Top 10 books about listening to nature | Science and nature books

sound is a great connector among animals. A song or call links one creature to another almost instantly, like a telepathic signal that passes through dense vegetation and the darkest night. Sound also discloses the state of the non-animal world: the sonic textures of wind in trees, flowing water and geologic rumblings all unite attentive ears to the energies and stories unfolding around us. Yet we live in a world of acoustic overstimulation that often requires that we shut down our hearing in order to focus or block out unwanted noise. How might we relearn to hear the non-human world, both as a source of joy and a way to ground ourselves in the realities of the living world?

In my book, Sounds Wild and Broken, I listen both in the present moment and in deep time. I ask: When did animals first start to sing? What can we learn about evolutionary creativity from the ever-changing drama of bird, frog and insect life outside the window? How might the glorious and troubling convergences of human and non-human sound in the city and the ocean guide us to a more just future?

Listening is the original “augmented reality”, uniting our senses with hidden beings and the energies of the world. I was in my 20s when I started to really open my ears and direct my attention outward. The experience was a revelation, like plugging into a whole new way of knowing. Along the way, the following books all helped me to hear better and to understand the stories behind the sounds I was hearing.

1. The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
Sometimes misplaced in the erotica sections of bookshops, this is a book about opening all the senses to the animism of the living world. With graceful and insightful prose, Abram shows that listening connects us to the voices and stories of more-than-human beings. Recently though, especially in the westernized world, we have too often cut ourselves out of this attentiveness. This is a call to joyful, awakened listening. Perhaps the misplacement in bookshops carries a message: an eros for our beautiful planet.

2. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
Confined to bed by a serious illness, Bailey was given a window into the living world by the presence of a snail in her room. The seemingly insignificant creature becomes momentous, providing connections to the world that disease had broken or made distant. This book is about careful hearing and observation in the most literal sense, but also about listening in the more metaphorical sense of being aware of the agency of others, especially non-humans. A lyrical and profound book.

3. What the Robin Knows by Jon Young
Careful listening to the sounds of birds not only cues us into the identity of the songsters, their sounds can also attune us to the landscape. The nuances of the calls and songs of everyday birds can reveal the nature and location of animals such as foxes and owls, and also connect us to seasonal rhythms and year-to-year changes. Young is an evangelist for “sit spots”, locations that we return to again and again to open our senses to the world, a practice that I have found essential to my own education in listening. Repeated attention to one place helps us to belong to it, rather than existing as outside observers.

4. Deep Listening by Pauline Oliveros
Structured as a series of exercises and encouragements, this slim volume is an ear-gourmand’s treat, packed with rich insights. Prompts range from the practical, “What is the current tempo of your breathing?”, to the kōan-like philosophical hearing, “Are you while you listen?” and the imagination-bending, “Sound a word as a sound”. Oliveros was a leading composer of electronic music, but her dela music and writing dela call us to listen beyond the confines of human music.

More-than-human … David Rothenberg plays the clarinet alongside the sounds of cicadas at a New Jersey nature preserve. Photograph: Kevin Fogarty/Reuters

5. Sudden Music by David Rothenberg
A wonderfully creative exploration of the improvisational nature of sound and life. My copy is full of underlined passages. Rothenberg is a philosopher and musician whose writing and music play at the boundaries between the human and non-human. Our music, he claims, “offers us up to the more-than-human world” and listening in turn opens us to the many presences of other species. Music that begins with listening to the world – to rain, cicadas, birds and whales – can then tap deep wells of creativity. As non-musicians, too, such listening to the musicality of “nature” is generative and expands our ability to respond to life in the moment.

6. Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
A moving collection of essays centered on finding joy, heartbreak and meaning in wild sounds. Drawn from a lifetime of listening to and loving the world, each essay draws us deep into a particular time and place, then unfolds stories of connection, grief and action. In places a dirge and in others a hymn of celebration, the book ends with a clear cry for individual and collective action in defense of the diverse voices of the natural world.

7. A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth
What do we hear when birds sing? Smyth guides us through (mostly) British culture listening for the many ways that we’ve been inspired by, borrowed from and misinterpreted the languages ​​of birds. He avows an initial “cluelessness” about birdsong and shuns mystical revelation and misty-eyed screeds about beauty. The result is not only a lively and fascinating tour of our relationships with birdsong, but a renewed appreciation for the sounds of the birds themselves: “Once you start listening, the stuff is suddenly everywhere.”

8. Rooted by Lynanda Lynn Haupt
What should the interconnectedness of life mean in our everyday lives? Haupt centers listening – with our ears, the soles of our feet, imaginations and more – in her wonder-filled exploration of what it means to be open to the living Earth. She shatters dualities between science and spirit, sound and silence, aloneness and community, and offers us an invitation to deeper belonging and engagement. There is much practical advice here, but she also builds a more philosophical case for listening beyond the human.

9. One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton
A pilgrimage from Olympic national park in the north-western US across the country to the National Park Service in Washington DC headquarters, listening all the way. The objective: to ask the park service to protect a square inch of moss-covered forest from human noises such as the roar of planes passing overhead. This proves impossible because noise travels so far, our engines are so ubiquitous and our commitment to “silence” in the world so slight. Hempton’s narration of what his attentive ears hear and sensitive electronic equipment records along the way are both invitations to enthusiastic listening and calls to action.

10. Collins Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe
My favorite books as a child were field guides. The range of characters in their pages were richer than those in any novel and, by stepping outside, I could meet some of these personalities in the flesh. The aural descriptions were especially thrilling and I still appreciate the sly way they personify and transliterate, evoking the sounds with precision and humour. The blackcap sings with “an irresolute chattering … turning into clear, slightly melancholy flute-like notes”. The mistle thrush is “more desolate and slightly harder” than the blackbird, which sings “almost in a major key”. The inclusion of umlauts in the dunnock’s song is brilliant and its celebratory insistence on precision makes me smile every time I read it: “tütellititelletitütotelitelleti”, it sings.

Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and The Crisis of Sensory Extinction by David George Haskell is published by Faber. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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