I already live on a knife-edge of awe, stunned disbelief and overwhelmed incomprehension when it comes to the natural world we inhabit. A passage such as this, near the beginning of David George Haskell’s wonderful book Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, can stagger my mind:
The first living sounds came from bacteria that sent infinitesimally quiet murmurs, sighs, and purrs into their watery surroundings. Bacterial sounds are now discernible to us only with the most sensitive modern equipment. A microphone in in a quiet laboratory can pick up sounds from colonies of Bacillus subtilis, a species of bacteria commonly found in soils and mammalian guts. Amplified, these vibrations sound like the hiss of steam escaping from a tight valve. When a loudspeaker plays similar sounds back into flasks of bacteria, the cells’ growth rate surges, an effect whose biochemical mechanism is as yet unknown.
In short, we are surrounded by the voices of nature that we aren’t even consciously aware of. And, at the risk of being anthropomorphic, it appears that bacteria talk to each other.
I’m the sort of person who can’t even drink a damn cup of coffee without my mind sometimes being carried away, thinking about the fact that each tablespoon of fertile soil has some 50 billion microorganisms in it, all working to help nourish a bush that is gathering energy from a giant orb of chemical fire 93 million miles away. That bush, itself one of over 400,000 species of plants on Earth, produces a bean that human beings, themselves an absurd culmination of so many complicated biological evolutions that it is incomprehensible, somehow figured out that if they roast it, grind it and pour boiling water over it, makes a beverage that their digestive systems, itself host to some one trillion microbes, sends washing through the bloodstream chemical reactants that provide a feeling of enhanced alertness to the minds, minds which themselves are incomprehensible in how they work. Throw in the civilization aspect of the gathering, transporting, merchandising and marketing that goes into getting that cup of coffee to my lips...well, yes, it can overwhelm me.
And that's just a cup of coffee.
Haskell takes us into an amazing world of sound, from the bacon-fat sizzle of snapping shrimp in tidal marshes, a cacophony created by water bubbles generated by the slamming shut of a tiny claw—a cacophony unheard by us as we sit on the shore or in a boat enjoying the view, to the deep rumblings of elephants—a rumble too low to be heard by humans—which other elephants can hear transmitted through the ground kilometers away through sensors in their feet, which transfers the sound up their skeletal structure to their ears.
Or consider the undersea sound conduit:
To human eyes, the open ocean seems uniform. We might imagine this sameness penetrating all the way to the ocean bottom. Yet for sound, the ocean contains an invisible conduit, a passageway through which sound travels for thousands of kilometers. This “deep sound channel” is about eight hundred meters below the surface. Gradients of water temperature and density—cooler and denser in the depths—trap sound within the channel. When sound waves veer up or down, they are bent back into the channel by either warmer water above or denser water below. This watery lens transmits sounds across entire ocean basins, especially low sounds whose passage in water is unhindered by water’s viscosity. Whales take advantage of this channel, and their moaning, rumbling, throbbing calls were, until humans invented the telegraph, the only animal signals capable of crossing the ocean.
As you can imagine, the sonic waves of modern shipping do indeed create havoc in the sensory environments of ocean creatures.
Along with the multitudes of amazing sounds of nature, Haskell provides lots of practical information on how our ears work (I’m getting harder of hearing as the years go by, and I was marveling at the fact that simply brushing my thumb slowly and gently over the page of the book somehow created enough air turbulence to generate a sound wave that traveled the couple feet to my ear and was loud enough to hear), and how sound itself evolved. From eons in which the only sounds were those generated by wind and waves, with no living creatures to hear it, through the gradual rise of the hum of bacteria, the noise of insects, and the sonic burst of the development of animals. He hypothesizes that the latter was partly linked to the evolution of flowering plants, which flipped animals’ evolutionary advantage from being silent to avoid predators toward being able to communicate sources of food.
The book also examines the extinction of sensory diversity that accompanies the other forms of extinction we are inflicting on the planet. It is a form of extinction that tends to be overlooked.
Our ears are directed inward, to the chatter of our own species. Introductions to the sounds of the thousands of species that live in our neighborhoods have no place in most school curricula. We generally regard human language and music as outside nature, disconnected from the voices of others. When a concert starts, we close the door to the outside world. Books and software that teach us “foreign” languages include only the voices of other humans. Public monuments to sound are rare and honor a handful of canonical human composers, not the sonic history of the living Earth.
(Even with the opinion expressed in the above passage, I note that Haskell devotes much appreciation to the catalogues of birdcalls.)
In short, a remarkable book which will give you a deep appreciation of the fact that what we commonly perceive as our lives is really just a tiny sliver of a vastly greater reality. We don’t even fully understand the workings or our own human brains, and yet somehow we use those brains to discover the workings of complex systems of physics, biology, biochemistry and more. The diversity and intricacy of it all is indeed a wonder.
This Week’s New Hardcover Releases
Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, by Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz. This book could be considered a companion to the book reviewed above. The authors reveals how to go beyond the ordinary rules and tools of mindfulness. It’s a field guide for navigating the noise of the modern world—not just the noise in our ears but also on our screens and in our heads. Drawing on lessons from neuroscience, business, spirituality, politics, and the arts, Marz and Zorn explore why auditory, informational, and internal silence is essential for physical health, mental clarity, ecological sustainability, and vibrant community. See also One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet, by Gordon Hempton.
21st Century Monetary Policy: The Federal Reserve from the Great Inflation to COVID-19, by Ben S. Bernanke. The former chair of the Federal Reserve explains the Fed’s evolution and speculates on its future.
Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, by Phil Klay. The novelist and Marine vet looks at the effects on our divided society by the recent endless invisible conflicts of the post-9/11 world. Increasingly few people are even aware they are still going on. It is as if these wars are a dark star with a strong gravitational force that draws a relatively small number of soldiers and their families into its orbit while remaining inconspicuous to most other Americans. In the meantime, the consequences of American military action abroad may be out of sight and out of mind, but they are very real indeed.
Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters, by Serhii Plokhy. The dramatic history of Three Mile Island and five more accidents: the disastrous fallout caused by the testing of the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll in 1954; the Kyshtym nuclear disaster in the USSR, which polluted a good part of the Urals; the Windscale fire, the worst nuclear accident in the UK’s history; back to the USSR with Chernobyl, the result of a flawed reactor design leading to the exodus of 350,000 people; and, most recently, Fukushima in Japan, triggered by an earthquake and a tsunami, a disaster on a par with Chernobyl and whose clean-up will not take place in our lifetime.
Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage, by Jarrod Shanahan. The definitive history of America's most notorious jail and the violent rise of New York City’s law and order movement.
Chasing Lakes: Love, Science, and the Secrets of the Arctic, by Katey Walter Anthony. An aquatic ecologist and permafrost scientist recalls her captivating adventures across the Arctic studying climate change, her quest to find belonging and family, and her journey of faith in a world of science in this poignant, eye-opening, and hopeful memoir.
River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, by Candice Millard. The historian takes a fresh look at the British expeditions that searched for the source of the Nile River, led by the feuding Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. She also brings their guide into the picture: Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was enslaved and shipped from his home village in East Africa to India. When the man who purchased him died, he made his way into the local Sultan’s army, and eventually traveled back to Africa to work as a guide.
The Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960, by John Taylor Williams. An intimate portrait of a legendary generation of artists, writers, activists, and dreamers who created a utopia on the shores of Cape Cod during the first half of the twentieth century.
All book links in this diary are to my online bookstore The Literate Lizard. If you already have a favorite indie bookstore, please keep supporting them. If you’re able to throw a little business my way, that would be appreciated. Use the coupon code DAILYKOS for 15% off your order, in gratitude for your support (an ever-changing smattering of new releases are already discounted 15% each week). We also partner with Hummingbird Media for ebooks and Libro.fm for audiobooks. The ebook app is admittedly not as robust as some, but it gets the job done. Libro.fm is similar to Amazon’s Audible, with a la carte audiobooks, or a $14.99 monthly membership which includes the audiobook of your choice and 20% off subsequent purchases during the month.
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