The noise of the sixth extintion

In January 1958 Olga Wens Huckins wrote a letter to her friend Rachel Carson, in which she described the death of birds in her property as a result of fumigations with DDT. Carson acknowledges that letter as a driving force that moved her to write Silent Spring. “[she] …told me of her own bitter experience of a small world made lifeless…” The book is perhaps one of the most influential on environmental problems. It’s title works as a metaphor for life and death -the silence that birds leave behind when they die-.

About the ‘Big Bang’, Frances Dyson wrote on The Tone of Our Times that it operates -metaphorically and as a voice- “The big bang not only announced that the universe erupted from noise, but its adoption as a quasi-tongue-in-cheek term became the rallying cry of twentieth-century moderns: ‘God is dead.’”

In literature -both fiction and non-fiction-, sound and silences work as metaphors for power, life and death. Metaphors of what is and what ceases to be. But maybe is our own finitude -as individuals and as a species- that leads us to think of it that way.

Prompted by a request from the United States Secretary of War, Benedict Crowell — Assistant Secretary of War, Director of Munitions — prepared a report on the historical development of munitions production. The first page of this report, now freely available in a public archive as a part of the Gutenberg project, is a picture of a celluloid film where the sound of the end of the First World War is recorded. The image in the picture is the product of sound ranging, a system used to find out the position of enemy weapons based on the sound of the guns captured by several microphones. (a detailed description of this device can be found in the report).

On 11 September 1918, at exactly 11:00 AM, soundwaves that, a second before, were whirling in the celluloid, abruptly vanished. The picture is more than eloquent, and it carries the following heading:

FRONTISPIECE. “THE END OF THE WAR.” A GRAPHIC RECORD.
 Nov. 11, 1918. 11 A. M.
 
One minute before the hour. All guns firing. One minute after the hour. All guns silent.

Imagen del celuloide utilizado en el sistema de localización de armas enemigas. Sobre el celuloide pueden leerse el título y las leyendas.

If one could hear the sound of the guns ceasing fire, silence would then take over and one would eventually be immersed in it, getting used to it, and losing sight of its meaning. But in the picture, the moments characterised by “All guns firing” and “All guns silent” are captured forever, and whenever one looks at it, it is possible to see and feel something singular ending. In that sense, the image represents time in a linear way, but also escapes from the effects of the linear perception of time, representing a static picture containing war and peace — two different moments of time — in a single, inseparable and unalterable frame.

Again we witness the evocative power of the concepts of sound and silence as a state of things. The power of sound, as well as the power of those entitled to make it -in wars, concerts, public speeches, industry, media and nature-, has its origins in pre-historic times.

Iégor Reznikoff concludes in an illuminating study that primitive paintings were located in the most reverberant spots of the caves. This suggests that the places humans chose to express themselves visually were also the places best suited to express themselves acoustically. We can follow the footprint of a brief history of echo in spaces destined to meditation, contemplation, liturgy and artistic expression, and it will take us back to the search for meaning and answers about who we are.

Ramón Andrés, in one of his many lucid studies about music, makes a clear point about Reznikoff’s findings: “it is remarkable that this correlation between the symbolic and acoustic phenomena, which can be traced to one hundred thousand years back in time, took place in the deepest darkness, demonstrating the importance of hearing as a key to the transcendent world.”

It is also in the deepest darkness where David Toop we start our relationship with the world: “All of us … begin as eavesdroppers in darkness, hearing muffled sounds from an external world into which we have yet to be born.”

But mankind is a latecomer in the noise of the world. A species that capitalized, signified and abused of the power to make noise. The poetry of Earth, as wrote John Keats in ‘On the Grasshopper and the Cricket’, ceases never. However, it is us that ceased listening. About our sensitivity, Mary Anne Evans -under her alias, George Elliot- wrote the most beautiful words:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Murray Schafer made a distinction between high-fidelity landscapes -those where you can hear the grass grow -and low-fidelity soundscapes -those where, as a result of the background noise, you can’t distinguish all of it’s components with clarity.

The history of our planet is a dance of sounds and silences, assessments and extinctions, eavesdroppers in darkness, silent springs, grasshoppers and crickets, war and peace, grass growing and echoes from a former state of the Universe faraway in space and time.

We belong to the fifth assessment and we are now listening to the sounds of the sixth extinction. It is our privilege to witness the sound of the world, but we not only forgot it’s not ours. We also forgot that the poetry of Earth will outlive us when there’s no one else to remember our voice.