An Ode and Elegy to Nature’s Songs
In “Earth’s Wild Music,” Kathleen Dean Moore invites us to listen more closely
Since the start of the pandemic, I have made it a habit to take daily walks without my phone in an effort to tune into my surroundings. After work, I walk to the lake near my house and saunter along its perimeter. It may look like just an ordinary lake, but if you listen closely, you can hear it come alive. On breezy afternoons, the cattails bob with the wind and rustle in a low hum. When it's overcast, the lonesome swan gently brushes its wing against the water, dividing it into concentric ripples. And at the brink of sunset, a flock of seagulls glides through the sky, chirping at full volume in unison.
But what is the natural world trying to tell us? Kathleen Dean Moore, a nature writer and environmental philosopher, seeks answers in her latest book, Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World (Counterpoint, 2021), a collection of essays that attempts to decode the auditory landscape of the Anthropocene. “Music is the trembling urgency and exuberance of life ongoing,” Moore writes. “In a time of terrible silencing, what can we hear if we listen carefully, and what can Earth’s wild music tell us about how we ought to live?” Whether Moore celebrates the call of loons or laments the cries of whales, Earth’s Wild Music is an empathetic look into what we gain from listening to their songs—and what we lose when they disappear.
The book is structured into four parts: “Tremble,” “Weep,” “Awaken,” and “Sing Out.” Each essay—an amalgamation of observations, reflections, and epistemologies—invites us to listen to the natural world with our eyes. “Tremble” begins with Moore indulging her whimsical attitude toward her surroundings; she strums the spikes of a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran desert and discerns a sapsucker’s rat-a-tat outside her Alaskan cabin. But in “Weep,” Moore’s existential worry begins to unfold. In “The Silence of the Humpback Whale,” she sleeps in a cabin on the margins of a cove in Southeast Alaska and is jolted awake by calls of the humpback whale, signaling to its kin that their meals are ready. An homage to whale calls quickly turns into concern over their population decline. “What exactly would be the nature of the wrong, if we were to let whale-song slip away or, worse, propel it into oblivion?” Moore asks. “Let us grant the terrible sadness we would feel if the whales disappeared. Let us grant the tragic unfolding of human folly.”
In “The Terrible Silence of the Empty Sky,” she steps out of her body and into the mind of the extraterrestrial, taking a night stroll along a grassy field near a sports stadium as she ponders the human condition through the perspective of an alien. “If there is a sadness as big as the galaxy, I feel it now,” Moore writes. “What a crushing disappointment we must be to alien creatures on distant planets, who are listening for some signal of wisdom or hope.”
The prose, while mawkish at times, is nonetheless alive, marrying vivid imagery with tragic realizations. In “Awaken,” Moore’s lamentations turn into rage, calling attention to the disruptive noise of cities and censuring major corporations for drowning out natural soundscapes with their grating machinery. As a philosopher by trade, Moore presents the moral argument for protecting wildlife. She castigates the idea that humans are superior to animals, believing that at best, it’s naive to think that human survival does not depend on the vitality of the natural world, and at worst, ego-centric to assume that wildlife has no intrinsic value. “This is the saddest, most self-destructive mistake of all our sad and self-destructive mistakes, to think that humans can degrade their habitats and not degrade themselves,” Moore laments. These criticisms undergird the ethos of the book: that turning a blind eye to the natural world is a deliberate act of moral failure. “If people are going to imprison dolphins and transmogrify the gallbladders of bears into fortifying elixirs ... if they are going to reduce owl nesting sites to toilet paper and convince themselves that this is not a problem, then they will need to believe that humans have minds but other animals do not,” Moore writes. “But this is a matter of convenience, not truth.”
As convincing as the argument may be for deep ecologists, the case for morality may not resonate with people who care about the environment more broadly. The emphasis on the protection of nature for its intrinsic value runs the risk of coming off as didactic, and to some extent, paternalistic, especially for people who may not have the privilege of accessing wildlife. People who come from urban, low-income, and BIPOC communities access the outdoors at much lower rates than white Americans, which limits their ability to connect with nature through recreational means.
For a single mother whose daily concern is to provide food for her children, the broken warble of a meadowlark may not be salient. But this does not mean that she isn’t concerned about the environment. Environmental racism cuts deep into frontline communities, damaging health outcomes and destroying culturally symbolic land.
Sure, many of us privileged enough to escape into the wilderness as a pastime to listen to bird songs may not be able to experience that in the future, but where does that leave the less privileged? The moralistic rhetoric on what constitutes the “right” thing to do as stewards of the earth runs the possibility of sowing division in the larger movement toward systemic change, which is already manifested in the overwhelming whiteness of the environmentalism movement. Thus, a theory of change that centers morality is inadequate.
Despite these claims of virtue, the book redeems itself toward the last section, “Sing Out,” by challenging cultural norms that obstruct collective action. In addition to censuring fossil fuel companies and the institutions associated with them, Moore interrogates her own contradictory perceptions of the world. She contemplates why she finds beauty in ecological collapse as she witnesses chunks of glacier crash into the ocean, questions the uptick in “positive news stories” and the urge to downplay the magnitude of climate change, and expresses the limitations of hope as the catalyst for change. “Hope is not all we need,” Moore writes. “What we need is strength—strength in numbers and strength in moral conviction. What we need is shrieking, roaring courage.”
While Earth’s Wild Music explores the moral and psychological value of natural soundscapes, it is ultimately a book on what we lose in the face of climate change. While protecting the songs of wildlife as a moral end may not be an adequate unifying principle in political movements, it is one piece of the puzzle toward collective environmental action. There are many ways to engage with the protection of the environment. And for some, that's by preserving the sounds of the earth. Regardless of how we choose to engage, we all benefit from paying closer attention to the natural world. And in return, the world will sing just a bit more.