning about the silencing of nature through indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides that laid waste to birds and insects. Carson’s ominous title was inspired by the closing lines of John Keats’s ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: “the sedge is wither’d from the lake/And no birds sing.” In the book’s opening fable, Carson depicts a small bucolic town turned eerily quiet. In the farm fields and countryside, “there was a strange stillness,” Carson writes. “The birds, for example—where had they gone?” Trees and flowers bloomed, showy as ever, but no bees were there to greet them. The strange “shadow of death” crept into the houses as well. “In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients.”[1]

As a longtime admirer of Rachel Carson, and someone habitually attuned to environmental apocalypse, I suppose I have been conditioned to associate disaster with nature’s silencing. But when spring came to the Northern hemisphere this year, something unexpected happened. A virus, whose origins almost certainly lie in human disruption of the natural world, drove people indoors for weeks on end. Air travel dwindled to a trickle, and cars disappeared from the streets. University campuses emptied out, just as trees and flowers were exploding with color. The birds, meanwhile, grew bold and raucous. Spring rains and thunderstorms—had they always been so deafening? Nature, it seemed, had succeeded in silencing us. Or rather, humans, through repeated rending of nature’s fabric, and reckless trafficking of wildlife, had brought nature roaring back. “We made the Coronavirus,” nature writer David Quammen warned in a New York Times op-ed that appeared in late January, well before most Americans took any note of the threat.[2] We shook the virus loose from the tree of life, enabling it to leap from bats to pangolins to us in a process scientists call zoonosis. Now we were the hosts. “The people,” as Carson says, “had done it themselves.”[3]

As the human world slowed to a crawl, good news stories began popping up all over social media. (In 2020, it feels wrong to invoke “viral” or “wildfire” metaphors to describe the uncontainable spread of anything, but suffice it to say, the stories were widely shared.) With humans on lockdown, rivers were running clear, and the birds and fish were returning. Herds of animals were reclaiming city streets. With the sudden retreat of air and light pollution, the Milky Way glowed once more in urban night skies and seldom-seen mountaintops were visible in daylight hours. Modest climate goals seemed achievable. A few of these stories, it turns out, were no more than wishful thinking, fake news. But their propagation expresses a genuine longing to believe our damage is not irreparable, that nature retains power over us.

In my particular corner of the academic universe there has emerged a chorus of well-meaning criticism directed at anyone who would proclaim an “environmental” silver lining to the pandemic.[4] As advocates of environmental justice have long warned, solutions to the crisis must address the underlying disparities of wealth and opportunity that enable environmental harms, like climate impacts, to fall disproportionately on poor and marginalized people. In the same way, COVID-19 both exposes and exacerbates the appalling inequities that put vulnerable populations directly in the crosshairs of the virus. While the well-to-do can escape the crowded, COVID-ravaged cities, immersing themselves in therapeutic nature walks and sourdough starters, the less fortunate are left to play the odds in the ventilator lottery.

Seen in this light, widely shared images of nature’s apparent revival and their suggestion of human obsolescence or banishment are not so much “pastoral” as “post-apocalyptic,” writes New York Times critic Amanda Hess. Environmental scholars have a term for this apocalyptic mood: “disanthropy”—the fantasy of a world without humans. To celebrate images of nature rebounding in the virus’s wake is to applaud a crass, Malthusian vision, an ecofascist agenda that values environmental gains above particular human lives. Some humans, critics rightly remind us, are daily put at risk in meatpacking facilities, grocery store check-outs, and Amazon warehouses, while the rest of us sit back and enjoy the view—and await our deliveries. At the same time, the illusion that a brief period of (mostly couch-potato-style) sacrifice on our part will heal and restore nature is just another way of recentering humans as heroes of the story. “With a few weeks’ supply of shelf-stable foods and unhinged Netflix docuseries,” Hess mockingly observes, “we can save the planet.”[5] Only when viewed through the lenses of privilege—rose-tinted with the stubborn traces of human exceptionalism—does the pandemic show its silver lining.


The expression “silver lining” comes down to us from John Milton’s Comus, a masque written in praise of chastity in 1634. A scene unfolds in a “wilde Wood” where a lady is traveling with her two brothers. The men go foraging for food and do not return. Terrified, the lady beseeches God to save her, and calls on “Faith” and “Hope” to comfort her. A silver glint in the night sky appears as an auspicious sign. “Was I deceived,” she asks, “or did a sable cloud/Turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

Around a decade before Milton coined this phrase, London suffered an outbreak of the plague that killed a sixth of the city’s population. When the plague reached Cambridge, sixty miles away, where Milton was a first-year student, the university closed down and Milton fled. Scholars speculate that this event inspired in Milton a lifelong preoccupation with apocalypse. He would endure many other crises, and additional run-ins with plague. Yet, despite a bold and unconventional life, Milton remains saddled with a bland, goody-two-shoes reputation. Never mind that Milton was a “sensuous Puritan” who defended divorce and polygamy, Jonathan Rosen writes in The New Yorker. “Never mind that he survived imprisonment, the threat of execution and assassination, the plague and the Great Fire of London,” among other personal and political upheavals (he coined the word pandemonium, after all). Even “blind and disillusioned,” Rosen notes, he managed to dictate “the greatest long poem in the English language.”[6] Wordsworth, in an homage to Milton, praises the “cheerful godliness” with which his predecessor moved through the world. Milton, we might surmise, was attuned not just to apocalypse but silver linings as well.

Belief in silver linings and a penchant for end-times prophecy might seem like contradictory impulses. This is likely because the former has come to suggest a Pollyannaish disposition (though Milton, we should note, never suggested that every cloud has a silver lining), while the latter betokens gloom-and-doom fatalism. But as theologians Catherine Keller and John J. Thatamanil have recently pointed out, the word apocalypse, in its ancient connotations, suggests not a violent cataclysm but an unveiling or revelation. Apocalyptic prophecy is not a prediction but the revealing of “underlying patterns,” a “dream-reading” of human systems and values, and their deep meanings and often deeper contradictions.[7] It was this sort of prophecy that Rachel Carson undertook in Silent Spring, in exposing ever-worsening patterns of human destruction that imperil nature’s own ancient and underlying order. With Keller and Thatamanil, we might ask: What is the pandemic unveiling to us? What had we been unable to see? Patterns of profound inequality and injustice. Our inescapable entanglement with the broader spectrum of life. Our own complicity. If we attend to these unveilings, they argue, the pandemic “will have served as properly apocalyptic.”[8]

Silver linings and apocalypse both engage us, then, in a process of discernment, of dream-reading the signs, systems, and patterns. Happily, I would argue, the virus has unveiled not just human flaws and system failures, but also existing patterns of beauty and animacy in the non-human world. For many of us, these went largely unseen—and especially unheard—in the pre-COVID world.  Birdwatching agencies around the world report record numbers of inquiries from people wondering whether the avian world has grown louder and livelier this year. In reality, ornithologists explain, birds are probably singing more softly than usual at the moment, for they are not forced to compete with the fossil-fueled din of humans. In the absence of human-produced noise—what ecologists call “anthropophony”—we are simply attending more closely to the birds.

Birds have long been regarded as omens and messengers. Their proximity to the sky makes them ready symbols of freedom and hope. The biblical dove signifies purity and peace, and the spirit of God is said to descend like a dove. Dark-hued birds and birds of prey are often satanic stand-ins in literature, as with Milton’s cormorant who perches atop the Tree of Life, eyeing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “In the voices of birds we hear augury, portent, prophesy,” biologist and nature writer David Haskell observes. Humans, as distant evolutionary relatives of birds, equipped with our distinctive mammalian auditory apparatus, often struggle to understand bird language. The gulf between our species and theirs can be bridged by “the gift of our attention,” Haskell writes.[9] He urges us to undertake listening as a kind of spiritual exercise. We might come to appreciate that “every species has a sonic signature, and individuals within species have their own unique voices. In this diversity of acoustic expression are embedded many meanings.” Bird songs are not the “dead clanking” or “utilitarian grunts” of Cartesian machines genetically programmed to find food and mates.[10] Birds are complex, perceptive, improvisational. The pandemic is an opportunity to cultivate the gift of attending to them in the midst of grief, fear, and isolation.


In spring 2020, when the virus shut down my college campus, abruptly sending courses online and students scurrying home, I was teaching a class on the topic of extinction. Like many courses I teach on environmental issues, the material seemed sadly apposite in light of current events. For me, one of the most compelling topics on a course syllabus suffused with dark portent was the work of Bernie Krause. Krause is an ecologist and one-time studio musician who has spent decades recording natural soundscapes (his film credits include the iconic helicopter sound effects featured in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now). Apocalypse stalks him, and he it: Krause estimates that more than half of the natural soundscapes he has recorded have now fallen silent, as habitat destruction and a warming climate have wreaked havoc on birds, insects, and amphibians. For those trained to listen to soundscapes, climate change and its reshuffling of biotic systems can be heard in nature’s shifting orchestral patterns: some species are audibly abundant where they shouldn’t be; other voices are arriving earlier or later than usual, and some are missing from the symphony altogether.

Rehearsing the details of soundscape extinction with my students might have been a dispiriting exercise, in a course on an alarming subject, in the midst of a rampaging virus. But the conversation took an oddly uplifting turn. My students, most of whom were now joining class discussion via Zoom technology from far-flung parts of the U.S.—Texas, New York, Chicago, Minnesota—had their own stories to tell about the sudden liveliness of the particular landscapes and soundscapes they call home. The calming of human activity had foregrounded the sounds of nonhuman life—what ecologists call “biophony”—in ways that were now apparent to all of us.

We compared notes about what we were seeing and hearing, or learning to hear again, in the outside world. In the general slowing of life’s pace, some students reported a growing attunement to a full spectrum of sounds, indoor and outdoor, human and non-human—an awakening of their animal senses to the creaking of stairs or the hum of a refrigerator. Isolated at home for long hours with parents and siblings, they were re-learning how to distinguish the footfalls of different family members. “When I was a kid, staying up late,” one student told us, “I had to learn to tell my sister’s footsteps from my mom’s, so I wouldn’t get in trouble.” I relayed to them the discovery I recently made, while conducting my entire life from a tiny home office at the top of the stairs, that my teenage son whistles absentmindedly throughout the day, a trait he shares with his father.

Cultural ecologist David Abram reminds us that humans possess deeply engrained, if largely forgotten, animal senses. Those who work to preserve what remains of the natural world, he writes, “must work as well for a return to our senses, and for a renewed respect for sensorial modes of knowing.”[11] The pandemic has made this work a little easier, through the gift of cross-species listening and watching. In the wake of the unasked-for silencing of the human world, and in nature’s unexpected sights and sounds, we can read signs not just of warning, but of comfort and hope. Humans, like birds, are not programmed machines, but creatures capable of nuance, complexity, responsiveness. We can dwell in states of ambiguity and contradiction, or what Keats famously called negative capability. And so it’s possible, I think, for us to embrace nature’s hopeful signs without assenting to a crude utilitarian calculus that treats the suffering of some humans as an acceptable price to pay for environmental perks and privileges. We might also counter our egotistical need to position ourselves as nature’s savior by focusing less on our own disrupted routines and their consequences, and more on the ever-present vital agency of beings all around us. The pandemic has simply revealed what was already there beneath the ceaseless anthropophony: our fellow creatures striving to produce meaning and beauty in their own fragile worlds. The revelation is its own silver lining.

Acknowledgement

This essay first appeared in Eremos Magazine 149 (August 2020),
https://www.eremos.org.au/current-issue

Image credits:

Let there be light. Image courtesy of Linh H. Nguyen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


[1] R.L. Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 2.

[2] D. Quammen, “We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic,” New York Times, January 28, 2020.

[3] Carson, Silent Spring, 3.

[4] See for example, Amanda J. Baugh, “Environmental Gains Are Not a Silver Lining of Covid-19,” April 15, 2020, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/environmental-gains-are-not-a-silver-lining-of-covid-19.

[5] A. Hess, “The Rise of the Coronavirus Nature Genre,” New York Times, April 17, 2020.

[6] J. Rosen, “Return to Paradise,” The New Yorker Magazine, May 26, 2008.

[7] C. Keller and J.J. Thatanamil, “Is This an Apocalypse? We Certainly Hope So—You Should Too,” ABC Religion and Ethics, April 15, 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/catherine-keller-and-john-thatamanil-why-we-hope-this-is-an-apo/12151922.

[8] Ibid.

[9] D.G. Haskell, “The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging,” Emergence Magazinehttps://emergencemagazine.org/story/the-voices-of-birds-and-the-language-of-belonging/, accessed September 18, 2020.

[10] Ibid.

[11] D. Abram, “Waking Our Animal Senses,” Wild Earth 7, no. 1 (1997): 8.

  • Lisa H. Sideris

    Lisa H. Sideris is a Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University with research interests in the intersection of science, religion, and environmental ethics. Her most recent book is Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

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