By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition
The most esteemed scientist of his age was the Berlin-based Alexander von Humboldt—called “the Shakespeare of science” he was as famous as Napoleon in the first half of the 19th century. Von Humboldt’s concept of “Oecologie” (Greek for “ecology”) and his eloquent commitment to the then original insight that nature is ‘a system of active forces’ inspired poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, president Thomas Jefferson, biologist Charles Darwin, revolutionary Simon Bolivar, the American transcendentalist philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the passionate naturalist John Muir—not to mention thousands of other figures in science, literature and art around the world.
It’s astonishing to ponder how important von Humboldt’s passion for nature and his philosophy of science were to many fields–and how forgotten he had become until the recent reemergence of his work in anticipation of his 250th birthday in 2019. So what better way to celebrate “World Listening Day” this July 18th—a day devoted to the field of “acoustic ecology” that was first celebrated nearly a decade ago in honor of R. Murray Schafer, a pioneering acoustical ecologist—than to sample two new books and a movie and to visit to a quiet National Park to enjoy the soundscape of nature.
Andrea Wulf’s best-selling book about von Humboldt, “The Invention of Nature” (Vintage Books, October 2016), was named one of the “Ten Best Books of the Year” by the New York Times and has won several prizes. If you find it hard to imagine a book about the history of science and scientists “exciting”—then you definitely need to peruse this one because it will astonish you.
A quieter, humbler book is Richard Higgins “Thoreau and the Language of Trees” (University of California Press, 2017), a meditation on the naturalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s passionate contemplation of trees, which is accompanied by historical photos and others taken by the author. Thoreau’s lifetime, the author notes, “overlapped with the apex of deforestation in New England” so that his experience was poignant and even embittered since he observing the loss of the very forests he desperately wanted to preserve. It was my pleasure recently to show the author of this book the little brook that still flows out from the base of an American Beech tree that Thoreau described 200 years ago in “Walden Pond.” It’s now known as “Thoreau’s beech spring” and is hidden in the woods near my house. Thoreau’s 200th birthday is in 2017, so this book, a new U.S. postage stamp, and various tributes are being exhibited in the Boston-area towns of Lincoln and Concord, Massachusetts, where I live.
Way out west lives the “Sound Tracker,” Emmy-Award-Winning sound artist Gordon Hempton, the quintessential naturalist and film-maker whose work virtually defines what “acoustic ecology” means. You can see Hempton’s YouTube videos here.
Across the whole USA, the National Park Service manages 438 parks and historical sites—and all of them have been catalogued and had their sound levels measured by the two dozen members of the NPS’ Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division based in Boulder Colorado, and led by Harvard-trained biologist Kurt Fristrup (who was featured in the new documentary film, “In Pursuit of Silence”). This group is doing a terrific job of cataloging “the loudest and quietest spots in the U.S.”
This year’s World Listening Day is dedicated to the life and legacy of the late Pauline Oliveros and her work on “deep listening.” I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate it than to go for a two-hour hike this morning along the National Park Service’s Minuteman National Park, a 7-mile-long strip of carefully preserved colonial woodland and period dwellings spanning Concord, Lincoln, Bedford, and Lexington Massachusetts. On a recent hike, the loudest sound I heard at 6:00 a.m. was a red-winged blackbird.
*Thanks to Dr. Antonella Radicchi for prompting this piece. Dr. Radicchi, the newest member of The Quiet Coalition’s Steering Committee, currently lives in Berlin, where Alexander von Humboldt grew up and spent his later years in Oranienburger Strasse near the famous boulevard Unter de Linden adjacent to the university where he taught.