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Journal

Listening to the forest



When you think of a forest, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine a luscious landscape of greens and browns, dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves. But there’s more to the forest beyond its visual beauty. My favourite part of the forest is something that can so easily go unnoticed: the sounds.


In our busy lives, we often forget to stop and listen to our surroundings. Sound is a powerful sense that can connect us with nature in profound ways. In this post, I explore two different ways of listening to the forest: first from a scientific monitoring perspective and from a creative and mindful one. I’ll explain how listening to the forest can change the way we understand biodiversity and ecosystem health on a global scale, and a personal scale.


Acoustic ecology: The science of listening to the environment


Acoustic ecology is a field of study that explores how sound shapes the interactions between humans and their environment, and how different soundscapes reflect the ecological health and diversity of a landscape. The field was born in the late 1960s, thanks to the Canadian composer R Murray Shafer. He started the World Soundscape Project in 1971, which was a group of researchers and artists who recorded and analysed a huge amount of environmental sounds. They tried to understand the different aspects of soundscape ecology, such as how sounds affect our mood, behaviour and culture.


One of the most influential figures in the later development of acoustic ecology is Bernie Krause. He devised an interesting hypothesis relevant to understanding ecosystem health through sound; the acoustic niche hypothesis. It suggests species’ sonic behaviour evolved to avoid overlapping sounds with other species in an ecosystem, each one occupying its own acoustic space. This means that a richer and more diverse soundscape indicates a healthier and more diverse ecosystem. It also means that we can use soundscapes to measure the health of forests by placing microphones in different places at different times. The more biodiverse the forest is, the more complex and varied its soundscape will be.


Soundscapes reveal secrets of the forest


Soundscapes are not just beautiful and relaxing to listen to. They can also provide valuable information about the state of the forest ecosystem. By recording and analysing the sounds of the forest, we can learn about its health and diversity, as well as detect any threats or disturbances.


Of course, soundscapes don’t capture everything that lives in the forest. There are many non-acoustic organisms that we can’t hear. But we can’t measure everything either. With often limited time and funds we need to find indicators that can represent the ecosystem as a whole. Soundscapes can be very useful for that.


Field recordings of the forest have a broad scope of application. They can help us analyse the whole ecosystem, but also focus on the presence of specific species or forest activities. For example, if we want to detect certain birds, we can use AI to identify species by their song, like a Bird Shazam. Or, if we want to monitor illegal activities in the forest, such as logging or poaching, we can use soundscapes to detect them safely and discreetly.


Birds are especially good indicators of woodland health and biodiversity. They are very sensitive to their environment and any changes in their habitats. But we shouldn’t forget to listen to the whole soundscape as well. We shouldn’t separate the sound world into individual voices, because that’s not how animals experience it. They live in a complex and interconnected system, which is how we need to observe and measure it.


Another benefit of acoustic monitoring is that it lowers the barriers to global research. It allows anyone to participate in citizen science projects, through the recording and sharing of sounds from different places. This way, we can learn more about the soundscapes of the world and how they are changing.


The art of listening


There is so much more to soundscapes than just data analysis though. Alive and well is the creative and artistic side of things.


We so regularly forget to engage our senses in our increasingly technological world. We hear sounds all the time, but we don’t necessarily listen to them actively. Listening is a voluntary and active way of connecting with our environment. And listening to the sounds of the forest can be a great way to relax and enjoy nature, even when we can’t physically be there.


I like to practise field recording; the process of recording the sounds of your surroundings. It’s a very meditative and calming experience. When you use a recorder and headphones, you become immediately more aware and immersed in the sounds around you. You can hear things with a heightened attention that you normally wouldn’t notice. The need to be still and quiet when recording also helps you enter into a state of mindfulness, whilst making sure that you don’t disturb the soundscape.

Listening to the forest can have a lasting positive impact on your wellbeing. Many studies have found that listening to natural sounds can lower your blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels associated with stress. It can also boost your mood and make you feel happier and more optimistic. And can even improve your cognitive performance, such as your memory, attention and creativity.


So I encourage you to give yourself the gift of listening the next time you have the opportunity to be near some trees. It doesn’t have to be a big forest, even a small park or garden can have some wonderful sounds. Just put on your headphones, press record, and listen…


But if you simply cannot wait, here’s some listening to get you started:


Biorhythms w/ Cat, my radio show, features a selection of my gathered field recordings alongside ambient, nature-inspired music. I recommend this show to start you off, it begins with a dawn chorus recording made at Hooke Park, in Dorset.  


And if you’re interested in going underground with your listening, check out musician Cosmo Sheldrake’s track Soil. From bioelectrical activity in plants and fungi, to hydrophone recordings of plant roots – it’s a biodiverse feast to get your ears tuned in!


Happy listening!Cat


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