Prioritising Listening

Sue Genner (Tauranga priest and GP) reviews a book by Karen Bakker on how technologies are helping people to hear non-human sounds and how this opens us up to the voice of nature.

by Sue Genner

Bakker, Karen. The Sounds of Life How Digital Technology is bringing us closer to the world of animals and plants. Princeton University Press, 2022. ix+354 pp. $43.99 (ebook). 

Compared with our cousins on the Tree of Life, humans are poor listeners.” So begins Bakker in her introduction. Our limited acoustic range has until now prevented us hearing much of the wide range of sounds made in our world, from infrasound to ultrasound. She discusses the way digital technologies are being used to decode the world of nonhuman sound and how that opens up the world of communication for us. Along the way she introduces some of the scientists who have made these ground-breaking discoveries and these human stories and the battles these innovative scientists had to fight to get themselves heard are interwoven beautifully. She also challenges the reader to listen to indigenous wisdom and we find stories of indigenous peoples who had discovered ways to sense this communication which has been happening all around us. It is the relatively new disciplines of bioacoustics and ecoacoustics combined with modern technology which are opening new ways of understanding and protecting our world. 

She begins with the discovery of whale music in an ocean which was thought to be silent. The early discoveries were in the whaling industry in the 19th century and often discounted as fairy tales by others. The story continued following the invention of the microphone and the military research into marine sound after World War II; much of this information remained classified, until a paper was published by scientists in 1957. Ultimately the recording and popularising of whale song was what helped to save the whales from being hunted to extinction. Counting whale populations using acoustic technology was eventually found to be the most accurate way of keeping tally of their population. The Iñupiat people had long known this but their holistic knowledge was ignored by western reductionist science, they formed their own whaling commission and funded their own study under extremely difficult conditions and were finally able to prove the point. It was in listening to whales that people became more aware of what social creatures they are and their complex vocalisations also include family noises, different whale “dialects” and biosonar. Bioacoustics is now being used to protect whales, warning ships to avoid whale territories. Bakker waxes lyrical in her descriptions of the people and the soundscapes we inhabit. 

She follows these whale stories with chapters on elephants, turtles, coral reefs, phytoacoustics, bats and bees. In each case there was indigenous knowledge which was ignored and the world of classical science sneering at pioneering scientists beginning their acoustic research. When we begin to listen to our world this gives us new ways of understanding the other creatures with which we share it and new ways of protecting our fellow creatures and our world. True, there is also the possibility of abuse, of using this new knowledge to exploit our fellow creatures and great care must be taken with this relatively new field of knowledge. 

The “internet of earthlings” chapter introduces the Interspecies Internet project which seeks to use digital tools to communicate between humans and nonhumans. Machine learning and AI have been very useful tools here. Perhaps bioacoustics could help us develop a dictionary of Sperm Whalish, Bakker suggests. She compares digital acoustics to the discovery of the microscope in its impact – it expands our ability to hear. It is digital acoustics which has made us more aware of the harm of noise pollution in and to our world. She concludes “If we open our ears, a world of wonder appears”. 

Appropriately I consumed a good deal of this book listening to an audiobook version and wonder is indeed the word which so often came to mind as I listened. This is beautiful book and extremely well researched with extensive references and footnotes. It challenges us to LISTEN. I was reminded of the story of the transfiguration in Luke, there the disciples are transfixed by the wonder of what they can see but the message from the cloud is “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35).  In his helpful reading of this parable Thomas Martin discusses the way hearing is prioritised over seeing and uses the image of Jesus the audiologist, the one who assesses our hearing.[1]

Bakker’s spirituality may be inferred to be more in sympathy with some pantheistic indigenous religions (my inference), but one can read this book with a Christian theological lens. The Biblical understanding of listening implies action.[2] The results of listening and paying attention to the creatures, to indigenous peoples and to the world itself, in Bakker’s account, have lead and invite us further to action. So many times, those ground-breaking scientists in this story had to overcome opposition, so many times, it was people’s arrogant assumptions that delayed learning and action. The rigid assumptions of one’s own rightness led to a lack of openness to new or even old ideas. The notions that ‘real’ knowledge resides only in a Western ‘scientific’ mindset and that indigenous knowledge and wisdom were fairy tales were contested repeatedly. This cultural mindset has been part of our church history and our colonising history here in New Zealand. Bakker invites us to be open, to listen, learn and then act. That openness to listen to God’s world and act is the same attitude that we need in approaching God, a listening which is willing to have assumptions overturned and culture challenged. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Martin, Thomas W. “What Makes Glory Glorious? Reading Luke’s Account of the Transfiguration over against Triumphalism.” Journal for the study of the New Testament 29, no. 1 (2006): 3-26. https://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06068385.


[1] Thomas W. Martin, “What Makes Glory Glorious? Reading Luke’s Account of the Transfiguration Over Against Triumphalism,” Journal for the study of the New Testament 29, no. 1 (2006), https://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06068385.

[2] See the parable of the wise and foolish builders Matt 7:24-27

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