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25 July 2018

Why you should be listening to wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson’s guide to natural habitats

The Compass: Living With Nature explores plains, desert, mountain and forest.

By Antonia Quirke

“It is good for people just to forget about the woes of Brexit and concentrate on the natural world; that was here before us and will be there after us.” A direct order from David Attenborough on Today (20 July) – so, step to it peeps! He was urging us to count passing butterflies, and especially hummingbird hawk-moths (“Sir David there,” nodded Nick Robinson, “soon to be available on prescription”).

In the spirit of this most summery of instructions (which, as with many of Attenborough’s closing-thought utterances, came over like lyric poetry), let me recommend the star wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson’s four-week guide (beginning 25 July, 10pm) to four global habitats: the plains, desert, mountain and forest. You will hear: a porcupine sniffing a tent; hyena crying across 100km of bare escarpment; elephants demonstrating their ability to “slide eight octaves in a single scream”. A sandgrouse fights a falcon (the Namibian nickname for sandgrouse translates, adorably, as “little glass of wine”) and a sidewinder snake buries itself to escape the baking sun. Wind in the dune hollows is like a terrible lament. (I have met someone who lived by the Wahiba desert in Oman, who said she was once lost walking in the dunes for days and kept hearing the calls of children, unmistakable but nowhere to be seen no matter how far she walked.)

The series is perfection, and if you don’t like it then you are evidently on the wrong side of humanity. I was, though, left with an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and sadness that we might not hear this kind of aural information again. Such programmes play into a deep and dreadful anxiety that it’s possible to break the connection with animals, especially as we increasingly surround ourselves with automated things.

There is no need to alter or over-enhance these sounds, or make them more than each animal already is. The mythological dreamscape of humans is full of real, living beings – something that Chris Watson comprehends as well as Ted Hughes, whose best poems were about pike and crows, tomcats and lambs. A mosquito not a dragon. A stag not a balrog. A whale not a T-Rex. The charisma and prestige of an actual animal recorded! 

The Compass: Living with Nature
BBC World Service

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This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special