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Sounds of Nature

One of my favorite things about nature is how easily you can immerse yourself in it. While a lot of attention is paid to how visually stunning natural spaces can be, few of us recognize how much our enjoyment of nature depends on how it sounds. Whether is the gurgle of a nearby stream, the rustling of leaves in the wind, or the chirping of birds and bugs, sound makes up a significant part of our experiences in nature. I’ve become especially aware of this while working at LandHealth’s native plant nursery, which is uniquely situated between parkland, a major street, and an industrial area. The sounds I hear on any given day range from the natural to the mechanical, soothing and grating, unremarkable and the exciting.

Sound can tell you a lot about the environment around you that might be hard to see. Birders understand this well, identifying bird calls to tell which species are in the area, even when they might be hidden among the trees. Sounds can also tell you how close you are to water or a major road, making it an important navigational tool.

I have started to record soundscapes on my phone when I spend time outside, and I’m often surprised by what I find. For example, I recently found out that soil makes a sound when it absorbs water. It was a quick, high pitched sucking or popping sound that lasts long after the water source is gone. Though a lot of people bemoan human intrusions into our soundscapes, I have actually found that hearing signs of humanity alongside can be thought provoking. Hearing people speaking, or sirens, or even my own footsteps reminds me that humans are a part of nature too. Although we are currently disruptive, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many ways that we can make positive contributions to the natural world both individually and collectively. Our goal should not be to eliminate all traces of humanity from the landscape (an impossible task), but to work in harmony with the rest of the living and nonliving things we share space with.

The sounds of our Native Plant Nursery in West Philadelphia

In fact, more diversity in soundscapes is often a good thing. As we lose a considerable amount of biodiversity due to habitat destruction, pesticides and herbicides, and other pressures we also lose valuable sounds. Birdcalls, the sound of tall grasses in the wind, and the buzzing of insects all used to be prominent features of our soundscapes, but are now in steep decline. People who love the outdoors often talk about the serenity of nature, and while that is true we should not equate serenity with silence. In fact, a healthy soundscape is vibrant and varied, filled with the noises of many different organisms interacting with each other and the nonliving things around them.

Next time you’re spending some time outside, take a moment to listen. Make a note of what you hear (or maybe more importantly, what you don’t hear) and think about how you can help to promote diversity in your landscapes and soundscapes.


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