In Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, David George Haskell admits that, in all his formal training as a biologist, he was rarely asked to use his ears as an evaluative tool. This may come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Haskell’s work, which often focuses on the sonic offerings of the natural world. Visit the website of this Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and scientist, for example, and you’ll find links to symphonic soundscapes recorded from each of the sylvan subjects of his 2017 book, The Songs of Trees.
In his latest book, Haskell continues to delve into aural worlds that often go unnoticed, beginning with the breathtaking story of the evolution of sound. Haskell describes the complex apparatus of hearing in all its minute, sensitive brilliance. From vibrations picked up by single-celled organisms, to the childlike babbling of newly hatched birds, to the astounding invention of the first human instruments, played in cave chambers selected for their resonance, this tale brims with enchanting facts you won’t believe you never knew.
Haskell’s prose is suffused with enthusiasm and poetic in form. The way in which he loads each sentence with information is so animated, it’s fair to say this is a book that would talk with its hands if it could. Even so, his descriptions of bacteria that “murmur” and “purr,” or the “voices of tree elders” heard in the polished wood of a symphony, are lilting, spellbinding and songlike in themselves.
Where Sounds Wild and Broken truly glows, however, is in the way it invites readers to imagine the listening experiences of others, breaking down the assumption that we all hear alike. With the long history of sound in his grip, Haskell’s definitions of hearing, communication and song become expansive and inclusive. A favorite moment is when he addresses a high-handed philosopher of music who said that animal noise is but a “yowling of cats” and only humans create music. Haskell mounts a graceful and entirely sound argument that the yowling of cats may be music if the felines who are listening experience it as such.
Haskell also examines the ways Indigenous peoples, often experts in the soundscapes of their ancestral lands, are pushed out of the business of forest management and land stewardship. He does not shy away from indicting a certain colonial and corporate refusal to hear. His examination of sound, after all, is grounded in the seriousness of what it means when things go quiet. Thankfully, scientists are leveraging soundscapes in new ways to more responsibly manage these forested and oceanic philharmonics. Haskell’s warning is cradled in awe as he holds up for us the magic and delight we stand to lose.
Throughout Haskell’s body of work, his invitation has always been, “Pay attention! Isn’t it amazing?” Sounds Wild and Broken expands this invitation: Listen carefully. Listen to others.