Review: “Sounds Wild and Broken,” by David George Haskell

Review: “Sounds Wild and Broken,” by David George Haskell

SOUNDS WILD AND BROKEN: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, by David George Haskell

Since the Middle Ages, travelers have set off across the rugged Massif Central region of southern France on one of the most beautiful routes of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage leading to the purported tomb of St. James in northwestern Spain.

Thousands of hikers still trek to the shrine each year. Like their medieval predecessors, some seek a miracle. David George Haskell wishes every one of them, and every one of us, knew about the evolutionary miracle entombed in the rocky Massif.

Animals evolved for hundreds of millions of years with nary a trill, call or peep, Haskell reveals in his exquisite new book, “Sounds Wild and Broken.” Searching for the origins of life’s song and sound, he is drawn to a revolutionary chirp. An insect wing fossilized in Permian rock in the French countryside bears an unusual ridge. Rubbing two wings together, its ancient cricket fiddled a scratchy rasp, broadcast off the flat wing surface like a loudspeaker.

“There should be a shrine here,” Haskell writes. “A monument to honor the first known earthly voice.”

Instead, the pilgrims walk by unaware, symbols of all we miss in a world of vanishing birdsongs, insect crescendos and frog choruses. The most powerful species on earth no longer listens to the others, is silencing the others at a devastating rate. “The vitality of the world depends, in part, on whether we turn our ears back to the living earth.”

Haskell’s own joy of discovery makes it irresistible to tune in. The calls of spring peepers pop from his pages and the swamps of upstate New York; the male tree frogs broadcasting not only their location, but their size and health. The mating calls ring out more than 50 meters, allowing females to check out a potential match before hopping too close. In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Haskell records the red crossbill’s song as it rises to higher pitch than the wind through the evergreen trees, revealing how place helps shape the evolution of sound. In the clamor of the Ecuadorean Amazon, he decodes animal alarm calls that, beyond conveying danger, bear out sophisticated, cross-species networks of cooperation in the rainforest.

Just as “birds living in noisy, dense aggregations can extract acoustic details from a hubbub,” Haskell is a deeply nuanced, meditative writer who finds beauty amid the din of exploitation. He celebrates life’s surviving song even as he bears witness to profound sensory loss. In a section on ocean soundscapes, he ponders the 1970 album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which became a rallying cry for the environmental movement. To de-stress with those recordings today constitutes the ultimate self-deception. Once thrumming with millions of whales and billions of fish singing from their breeding grounds, the oceans have become acoustic nightmares of naval sonar and shipping noise.

Haskell is spot on that sensory connection can inspire people to care in ways that dry statistics never will. His contention that the songs of katydids and house sparrows could motivate ethical action is at once too fanciful to believe — and too imperative to dismiss.

Haskell’s previous books, “The Songs of Trees” and “The Forest Unseen” — the story of a single square meter of old-growth forest over the course of a year, and a Pulitzer finalist — suggested the emergence of a great poet-scientist. “Sounds Wild and Broken” affirms Haskell as a laureate for the earth, his finely tuned scientific observations made more potent by his deep love for the wild he hopes to save.

In the 12th century, one of the world’s first guidebooks, the “Pilgrim’s Guide,” detailed routes and practical advice for travelers along the Camino de Santiago as it promised the miracles ahead: “Health is given to the sick, vision to the blind. … Hearing is revealed to the deaf.”

Haskell has given us a glorious guide to the miracle of life’s sound. He has helped us hear. Will we listen? Will we heed the alarm calls of our fellow travelers?

Cynthia Barnett is the author of “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans” and the environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida.

SOUNDS WILD AND BROKEN: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, by David George Haskell | Viking | 448 pages | $29

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