As I walk upon the valley of the shadow of death…
As I trudged through the dew-covered grass, rain boots on my feet and a sound recorder in my hands, I took in my surroundings with a keen interest. You may wonder, why such a dramatic title? Well, to be quite honest, environmental ‘death’ is more prominent than people may think. I stay on a large plot in Raslouw, Centurion-a very much suburban area. My environment is a contrast between my green space, and the surrounding industrial areas. I mainly thought of the sounds in my area, and the loss of biodiversity, being recently introduced to the concept of the “Anthropocene”. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I truly understood what it meant…
The Anthropocene is described to be many things; however, I am drawn to one description in particular: “the accelerating switch from a nature-dominated to a human-dominated environmental system” (Gisli 2013:5). The Anthropocene is said be the next sage, after the Holocene, and signifies humans as rival to nature (Steffen 2011:843). This places emphasis on the problem caused by human activity and their effect on the atmosphere, soil, ecosystems and various fauna and flora, causing “environmental stress” (Gisli 2013:7). The threat also comes in with human drivers such as “The Great Acceleration” (technology), over-population and over-consumption (Waters et al 2016:139). These drivers, the exploitation and abuse, leave the earth vulnerable.
The Whispers of War
The horrors of the Anthropocene (I say horrors from the perspective of nature), are characterised by the growth of industrialism and consumption. From across my plot, over the Rietvlei River, I can hear the harsh sounds of the factory. More often than I’d like, a dreadful siren goes off, which reminds me of the sirens that warned of oncoming enemies during war times. Perhaps, this is an accurate metaphor of how man and nature are at war in this human-dominated environment. The cars and trucks drive by on the road, creating a deceptive background noise, which tries to pass itself off as a natural sound. All around me I can hear the clinking of metal, or the sounds of aircrafts in the air.
The Question is…can these ‘whispers’ be considered to belong to the Anthropocene?
A trace that these sounds are part of the Anthropocene, is that even though humans are making scientific progress regarding species and life forms, there is a rapid decline in the earth’s biodiversity (Steffen 2011:856).
The factory for example, forms part of an “anthropogenic (artificial) deposit” in terms of an urban terrestrial area (Waters 2016:aad2622-3). This also affects things like the Rietvlei River, which is subject to dumping, pollution and severe sedimentary degradation (Waters 2016:aad2622-4). The cars and other vehicles both land and air-bound are examples of how fossil fuels gave mankind a new energy to accelerate and progress (Steffen 2011:848). These sounds can also be considered ‘artificial’ tangible and intangible activities due to humans intruding upon natural processes (Gisli 2013:9).
“The earth has music for those who listen” William Shakespeare
Indeed, the earth does have music to those who are willing to hear, but what happens when the music no longer exists? Over the period of two to three days, I have listened to the sounds of birds in my surrounding environment. I believe that I am very privileged to still stay on a piece of land dominated by bird songs and sounds; however, I did make an interesting observation. From my house, the bird sounds were less prominent, and as I started moving towards the river and trees they eventually became louder. I thought about how houses, factories and other man-made structures, suppress the beautiful sounds of nature beneath the noise of the Anthropocene (Whitehouse 2015:53). To be honest, the thought of not hearing birds, was terrifying.
The Anthropocene brings forth a major concern that what humans perceive (or perceived) as the natural everyday sounds of birds, are endangered by human activities (Whitehouse 2015:55). There is a disruption in the sounds we hear, in terms of the three categories where “geophony” is the sounds of the natural, physical environment, “biophony “is the sounds of the animals and plants, and “anthrophony” is the human-generated sounds. The human sounds are engulfing, and removing, both the physical environments sounds and the fauna and flora (Whitehouse 2015:57).
The bird sounds that I collected over two days proved to be form a very small variety of bird species. The most common species I found were doves and such as the the Rock Pigeon, which has the very distinct “doo, doo, doo, doo” melody. Another kind of species I found was swallows (possibly the Greater Striped Swallow, or the White throated swallow-both with very soft chittering sounds), but they are not so prominent now that Winter is steadily approaching. Another bird that I only hear now and then, but which was more prominent in my childhood, is the hadeda (sound: haa-haa-haa-de-dah).
From accounts I have heard of the plot many years ago, there used to be a much wider variety of animals. For example, ducks don’t really come anymore because of how our river is polluted, which is just another sign of the Anthropocene.
Back in our day…
Both my parents and grandparents grew up on plots and farms, with wide open spaces. They said that they actually saw guinea fowls and hadedas on a daily basis; that the sounds of the birds greeted them in the early morning as they were preparing for school. They made living with birds a part of daily life, with many species on their farms that they cared for, fed and looked after. This sustainable integration of nature and humans is very uncommon now. It was such a big part of their childhood, in a world that was less driven by technology (the Anthropocene).
The Truth of the Matter
The threefold cord: Virtue, Integrity, Collaboration. I believe these are the three values that are amiss in today’s society, especially amongst the younger generation. What this exercise, of observing the soundscape, has shown me is a bit of a metaphoric realisation. Many people today value themselves so little, that perhaps this stretches over into taking care of the our environment. The Anthropocene, although not all bad, is the result of a lust for progress, money and power that has existed in mankind up to today. This has had an adverse effect on the natural things around us, as we seek to build our kingdoms, our castles and our inner desires and insecurities-but beyond the tangible veil-we only seek to destroy ourselves. Nature, the birds, the fauna and flow…are all collateral damage of the poisonous strongholds we have allowed into our hearts and into our minds.
But bear in mind -“I will fear no evil…” Psalm 23 We can perhaps not stop this giant, rolling snowball of the Anthropocene, but we can build up our environment in dynamic and sustainable ways, with a fearless young generation and a combined, active, environmentally aware-consciousness driven by wisdom and love.
Gisli, P et al. 2013. Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environmental Science & Policy 28:3-13.
Newman, K., 1983. Birds of Southern Africa. Expanded Edition ed. Capt Town: Southern Book Publishers (Pty) Ltd.
Steffen, W et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369:842-867.
Waters, CN et al. 2016. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351 (6269): [sp].
Whitehouse, A. 2015. Listening to birds in the Anthropocene: the anxious semiotics of sound in a human-dominated world. Environmental Humanities 6:53-71.