We started speaking about the world, about the mountain, about the weather, but we are no longer speaking so easily to the world and hearing the world speaking back to us.David Abram
The Singing Planet is a documentary film the title of which is evocative enough to open doors of (re)discovery onto a world of sounds. Despite recently becoming bored with cinema, I gladly watched director Liz McKenzie’s beautiful film three times over. It’s deeply moving in a nurturing way, and evokes hope for action through the beauty it shows and its deep respect for all living things.
It follows nature-sound recordists and authors Richard Nelson and Hank Lentfer “for an unforgettable immersion in these wild voices and the places that give rise to them”. As life sometimes grants us a little magic, by coincidence, it was only a few weeks earlier that I discovered Hank’s work for myself. The poetry of his storytelling is perfectly interwoven with the majestic soundscapes he records in his hometown of Gustavus, Alaska, so I was delighted to see him talk on screen.
“Our great philosophers, our great teachers, our great scientists, our great wisdom-bearers”: this is how Richard introduces the more-than-human beings shown and recorded in the film. The photography, sound, and editing are stunning, captured with a sweet simplicity. However, it is the message from both Richard and Hank, so elegantly braided with the sensorial presentation, that touched me. I confess to having cried a little on each viewing. I hope that The Singing Planet can make anyone fall in love with the natural world around us, and gently push us towards collective and viable advocacy.
A lover of nature and all its voices, Richard tries to remind us that, “We’ve fallen deaf. These voices are trying to call us back awake in the world, so that we can heal our broken relationship to it.” His passion and admiration shines from his child-like eyes and smile, for example when describing the complexities of Swainson’s thrushes.
He actively listens to a couple of them, hearing the delicacy and intricacy of their “beautiful fluting, spinning song – it’s magic! It’s something that’s coming out of a rainbow.”
He goes on to share that, for the Indigenous Alaskan Koyukon peoples (with whom he lived for some years), the thrushes’ spiraling upward song means “it’s a beautiful evening”.
“Everything that inhabits our planet is filled with power, spirit, and awareness.” This implies that not only animals but also plants are aware of other beings. This line of thought is currently being studied as a new field of research: plant cognition and plant communication. In the words of Monica Gagliano, a Research Associate Professor in Evolutionary Ecology, “the emerging framework holds considerable implications for the way we perceive plants as it redefines the traditionally held boundary between animals and plants.”
Going further, biologist and celebrated author David George Haskell has spoken, in an interview published by Emergence Magazine, about the kinship with time which is palpable when you go “to a mountaintop, or a seashore or a rushing river, and hear sounds almost exactly as they have been for billions of years. […] The sounds of geology and of hydrology and of the air are the primal sounds of the Earth.”
I am bringing up these topics because opening our minds to alternative thinking can offer new lenses through which to consider all living beings, and to include them as part of an interconnected network which we are all dependent upon. Whether this resonates or strikes you as a romantic notion outside of rationalism, The Singing Planet respectfully invites its audience to imagine that all beings are worthy of care and respect. Richard considers this to be “deep wisdom” and “not just interesting, but important”. The acknowledgement of some sort of consciousness in all beings, and of our interconnected dependence, is an act of resistance. In contrast, under the dominant global system, all life is at the mercy of capitalism which is unraveling the planet through its exploitation of the many for the material benefit of a few. To view our own culture through an ontological perspective and acknowledge alternative models can be an important step towards global action.
Indigenous cultural traditions from around the world view animals as ‘teachers’, ‘brothers and sisters’, and ‘messengers of the ancestors and of the Creator’. But it is not necessary to subscribe to mysticism or to a completely different belief system to take delight in the natural world around us. Earlier in 2022, during a panel discussion about the film, Hank stated that although he is intrigued by the Koyukon worldview, it is appreciating the beauty and diversity in the listening experience that is significant to him. Listening, identifying species, and learning their songs has expanded his sense of community, changing his everyday life. In the film, he asks: “Who am I next to? Who am I fortunate enough to call family?”
Through years of attentiveness to wild voices, Hank has become able to distinguish between different individuals of the same species, allowing him, for example, to recognize a specific robin that made it through the winter. He says that this brings him considerable joy, and that he likes to believe that his own feelings may mean something to this robin – which speaks to the mission of the film: “To bring the beauty of wild America to as many people as we can, so that they will more fully appreciate the magic that we are given and help to take care of it.”
“This whole recording thing” awakened Hank to the beauty of the dawn chorus.This can be a starting point for all of us: tending to and caring for the beings that we appreciate, and listening to what they have to say. This is not only for field recordists or activists; it’s for all of us.
To avoid a world without these tiny beings delivering such a beautiful message, we must tune in to the dawn chorus and observe the movements of these songs as they weave through the Earth symphony. “What kind of world is that?”, Hank asks, as the film confronts us with the likelihood of the cheering song of a ruby-crowned kinglet disappearing from the soundscape. After recording for 15 years, Hank has noticed a decrease in the dawn chorus: “The number of individuals is not the same.”
The loss of these voices led to teary eyes during the making of the film. Liz, the director, says that it was tough emotionally, and explains that the film’s score starts to blend with the birdsong in order to offer respite from confronting such thoughts. I read this as a take-away: if we want to take action, we cannot assume that it is hopeless to do so, nor can we fall into the trap of oblivious optimism. We need to be capable, in the words of writer/activist Alnoor Ladha, of “seeing the extreme light and the extreme dark that is happening right now”.
We live in the age of forgetfulness
Richard Nelson passed away in 2019. To honor his urgent message – and all the others who haven’t suffered from the deafness plaguing the world – we must listen to and be curious about the Earth’s song. His most powerful wish as a natural field recordist was that, in a few decades, no parent will have to resort to playing their enquiring child a recording of a wolf howling, because that is all that’s left.
“The biggest hope for the work that Nels [Richard] and I are doing is to remind people of the profound and deep beauty that is still here.”
‘To remind’ is a key concept here. The work done by shaman and Indigenous Amazonian Yanomami spokesperson Davi Kopenawa, along with anthropologist Bruce Albert, laid out in their book The Falling Sky, has floated in my mind since I read it back in 2017. Kopenawa often speaks about deafness as if it is a disease:
“The closed ears of the whites, their thoughts insisting on forgetting, their ideas stagnating in a passion for commodities. These threaten from all sides the backbones of Maxita-Urihi, the ‘forest-earth’, whose sky, made so dangerously unstable by the harassing, obsessive determination of the merchandise people, is ever more ready to collapse on every living inhabitant of the planet, human or otherwise.”
“Os ouvidos fechados dos brancos napë, seu pensamento que insiste em esquecer, sua ideia estagnada na paixão pelas mercadorias. Estas ameaçam por todos os lados os sustentáculos da Maxita-Urihi, a terra-floresta, cujo céu, tornado tão perigosamente instável pela gana assediante e obsedante do povo da mercadoria, mostra-se mais e mais prestes a desabar sobre todo vivente, humano ou não, do planeta”. (The original version published in SciELO)
Tuning in for global and personal action
Referring to national forests, national and city parks, and wildlife refuges, Richard states, “We should protect them with every bit of power we have and not let anyone take one square inch of that land from us, because it belongs to all of us.”
But localized action alone is not enough, since – for example – migratory birds depend upon those locations. The description of their millions-strong annual migration towards Alaska, to reach the summer feast of insects with which they can feed their young, therefore reveals the significance of global action. They come from across the American continents, or even further in some cases: the Antarctic Ocean, Australia, and Africa.
The Swainson’s thrush population is steadily decreasing due to the accelerating deforestation of tropical rainforest and other forests on their migratory route between South America and Alaska.
Richard asks us to nurture our own backyards, so that our children can go out and look at the bumblebees and squirrels and other creatures that come to visit. “There are immediate and wonderful rewards,” says Hank. “All of a sudden you can have a garden full of butterflies and birds instead of clipped grass.”
At the panel discussion about the film, Hank framed his thoughts on large-scale structural issues around the environment in a way that I haven’t heard before: power structures that dictate land and species protection are dictated by gender and ethnicity. Yet all of those voices are still human; we still live in a human echo chamber. To hear from all relevant voices, we must recognize this limitation and move beyond the human. That is the big question behind nature soundscape recording: how to get these voices back into the human community. Listening is a great way to acknowledge the Indigenous perspective that we are part of a larger-than-human world.
Listen to this! Listen to this voice. This is why I do what I do.
For those who want to take effective action, Liz suggests joining an organization that focuses on land preservation and wildlife protection: to become another voice for advocacy. We should ask ourselves: am I doing something to help all species?
The film also includes a call for us to learn how to use our food growing spaces in a way that can support a diversity of wildlife. I was taken aback the first time I heard the shocking difference between the song emanating from an uncultivated wild space compared to a monocultural one. I walked a path that led from a rocky meadow into a dreary olive grove: it was like walking into an empty, dry abyss. By tuning into these differences we can learn – or remember – what the song of the Earth (or its absence) is telling us.
As Sophie Strand, a writer focused on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, and ecology, puts it: “We are instruments that produce our own particular sound and it communicates interiority. And so it creates an experience of a community where everyone understands that every being has an inside and has an experience, creating an availability for response.”
In the film, Richard and Hank talk briefly about some aspects of their strategy in the field when working together. It seems simple and in balance with the Earth’s rhythms, by working in sync with the schedule of its songs: waking up to record the dawn chorus, then meeting back in camp during mid-morning and having a second breakfast. We see them both laying on the ground, equipment-free, simply listening to the Earth singing. That moment, where we can contemplate the soundscape alongside them, is just one of many moments of appreciation which the film offers.
Turn on the subtitles and all the audible species are identified, even written descriptions of birds’ vocalisations are given on screen, helping us to deepen our knowledge of our companions’ songs. At one point, the whistled notes of a fox sparrow are joined in a chorus by Wilson’s warbler and a varied thrush. We also hear and see a bald eagle, a raven, and a lone wolf howling in a green field, followed by the air hisses of a humpback whale. This in just the first 75 seconds of the film – a powerful reminder of the rich and wild diversity of this planet.
Then, if possible, Richard and Hank continue to record sound. They will often have a goal: say, whales, a specific bird, or an assembly of birds, or the geophonic sounds made by a stream or a glacier.
The correct conditions must be met: they watch out for bears in the field and need good timing and specific weather conditions to witness and record majestic events such as glaciers calving and booming.
The Singing Planet was filmed over a couple of years, mainly during the spring for footage of birds and in August for the bears, when the salmon came.
During the panel discussion, Liz said that, having met and worked with Richard, she realized that her heart was set on advocating and celebrating the natural world. The time spent shooting and editing the film prompted her to pause other activities in favor of listening to the Earth singing.
This speaks to the inspiration behind the film, and is also the goal desired of its audience: to gift acoustic awakening to other people. When Richard first put a pair of headphones onto Hank’s ears, the younger man experienced his own awakening, realizing, “There was nothing wrong with my ears other than neglect.”
This film goes beyond being a sensorial experience; it is an inspiring invitation to expand our worldview by realizing that our community is made up of all living beings.
Go out and listen. Go make friends with that robin. They have something to say.
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