“This slowing of perception is a wonderful natural form of meditation.”
Have you ever felt a deep connection to a piece of nature? Whether you’re an ocean baby or a river bum, I’m sure you can recall the aesthetic of a place. That may be the main memory that’s triggered when reminiscing. If you play into the senses and think about why you're drawn to an environment, what it sounded like is a big part of that.
For me, the ripple of a soft river current leading to crashing water from a waterfall on rocks satisfies me much more than the ocean ever did. It links back to the depths of the rainforest in Malaysia I visited when growing up — it’s a signifier of my childhood.
Though I say sound, what I really mean is the language of nature. It’s more than a bird chirping or the rustle of leaves against the wind — it’s the timbre, pitch, rhythm, length and patterns of communication in the wild. Depending on the time of year, the weather of the moment or the multiple ‘voices’ present, environments have signature soundscapes.
“Listening to nature allows us to intimately sense the world around us…”
Andrew Skeoch is a nature sound recordist who’s published natural soundscape recordings for the last thirty years through his label Listening Earth. Some of his first recording trips were based in East Gippsland, where he observed a local language that is now recovering again after the sweeping bushfires.
Throughout his journey monitoring ecosystem sounds, from local environments to international waters, he shares the invaluable experience of observing the language of nature that can offer a richer relationship to the earth.
Can you share with us the benefits of listening to nature?
Listening to nature allows us to intimately sense the world around us, and deepen our personal connection to wild places.
Birdsong, insect choirs and the calls of frogs are among the languages of nature, and it takes a little patience to learn which species are calling, and what behaviours are entailed in that communication.
The bush tells stories in sound of who's around and what they're doing. Listening is a wonderful way of becoming a naturalist.
What is your perspective on how we can interact with ecosystems through language?
Communication enables ecosystems to function in a collaborative way. This can be heard in the contact calls of multi-species foraging flocks, shared predator defences, and the dawn chorus by which birds negotiate their home ranges and living space.
So listening allows us to hear that nature is an organised system in which the lives of creatures are supported through interdependence. Competitive behaviours are disadvantageous, with species minimising conflict through sophisticated diplomacy such as birdsong.
Creatures communicate for various reasons. Attracting mates is one, as is the kind of talking and bonding among family groups that magpies are known for.
What can we learn from nature soundscapes?
For me, it’s that competitiveness has huge costs, and that we could instead nurture co-operation, inclusion and interdependence is the big lesson we can learn from listening to nature.
What’s the best way to start listening to nature?
We can begin listening by being still, quiet, and taking in all the sounds around. Become aware of sounds that are soft, delicate or ephemeral.
Notice silence too.
You may have to slow down to really tune in to what's going on, as the pace of activity in nature is more gradual and organic. This slowing of perception is a wonderful natural form of meditation.
From this we can begin recognising sounds, identifying species and eventually associating particular sounds with behaviours. Gradually one builds an awareness of meaning, and the language of the bush comes alive.
What work have you done in East Gippsland?
Some of my first field recording trips were to Far East Gippsland. Our first album featured the tall forest country of the Rodger River Wilderness and Errinundra Plateau.
I've also done extensive recording around Mallacoota and the Mitchell River areas, in collaboration with Gippsland High Country Tours.
Sadly, these are the areas devastated by the mega fires. I'm aware that the recordings I made are of ecosystems that will only slowly recover, if at all, so to a degree, they document a lost soundscape.
Can you describe the experience of listening back to the sound recordings of East Gippsland after the fires?
Seeing it all go up in flames is heartbreaking — I’m very fond of the area. I know the place so well and sadly know the wealth of the ecosystem will never fully recover.
You’re listening to something that once was… in terms of language, it’s a dead language. It can’t be recreated from scratch once it’s been lost, only interpreted.
There is social value in people being able to hear what they remember a place sounding like — not only having emotional sentiment, but also these can guide efforts to revegetate and restore ecosystems.
What are your hopes for the region in its rehabilitation?
Ongoing acoustic monitoring of burned areas will give a measure of their recovery. Communities can play a role in this, not only by volunteering to deploy recorders in partnership with ecologists, but also by keeping their ears open and recording the species they hear reappearing.
"It can’t be recreated from scratch once it’s been lost, only interpreted."
Check out the work Andrew does at www.listeningearth.com, where you’ll find specific East Gippsland recordings.
Good news: bookings for Gippsland High Country Tours — Nature Sounds & Birdsong will be back in September/ October 2022 at Mitchell River National Park. Head to their website for more info: gippslandhighcountrytours.com.au.