The climate crisis is so rapidly laying waste to our world that it can be depressing to even attempt to comprehend it. We’re in the midst of a mass extinction period brought upon by human greed and soulless expansion. Billions of years of unique evolution have been ripped out from under us by a few centuries of a colonial desire for domination over nature. Justice, when there is any to be had, is fleeting and in short supply. The time that has long been speculated to be running out, has run out. Today, the effects of environmental collapse are being overwhelmingly pinned to the backs of Black and Brown people across the world. This morbid feedback loop of callousness, degradation, and death will continue to reverberate with larger and more frequent catastrophes, as floods, droughts, and fires render our world increasingly unlivable. But despair can’t be our final resting place. The best environmental writing is urgent. Kathleen Dean Moore’s collection of essays, Earth’s Wild Music catalogs (and therefore attempts to protect) the sounds of the natural world.
Moore states in her prologue that “the responsibility of the nature writer [is]…. to bear witness, blow the whistle….and sometimes, weeping, to write the condolences letters.” Earth’s Wild Music is validating to read because she understands the corner we’ve been backed into. Her writing is lucid and present, able to log the momentary trills and warblings of birds on a morning hike as part of a larger story on the wonders of the interconnected natural world. Moore uses song as the great magic that ties life from ocean, desert, and forest together.
What she is able to communicate that is so terrifying is that the sounds of the natural world are in trouble of being silenced. Because true panic would be to wake up one day in a world without sound. When an animal goes extinct, we lose its sound forever. It is this sonic absence that is so difficult to really understand as a consequence, and its horror lies in its permanence. If there isn’t a forest to walk through, there won’t be birds to hear singing, and by that point we will be too late.
Moore gives a wide-ranging set of examples where sound has been wrenched from its natural harmony. There are the whales, dying in the warming ocean, and with them, their awe-inspiring songs. There is Davis Lake in Oregon, incinerated to silence by wildfire. Elsewhere, humans have created artificial sounds, like fracking’s violent roar and fire, imposing its dominion over the sonic landscape and drowning out local birds. Or the miles of highways, saddling most natural space with a distant but constant mechanical thrumming. Moore makes the case that when music is impeded, dysfunction sets in.
But it is Moore’s recognition of the music that lives on around us that makes this collection special. It’s affirming to read someone who gives credence to the granular parts that compose the larger whole. It’s a multitude of different animals, from birds and bugs to fungus and plants and humans that power an ecosystem. Nothing is too small for inspection. The closer Moore gets with her comparison of nature to music, the more apt the metaphor is. She watches her neighbor, a symphony conductor, rehearse cueing each instrument’s role in the piece. “You can’t make a small change in the time that the oboes enter and expect the music to work at all,” she says. “You can’t make a small change in the pitch of the flutes and expect harmony. You can’t make a small change in the temperature that cues insects to emerge, and still expect meadowlarks to sing.”
An especially interesting essay is concerned with a hike she takes with Gordon Hempton, who records the sounds of nature. He describes how a stream in a forest is like a fugue, the sound of water’s collision with each and every rock like notes in the rushing melody. “It’s all one thing, this opus,” Moore says. “That’s what music is, the precarious, inseparable relationship of sounds, moving through time. That’s what a life is, a temporary harmony.” The most successful essays in the collection manage to be both celebrations of life and stark warnings.
While these essays focus on a dark and difficult subject matter, this collection does often dip into the overly-sentimental. Sometimes this style helps drive home Moore’s points, as she often uses emotional pleas in her work, but the book can feel heavy with the weight of melodrama. It’s a fine line to walk—perhaps the climate crisis is a dramatic enough setting to necesitate this style. Additionally, many essays in this collection have a similar, almost repetitive timbre (“I heard a bird while hiking which made me consider the end of life on Earth…”) Regardless, Moore usually gets to interesting places through this method.
This book’s urgency lies in how Moore does bear witness to a disappearing world. Realistically, it is probably too late to save the many species teetering on the edge of existence. Part of the fight toward environmental justice is documenting the reality of the world, celebrating the natural world and memorializing the miracles that are being taken away. In an essay toward the end of the book, Moore discusses with a friend why she continues doing the hopeless task of fighting for the environment. Her friend, adding to the reasons, says “because we are not doomed, as long as we act…” We have an obligation to lift up the songs and stories of the powerless, the less privileged, and the silenced.
Earth’s Wild Music
by Kathleen Dean Moore
Published February 16th, 2021
Jonathan Dale is a Chicago-based freelance writer, interested in comedy, urban design, and fiction. He can be found on Twitter @dalejondale