The general consensus among many experts as well as the general public at the moment is that we are simply running out of time. Time, in this instance, refers to the environmental crisis that is facing every living being if explicit action is not taken immediately – either to stop, or at least reverse some of the key forces facing the planet and its people (Gisli et al. 2013:3).
For a very long time now there existed an uneasiness between the boundaries of human activity and that of nature’s – the increasing power of humans over nature is more than 200 years old but has only now become an unavoidable and empirically based reality (Gisli, et al. 2013:6). Owing to the influences that human activity has had, it became evident that a slow but definite shift started to occur – from a nature-dominated global environmental system, to a human-dominated one. This is due to human “environing” activities in our surrounding environment – the establishment of an anthropecenic “rock” made from infrastructure such as roads and residences (Gisli et al. 2013:5).
Global environmental change has been irrevocably impacted by human activity. This phenomenon, now often referred to as the “Anthropocene”, refers to the epoch following the “Holocen” (Gisli et al. 2103:4). Some experts and research identified the late eighteenth century as the catalyst for the Anthropocene and included the onset of and the development of agriculture and deforestation. The drastic changes that ensued, especially due to the Industrial Revolution and the “Great Acceleration” which started in the mid 20th century, are therefore a direct result of the increased use of for example fossil fuels, which has started to impact the atmosphere’s composition (Gisli et al. 2103:4; Water et al. 2016:137). Global geological processes are another example of an environmental process being altered by human activity at an alarming rate (Waters et al. 2016:137).
The rapid growth of the global population, accelerated use of natural resources and the phenomenal developments in technology are all viewed as the current drivers of the anthropogenic footprint – resulting in the substitution of wildlife and indigenous vegetation for domesticated species in order to meet human demand for food and shelter (Waters et al. 2016:139).
Other human activities, such as agriculture and residential developments have obliterated natural surroundings (Waters et al. 2016:139). As a result, processes such as construction, landfills (due to waste disposal), urbanisation and mining have all brought on the formation of new forms of anthropogenic rock deposits (Waters et al. 2016:140). In other words, materials such as bricks, glass and copper, which have the potential for becoming semi-permanent man-made geological materials, have changed the layers of the earth (Waters et al. 2016:140). In addition, these processes have resulted in the alteration of sedimentary processes and transformed the geochemical identity in the earth’s ice layers, to mention just a few of the drastic ways in which human activity has impacted the earth (Waters et al. 2016:141).
This new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, therefore draws our attention to the possibility of a “silent spring”. Concerned citizens and environmentalists alike are anxiously listening out for the sound of birds within an earth-changing phenomenon brought on by humans (Whitehouse, 2015:53). The belief that human beings and nature are separate from each other no longer holds any truth – the possibility that nature is dying causes great anxiety and uncertainty, not just about what has been lost up to now, but also how it came to be (Whitehouse, 2015:54).
The damage caused by humans to our natural environment is not happening far away from us – it has quite a literal and direct impact on the everyday experiences of ordinary people (Whitehouse, 2015:54). The Anthropocene affects our immediate surroundings and therefore our soundscape in threatening the natural patterns and ways-of-being of birds and other wildlife. This concern for a local consequence leads to far-reaching causes and effects and ultimately we cannot and should not take our immediate environment for granted at any point, even if things seem “fine”, for now (Whitehouse, 2015:55).
What is it Like to Listen to Birds in the Anthropocene?
I have always been sensitive to sounds, especially noise. Even though we were requested to keep a sound diary to reflect our experiences of the sound of birds in the Anthropocene I immediately knew that I would not need to keep a diary. Maybe the reason was because I grew up in a house where a high premium was placed on listening to the “sound of nature” wherever we went for holiday, or even at home (my parents are avid bird-watchers). One of the reasons my husband and I moved house recently was due to an insistent pool pump from a neighbour. I am not sure if the average person would have noticed such a noise or experienced it as disturbing, but for me personally it was something that affected me physically as well as emotionally. It caused a great deal of stress – whenever I came home from work all I wanted was to experience the normal quietness that I was always used to – birds, crickets and just the general wind-down of human activity.
However, I have taken extra care to listen to the sound of birds in the Anthropocene the past week, particularly around my new house. First of all I would like to say that as a person living in the city I consider myself privileged. Even in the previous house and in spite of the noisy pool pump, we have been lucky to be surrounded by a rich birdlife. Unfortunately it became evident that every time I listened to the birds in my garden, my attention would move towards some form of city noise, whether it was cars or aeroplanes in the background, or the train close to our house, or even the neighbours’ dogs barking. Even sounds from inside the house would break my attention when listening to the birds. Clearly the Anthropocene is meshed into the natural environment and have the noises of the Anthropocene become second nature – it has become “natural” to me. Human development has not only become second nature to us, it has become our nature!
Figure 1: African Grey Hornbill from our garden in Meyerspark, taken by Craig Forssman, 2014.
The bird sounds are quite varied, considering Pretoria is a large and well-established city. On a daily basis I can hear the African Green Pigeons as they come to feast in one of our trees. African Grey Hornbills are also regular visitors to our garden and the sound reminds of being somewhere in the Bushveld. In addition we have Fiery-necked Night Jars (a small night owl) that can be heard throughout the night, as well as the rasp of Guinea-Fowl living in the Agricultural Research Council’s experimental farm in Rietondale. Others that I hear regularly or have heard this week included the Hadeda and the (lately) very scarce African Hoopoe (or better known as a Hoephoep).
People and Our Disappearing Ecosystems
Since I am a little bit older I have decided to reflect on my own experience with nature in the city rather than interviewing my parents on their experiences growing up. Where I grew up there was one undeveloped plot of land for many years. A family of Guinea-Fowl called it their home for many years and I have fond memories of them going around our neighbourhood. Once the property was sold and the new owners started to build their house the Guinea Fowl silently disappeared. Fast forward many years later, in my 30s and at our new (now) old house, we were blessed with a new family of Guinea-Fowl who called a small patch of open land in the middle of all the houses their home. In addition many other indigenous animals made the neighbourhood their home, like the Hyrax (a.k.a. “dassie”). In a way my new home provided me with a lot more opportunities to experience nature, something that was virtually absent from the house I grew up in, even though the two houses were only about ten kilometres apart!
My final thoughts…
I would like to however draw an important conclusion from this. The homes where I was able to experience a richer birdlife (my current house and the previous one) have something very important in common – both homes were located very close to city greenbelts or something similar (the previous house was situated on a rocky ridge close to the Skuilkrans Bird Sanctuary and the Moretele Spruit). The house I grew up in was further away from any natural parks. Therefore I would like to draw a conclusion by saying that a balance can be achieved between human beings and nature if we give nature the space it deserves. Clearly even a small open patch of land with indigenous fauna and flora is all that is needed to provide a safe haven for the creatures that now have to look elsewhere to make a home. In addition one might wonder what kind of role those in authority can play in providing the balance that is lacking in our cities. Town and Regional planners for example as well as the academia who trains these individuals can and should make an urgent effort to take the Anthropocene more seriously. A new approach to development is definitely a necessity.
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.
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.