The Conflicting Sounds of Life

The reading by David Rothenberg focuses on the songs of the nightingale in the third chapter of Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound. Rothenberg touches briefly on the Greek myth pertaining to the origin of the nightingale: the myth of Philomela, Queen Procne, and King Tereus. To recap, Tereus raped Philomela, and when she went to tell Procne, his wife and her sister, Tereus cut Philomela’s tongue out. Philomela was able to communicate to her sister what happened through a tapestry Philomela wove. In vengeance, Procne murdered her son, Itys, and served his head to Tereus. The gods ended up transforming each of them into birds; Philomela a nightingale, Tereus a hoopoe, and Procne a swallow. Philomela’s story is one of tragedy, especially when considering that her name means “lover of song”, and is doubly tragic when one learns that the female nightingale also typically does not sing; the male usually is the musician. It was interesting that Rothenberg decided to include such a story in a chapter about the beauty of the nightingale’s song, but now more than ever, the songs of the nightingale, and by extension, of nature have been suppressed. As a consequence of the Anthropocene, multiple large cities have sprung up, and with them, a cacophony of sounds to drown out nature’s natural “song”. The sounds of humanity permeate almost every corner of the globe, either they are directly built by humanity, such as the cities, or indirectly caused, such as the sounds of cracking ice in the Arctic. I believe Rothenberg intended this connection to be drawn between the silencing of Philomela and the silencing of nature’s song, with us, as humankind, playing the part of the tyrannical king Tereus. Instead of playing the single character of Tereus, we will play both Tereus and his son Itys; both the offender, and the one who takes the punishment for it, while nature will continue on, past the demise of our species.

Getting Lost in Nature

At the risk of sounding like other essays, I think one of my favorite sounds is the ocean and I just really feel at peace down at the beach. I’m thankful to live in Western Washington where there are plenty of, albeit rocky, beaches. During covid I was able to go down to beaches whenever I wanted to and hearing the sound of the waves crashing against the shore quickly became one of my favorite and most comforting sounds. However my favorite place in the whole world is on the Washington Coast, away from everything and just on the beach. 

When I was younger, when my family first took us to the coast I noticed how much different, and less affected by human activity the coast was. I noticed how the air was much fresher than back home, how everything seemed quieter, and how there was so much untouched land. Even though the place that we visited had human activity, it still felt like it was in its own corner of the world, untouched by the major effects of human intervention. Personally, I don’t think that part of the Washington Coast will ever get as developed as say Seattle, but I do think that there will be more development to come in the future. And as more development happens not just on the Washington coast or the Oregon coast but the whole world, I feel like there will be a lack of that serene and calmness of being in nature. 

I think that the anthropocene really defines how much humans have changed the planet and I think that the largest piece of anecdotal evidence is the loss of the ability to feel lost in nature. Don’t get me wrong, there are still tons of places to get lost in nature, but it is undeniable that as human activity has increased, the amount of land that could provide this sort of feeling has diminished. And while there are many disastrous effects of climate change, I think that losing the calming sense of just being out in nature will be a less noticeable, but still sad loss at the hands of human overdevelopment.

The Perfect Sound Is Living

Sharawaji is the perfect sound. It’s the phenomena that David Rothenberg has to write pages about just to explain what it means. There is no one example that could be known as the perfect sound, because as we learn the perfect sound is subjective. It can only be perfect to you, or perfect to that moment, or perfect to the place. Through the many combinations of stories I think I was able to begin forming my own understanding of the word. I don’t think I will truly understand it anytime soon, but I was so captivated that I’m sure I will keep my ears open to try and find it.

To start my understanding I examined my own favorite sound, the sound of my heartbeat underwater in a bathtub. When I reflected on this sound I knew that I enjoy it because It brings me comfort and I only hear it at the perfect moment: a calming bath. After reading the entirety of this chapter I found the truth in why I enjoy this sound, and what makes a sound perfect. A large portion of the text revolves around this idea of the tremendous sound of a glacier breaking. Its a powerful sound but what makes it tremendous is the fact that it is an equally powerful occurrence. When a glarier breaks we are faced with what this class is all about, the consequences of human actions. The concept of the earth being destroyed. On its own we know its real, we talk about it daily, yet somehow nothing seems to be done about it. Maybe that’s because we never hear the sound of the glacier breaking. Just because we know its happening doesn’t mean it’s really a reality. Even more thought provoking is the idea from Galvani, that when a glacier hears the sound of a crumbling glacier, will they too crumble? Maybe this tremendous sound is so powerful because it is the sound of death, and when a glacier is faced with its own death it too may choose to cave.

This is a sound of life and death. In this glacier cascade, eventually there will be no more glaciers to crumble, and finally the sound will stop. We as humans will be left with no sound. We knew the glaciers died and through the sound of them crumbling we knew they were once alive. In this moment when there are no more sounds for us to hear, we will realize the meaning of sharawaji, that the perfect sound is anything that proves we are alive. And surely when I can no longer hear my own favorite sound it will be proof of my death.

The Eternal Song of Nature

I have never heard a nightingale in person. While reading about it’s song, I listened to a recording of the bird singing. While this is no replacement for hearing the nightingale in real life, I wanted to get an idea of it’s sound. I took away two main messages in regards to the Anthropocene from the passage (Chapter 3 of David Rothenberg’s Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound). First, the pauses and voids in the song of the nightingale mentioned by Rothenberg, along with what I heard over recording, really emphasize the importance and beauty of silence. In the Anthropocene, we are almost always exposed to human sounds. They permeate through our lives. Even when we are sleeping, the sounds of a distant road, the hum of a refrigerator, or of the very building we live in creaking in the wind always fill our ears with sound. 

The first time I remember going deep inside a cave, I really realized the permanence of sound into our every waking moment. We all turned off our lights and sat motionless on the rocks of the cave in silence. The lack of light and sound was shocking. Other than the faint sound of dripping water every now and then, there was nothing. There is so little sensory input that when you wave your hand in front of your face, your brain tricks you into thinking you can see it, even though it would be completely impossible since there is an absolute absence of light. The pauses in the nightingale’s song remind me of this sensation. We live in a world so saturated by human activity that we don’t even notice. It is like living in a giant white noise machine that never turns off. It is vital that we recognize how much we have filled our world with pollution, and not just the garbage and carbon emissions we usually think of. We pollute the world around us with sound and light too. 

This leads me to my second takeaway from the chapter. The sounds of nature are fundamentally different from the sounds of modern human activity. The mechanized sounds of the present day are distinctly monotone and abruptly dull. They are byproducts of our activity. This is why the nightingale’s song is so entrancing. It sounds pure and full of intent, yet we drown it out in our cities and cut down the forests in which it thrives. It is a perfect example of the Anthropocene. It demonstrates our tendency to destroy nature’s beauty as a byproduct of our unrelenting expansion, but the nightingale doesn’t seem to care. It returns to the trees in our cities and keeps on singing, even if we drown out it’s song. 

Nightingales SIng True

Upon reading chapter 3, Beginnings of Time, I honestly struggled to see a correlation between the themes discussed and the Anthropocene. However, I examined the main idea closer, and that main idea was that humans have had such an expansive impact on Earth that there is hardly any place free of human sound. I liked how the author connected the Anthropocene to how it impacted animals. Particularly, the author evaluated how singing birds and more specifically nightingales, are impacted and how they adapt to the environment as we have changed it. Interestingly, this chapter claims that many birds have been benefited from human’s impact on nature. A beautiful relationship was drawn between all beings of the Earth, that no matter the difference in language or species, we can all connect and understand one another through music.

In this chapter, poetry was deeply analyzed. Another theme that came up was that humans try to copy the music nightingales create, but can never live up to the skill and natural talent of the nightingales. I think this idea emphasizes the greater sentiment that the original is always superior, no matter who tries to copy them. Nightingales can sing perfectly for hours, while humans may struggle to keep up their tune for an hour. These birds return to their same exact territories, so although we have humans change and shape the world, the nightingales stay true to their habits and continue as they always have, adapting to their changing world yet honoring who they are. 

A third important idea is that there is sound all around us constantly, and we are hearing it, but we are not always listening. The author encourages us to deeply listen. Taking time to listen to your surroundings is important to living in the moment and appreciating your environment.