Out of the Silence

Out of the Silence

Nina Munteanu

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance.

The first time I peered at pond life through a microscope: I watched a tiny green chrysophyte drift in aimless circles amid detritus. The protist was unaware as an amoeba flowed toward it, pseudopods encircling it in a strangling embrace. I caught myself in a breathless pause — that moment when the amoeba’s arms closed around the tiny protist. In that same moment, the chrysophyte went into a violent death struggle as digesting enzymes attacked it. In less than a second, it grew still.

Like the stealthy amoeba, the human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

A foreign noise perks me to attention. Faint still, it strikes a discord in the lackluster soundscape of the forest. My ever-sharp hearing picks up the sound of an electric vehicle rumbling in the distance. I can hear the friction of the silent vehicle’s wheels on the old pavement. I wait for its sound to fade as it continues to Bancroft. But the rumble grows steadily louder in waves as it negotiates the turns of the small country road. The vehicle has turned onto our private road that leads to a string of ranches, farms, and small cottages, like mine. I still myself and listen. Unmistakable. The vehicle is heading this way. Perhaps it will pass my driveway on to Clem’s grain pasture farm, Agatha’s sheep farm, or Betty and Gerald’s bee farm. The vehicle slows and turns into my long driveway through the forest scrub. The sound of wheels on gravel approaches. Then a car rolls to a stop in front of me. I’m not wearing my SightAid, so I can barely make out the car against the dark tangle of poplar, Manitoba maple, sumac, and dogwood. Both front doors of the car open and two people step out. The front passenger climbs out energetically, followed by the driver. I strain to make them out and can only discern two fuzzy silhouettes.

My heart pounds. I haven’t had a visitor in years. Not since Diana, who, well, won’t be visiting again.

I can’t think of anyone who even knows I’m here other than Clem, my taciturn neighbour who walks over from his adjacent farm; he looks in on me from time to time to make sure I haven’t burned down the house and regularly brings food like his artisanal ancient grain bread.

Who would drive these wilderness roads to visit an old blind woman?

We have absolutely no concept how much we are led by sight — until we lose it. We shape our perception of the world through this one sense alone. So, when we lose it, we’re truly lost.

I’m not totally blind. I can make out shadows and shapes and some colours at the end of a long tunnel. I had no idea how much I would miss colours, mostly the trillion different greens of the forest and the meadows where I lived as a young woman. Now, they are a dull wash of varying grays. Like my life. Like me.

Diana had constantly berated me on my languishing lifestyle — until we stopped speaking to each other five years ago. I’d grown lazy and fat, my daughter railed. It was so unhealthy. I needed to do something with my life, she’d insisted. What happened wasn’t my fault, she kept saying. I should stop blaming myself and stop feeling useless. The world had changed and I needed to accept it and get on with it; find something to move forward. There was no excuse; I had SightAid. The device helped me get around just fine, she kept saying. SightAid combines an intraocular implant that “talks” to special eyeglasses with nano-cameras. Video input is converted into electronic signals to the implant in my eye. My implant uses this information to stimulate the rest of the healthy cells in my retina to transmit via the optic nerve to my brain where the image is interpreted as patterns of light. The idea was that I would interpret these patterns as outlines of things to help me get around — like the clinical trials had shown. Some patients were even able to read with SightAid. All it did for me was make me dizzy and hurt my head with too much information. I ditched it. Diana seemed more disappointed than I was. She’d paid a huge sum to equip me with SightAid and I wasn’t using it. Instead, I’d holed up in my little shack in the Highlands, doing nothing of import, puttering in my garden, listening to music, and daydreaming — isolated and unsafe in the wilderness of northern Ontario. Diana insisted that I use daisie, the home-droid she sent me, and she’d asked Clem to rig it to the house computer. daisie — short for Domestic Autonomous Integrated System for an Intelligent Environment — did regular chores, like clean the house, make meals, and keep me informed. It even came with a connection to emergency services in case I fell or injured myself. I hated the stupid thing — all the annoying noises it made and its intrusive presence. So, I disconnected it. When she heard, Diana went ballistic. I get it; I was a poor investment. Diana should have spent her money on a new set of curtains for her house in Kerrisdale or something. Then she wouldn’t be so angry at me all the time. I just couldn’t stomach her anger and the guilt that came with it. So, I stopped calling her and I stopped answering her calls. I pulled the plug on my internet. And disappeared into silence.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that, well, it was different before. I wasn’t always this way… when the birds were still here.

When I was younger and took my sight for granted, I was active in my work. But it wasn’t sight I focused on: it was sound. I began my master’s degree at the University of Toronto in 2020, after a paper by Rosenberg and others in the October 2019 issue of Science magazine caught my attention. The researchers had estimated that three billion birds of various species had disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970. A third of the entire bird population lost in five decades. The focus of the study wasn’t on extinction; these were still common species — just greatly diminished in numbers. It made sense to me. I’d already noticed how even the common house sparrow had declined around my house in the Beaches. The Guardian had reported that two thirds of the house sparrow population had disappeared in Europe. Close to one hundred and fifty million birds. Gone. In North America, warbler populations dropped by six hundred million. Blackbirds by four hundred million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings — once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest — had dwindled by fifty per cent. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services had determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments had been severely altered by human actions. Unchecked deforestation. Flagrant use of toxic pesticides. Turning wetlands into parking lots. Climate change. We were destroying the integrity of ecosystems throughout this planet on a massive scale.

I’d heard of an emerging discipline: soundscape ecology. All the sounds of an ecosystem — from trickling streams to singing birds — combine in a unique soundscape that represents a “fingerprint” of the ecosystem in its current state. The concept of soundscape began with the early works of an environmental psychologist and a musician. It was only recently championed by ecologists as an ecological tool: acoustic communication was crucial for organisms to reproduce, feed, defend territories and avoid predators. Ecologists divided the acoustics into three categories: geophony describes natural processes like crashing waterfalls, tides, lightning and rumbling earthquakes; biophony describes the sounds produced by all living things from plants and insects to larger wildlife; and then there’s anthropophony, the sounds produced by human activities such as planes, traffic and construction. Soundscapes promised a quick and easy way to assess the health of a habitat. Soundscape ecologists figured out that the richness of the soundscape was linked to the diversity and abundance of life in an ecosystem — from the smallest insect to a roaming bear and rustling tree. This emerging science was based largely on bioacoustics, landscape ecology, community ecology, and engineering.

I was already hooked on the idea of studying soundscape ecology when I met Bernie Krause at a symposium at the university. He was eighty years old and still doing field experiments in soundscape ecology. He’d collected a huge and unique archive of soundscapes from all over the world: five thousand hours of soundscapes contained nearly fifteen thousand different species and over three thousand distinct habitats. Through his thousands of sound recordings, Bernie could hear the climate changing as it altered the sonic signatures of the planet’s natural environments. As the oceans warmed, their soundtracks changed. Bernie documented the flatlining of coral reef, rainforest, and forest soundscapes. He called it dysphonia. In medical terms dysphonia means an inability to speak.

Bernie reminded us that animals aren’t the only organisms that use sound to communicate. Plants and forests detect frequency-selected vibrations, using a “hearing” sense to find water and communicate threats. Reduced plant density changes the balance between absorptive surfaces such as leaves and reflective surfaces such as rocks and buildings. This increases reverberation and creates a harsher environment. The echoes confuse the native species that have adapted to the natural harmony. They struggle to hear mating calls. Predators struggle to detect prey. Ultimately, populations may relocate, even if that area offers food and shelter. Just as an introvert may back out of a noisy room.

Bernie shared an example of how soundscape ecology could expose environmental destruction that we can’t even see. His recordings over time revealed that a logging company’s “low-impact” selective logging in Lincoln Meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains had, in fact, subjected the ecosystem to significant impact — an impact on biodiversity not seen but heard. To anyone just looking, the post-logged forest superficially appeared the same; the recordings told another story. Climate change and human activities were changing the Earth’s natural acoustic fabric. And we could hear them before we could see them.

In a healthy habitat, said Bernie, all the biophonies (insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) form acoustic niches — sonic territories or channel bandwidths — that they establish so that their voices can be heard unimpeded by others.

According to Bernie, several hypotheses helped form an understanding of how soundscapes could be used as conservation tools. The morphological adaptation hypothesis (mah) and the acoustic adaptation hypothesis (aah) described how ecological feedback mechanisms give rise to changes in animal signals; Bernie’s acoustic niche hypothesis (anh) described how these feedback mechanisms lead to the complex arrangement of signals in a soundscape. Organisms could adjust their vocalizations to the properties of the environment. As an example, Bernie showed us that the flycatcher and the red-eyed vireo developed non-overlapping signals to better compete for auditory space. The birds adjusted their signals to exploit vacant niches in the auditory spectrum and worked together to create harmony. Invasive species created biophonic disturbances, impacting the effects of the natural acoustics. Just like a noisy neighbour or bully in the yard impacts the harmony of a school yard or an entire neighbourhood. Bernie fired my soul with a passion to help. What we needed was a cost-efficient and easy way to monitor ecosystems from boreal forests to the hidden jungles of the Congo. On-site monitoring of biodiversity by field scientists typically used markers like species richness and habitat features, which depended on data collected on site; this was time consuming, expensive, and inefficient — particularly given that some environments were too remote or dangerous to reach in person. Soundscape monitoring could provide a cost-efficient and safe way to monitor remote environments that traditional on-site monitoring by ground crew couldn’t reach. But, we needed to create an appropriate database of sounds that could then help accurately monitor and predict degradation so conservation efforts could be prioritized. This became possible because of new technologies such as automated recording devices, inexpensive storage capacities, and refinements in acoustic data processing. Programmable recorders had been designed to allow simultaneous long-term and multi-site recording. We also had reliable links to landscape ecology. That’s where I came in. It turned out that I was quite gifted in eco-acoustics: linking complex interactions of organisms, geo-physical dynamics, and human activities through soundscape ecology — particularly through avian ecology and behaviour. Because birds exist in virtually every ecosystem, avian acoustic activity could provide a robust metric of ecosystem health and environmental change, given what we already knew of avian ecology, evolution, and ethology.

I partnered with another scientist as part of a joint team of sixty-six universities around the world, headed by the University of Freiburg and the University of Toronto under the supervision of Doctors Müller and Anderson. My counterpart Bastienne Friesen was stationed in the forest of Schorfheide in Brandenburg; I had chosen the already endangered Carolinian Forest of southern Ontario and stationed myself in the Little Rouge Forest — part of one of Canada’s largest urban parks — just east of Toronto.

Bastienne and I hit it off; we shared a strong spirit for inquiry. She was one of those tall string-bean Germans with a sternly sculpted face and long nose — softened by the warmest hazel eyes, urchin mouth, and a shock of curly auburn hair that looked like a cloud at sunset. We instantly connected like two lost sisters. We became a surging force; better together than separate, as our skills and abilities harmonized. We analyzed the entire spectrum of acoustical energy in our landscapes: a chorus of rain, wind, trees, insects, birds, road sounds, and planes in the sky — and how they affected and influenced each other. We then compared our results and refined our ecosystem soundscapes accordingly, based on four soundscape principles: how sounds interact in a landscape; how they are shaped by environmental constraints; how they reflect characteristics of animal communities; and how they vary across ecological and human disturbance gradients. The tool was then able to generate an avian Index of Biotic Integrity like Karr’s for stream biota and Brink’s amoeba index.

Our soundscape ecology models revolutionized nature monitoring and conservation.

Each pair, like Bastienne and I, worked on their ecosystem soundscape design, which was then quality-assured through integration into the larger database. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Bastienne and I played key roles in creating the final design. We needed to create a monitoring system that could record, assess, and conclude quickly, accurately, and reliably. Bastienne — a gifted sound and drone design engineer and 3d thinker — devised an ingenious adaptive mechanism for drone deployment in sensitive and remote ecosystems.

The challenge was to record sound variations that would fully encapsulate the soundscape of that ecosystem. To do this, Bastienne created an acoustic sensor array by using partner-drones that incorporated the three primary elements of sound propagation: sender, shaper of the signal, and perception by intended recipient. She accomplished this by using aspects of sound propagation such as qualitative acoustic, frequency, amplitude, directionality, and points of origin. Propagation, for instance, depended on the medium through which it passed — such as air, water, solids — and on the arrangement of reflective and absorptive surfaces of that medium — such as vegetation, buildings, and waterbodies. This way, Bastienne captured relational sounds of birds and amphibians and the wind or rushing water that might otherwise mask them into a full 3d picture. A relevant picture of functionality.

Then came my part: I designed an app that targeted key “holes” in the soundscape based on keystone niches, functional metrics, soundscape drivers, and associated disturbance indicators. Holes were identified on 3d spectrograms using a regionalized niche model that I’d designed with the help of U of T landscape ecologist Paul Maly and systems design engineer Athena Korba. When we equipped Bastienne’s drone with my app, we realized that we’d created exactly what we needed: an inexpensive and regionally adaptive tool that could be used anywhere and anytime. A tool that would quickly and accurately pinpoint the extent of an ecosystem’s functionality and key disturbance indicators. Previous ecosystem soundscape assessments were either too general and therefore not sensitive enough; or they were overly specific, making the assessment too sensitive and not broadly applicable. My adaptive app — based more on process than structure — addressed both needs. And Bastienne’s ingenius delivery system ensured that we accurately captured the quality of the ecosystem. Bastienne brashly called it solo, short for “Soundscape Omniscient Logistical Output.”

U of T and U of F took our tool and test drove it everywhere, using ground-truthed ecosystems. We had a one hundred per cent match. By the time I graduated, solo was being used all over the world from Borneo to the Congo and beyond.

That year we received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for solo; Bastienne and I were sent to the University of Southern California to accept. I basked in the knowledge that we had created a tool that could save endangered ecosystems. Of course, the hard work was still ahead of us; deploying solo in the remotest environments to create our blanket baseline network was a grindingly slow process, burdened with politics and other unforeseen barriers. We made very slow progress in establishing a comprehensive web of protection. Despite worldwide recognition for our tool, it proved difficult to create the planet-wide baseline network. A year later, I met Patrick and we married soon after. I gave birth to my sweet daughter, Diana, in 2028. We lived in The Beaches as I continued my work in acoustics modeling publishing papers, giving talks, and attending meetings.

Then, during the summer of 2040, when Diana turned twelve, the world went silent over the course of a few days. The songbirds of the entire world died. At first some slammed into things like drunks — trees, buildings, windows, even people. Then they dropped out of the sky in the millions. We had no warning. Our soundscape tools failed to catch and warn of the avian blight. Some of the larger raptors were originally spared but then eventually succumbed as well.

It happened so quickly, scientists literally scrambled to understand it. Harpreet Choudhary and her team in the uk confirmed that the birds first lost their sight. Then they developed muscle paralysis and their hearts stopped. Uxìo Martinez and his team at Max Planck identified a possible neurotoxin that caused the deaths of the birds. But it took months to identify the vector. This was because the vector was different everywhere. Scientists in different parts of the world suggested it was this insect or that insect. We couldn’t figure it out. Months later, a pattern emerged: it was always the dominant local insect that passed on the neurotoxin before itself succumbing, though not always. And it seemed that a fungus was the culprit.

The breakthrough finally came a year later following some brilliant detective work by journalists of The Guardian with the help of a whistleblower in corporate America. In 2041, a team headed by mycologist Wilma Harding at the University of Sydney, Australia, identified the blight as a genetically-modified fungus used as a biological insecticide. The entomopathogenic fungus — an asexual phase of Ascomycota — was created and pioneered by scientists at the University of Maryland in partnership with ag-biotech multinational giant Goddard Agri-Gen. They’d used a spider gene to genetically engineer the fungus to produce a venom that attacked locally-targeted pests. Subsidiaries of Agri-Gen in India, Asia, Africa, and Australia rolled it out all on the same day after targeted tests proved its efficacy in temperate areas.

With pressure from agri-tech buyers, Agri-Gen had neglected to do the requisite and time-consuming chronic environmental testing; they failed to address potential epigenetic and hgt alterations in conditions that differed from those it was tested in. Triggered by air temperatures of 40° C, the gene-hacked fungus over-expressed its heat shock proteins and quickly morphed epigenetically into the avian killer form. The gene-hacked fungus adapted to the most prevalent insect in the area — perfectly targeting the local songbirds along with it. The fungus spread swiftly and morphed accordingly, creating an avian pandemic.

The irony was that, once the birds vanished, the pests the fungus was originally targeted recovered with a vengeance. Some birds eat as many as five hundred insects a day in the summer. Without insect-eating birds like bluebirds, wrens, and chickadees to eat them, the pests exploded in numbers, causing ecosystems to collapse worldwide. 2041, which experienced an extremely warm summer, brought in swarms of grasshoppers to Asia and Europe, destroying whole harvests like a plague. I was reminded of Mao Tse Tung’s 1960 edict to kill all sparrows who were eating the seeds in the fields; instead, they caused a horrific plague of locusts that caused famine. With the disappearance of a single bird — the House Swift — agricultural pests in China quadrupled in 2041. Without the Evening Grosbeak, spruce budworm destroyed huge sections of the western forests of North America. Without the oystercatcher there to keep it in check, the Salt Marsh periwinkle destroyed a majority of the salt marshes of south-eastern usa by the late forties.

Ironically, the pests did the most damage on the giant monocrops meant to benefit the most from the killer fungus. The ag-giants responded by dousing their wheat, maize, rice, and cotton fields with even more pesticides — to which many pests had already become resistant. Instead of addressing the pests, they wiped out pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. With no pollinators, even gmo crops — like soybeans, corn, potatoes, and sugar beets — failed and collapsed within a few years. China resorted to hand-pollinating their orchards. The rest of the world followed their desperate action. The price of chocolate sky-rocketed when arthropods crashed the cacao agroforestry in Indonesia and the Ivory Coast. Food prices soared everywhere; soon the Foodland grocery store near where I lived grew empty. I quit drinking coffee; its price had risen to $60 per pound after the infestations of coffee plantations in Indonesia, India, and Vietnam, followed by Brazil and Mexico in 2042. By the late 40s, the disappearance of insectivorous and pollinating birds meant no more apples, nuts, olives, or wine — among a host of staple foods.

The environmental catastrophe did manage to unify countries into mobilizing a worldwide effort to address climate change, develop clean energy, and promote more sustainable agriculture with a focus on ecosystem-health. Heavy fines were placed on the use of gene-hacking experiments. The use of environmentally detrimental pesticides and associated genetically-modified crops was globally banned. We saw a resurgence in small-farming, perennial pasture cropping and the use of organic practices. But much of this was too late. Even though the socio-political barriers against deploying solo worldwide had dissolved, what was the point in continuing? The birds were gone. The bees were virtually gone. There was no more baseline anywhere. Without birds to reseed degraded lands, the islands of Indo-malayan, Neotropical, and Palearctic regions are now wastelands. In highly virulent disease-prone South Asia, the rapid collapse of the vulture population led to a surge in feral dogs that spread rabies to humans. Rat populations exploded and by the mid-forties, waves of anthrax and bubonic plague killed humans worldwide. Tularemia put thousands of people in the hospital in the southern usa in forty-nine. And rodent-spread Hantavirus spread throughout North America.

We’d failed. My tool had failed. I’d failed. We were so focused on risks to endangered and rare habitats, that we’d failed to account for the common areas. We’d focused on sensitive and threatened nesting habitats, riparian areas, unique forest ecosystems, native prairie and wetlands. But, the areas that dominated our world — modified areas where the majority of life did its business such as monoculture agricultural areas, tree plantations, modified scrub, cities and towns — is where it all started. By the time the scourge reached the natural areas of our focus, it was too late. And in some ways, irrelevant — because, like a contrarian, the gene-hacked fungus turned on its originators, attacking beneficial insects; pollinators; earth-engineers; decomposers and nutrient recyclers.

I watched with sick dread as the world changed. That’s when I lost my sight. Literally. The doctor explained that it was an aggressive form of retinitis pigmentosa: a bilateral degeneration of the retina and retinal pigment epithelium, usually caused by genetic mutations, with resulting loss of peripheral and some central vision. She suggested that my sudden case had probably developed from a virus. Deep down, I figured it was just Nature’s retribution for what I’d failed to see when I had my sight. I embraced the punishment. At forty-five, my life was over. I felt instantly useless.

I left U of T on a disability pension. I pushed everyone away. Even Bastienne. Especially Bastienne. Her interminable optimism drove me crazy. Like an energetic terrier, she just wouldn’t stop trying. She kept insisting that we could still do something with solo; solo was still the key somehow to turning the disaster around. She reminded me that we’d only managed to cover fifty-seven per cent of our target habitats when the disaster occurred. There were still so many regions of the world worth analysing. “For what?” I wanted to scream at her. So we could hear a more complete soundscape of the total devastation? Her delusions added discord to an already broken symphony. I turned away from everything to do with solo, and she was part of that. I stopped corresponding with her, trashed her messages without listening to them, turned off Skype. I lost my sight of the world at forty-five; I can’t remember when I stopped listening to the world.

Patrick eventually left me. I don’t blame him; I was utterly miserable and inconsolable. Out of self-preservation, he went on with his life and moved to Calgary to continue his work in the solar energy sector. Diana left home when she was eighteen to pursue medicine in Vancouver. She married while still in medical school and a few years after they had a little girl, Katie. My namesake — except I always go by my whole name, Katherine. I was a grandmother at fifty-six.

The passenger of the car says something to the driver that I can’t make out. I curse that I’ve left SightAid in grandchild! My heart races as she walks up to the house. This doesn’t make sense; she lives in Vancouver, clear across the country, with her truculent mother. She’d be sixteen years old now. The driver walks behind Katie with a willowy gait. An older woman, tall and lanky with a great cloud of reddish hair. It strikes a long-lost memory that is both painful and exciting. As they reach the front steps of my porch, the stranger releases a self-conscious laugh and I instantly recognize her as my long-lost friend Bastienne.

“Gramma Katherine!” Katie rushes up the porch steps as I struggle to my feet and she gives me a tight hug. I shake with joy at the sight and sound of my granddaughter and wrap my arms around her. Her scent of conifers and the sea embraces me like a warm coat. At close quarters, I can make out her features. She is the spitting image of my daughter just before she left for med-school in Vancouver.

Then Bastienne reaches the veranda and Katie untangles herself from me.

“Hello, my friend,” Bastienne says with the slightest German accent. How I missed the gentle cadence of that voice! A voice so alive with hope and meaning. She doesn’t approach, although it’s obvious she wants to reach out and hug me. “Long time no see…” I hear the guarded smile in her voice and imagine it opening to that urchin grin that always promised adventure.

I smile with confusion. A part of me is overjoyed to see her; another part of me is suspicious and afraid of what she brings. She has barely changed. She’s still a wild wizard.

 “What are you both doing here?” I blurt out. Living alone has not honed my social skills.

I shuffle my feet.

Katie laughs at my awkward question. “I’ve been meaning to visit you, Gramma. Mom kept saying that I should and was ready to ship me off. But stuff kept getting in the way.

School and stuff. Then Bastienne came along!” She points to Bastienne and sits on the bench beside me, then urges Bastienne to sit on my other side. A nervous smile tugs my mouth as Bastienne sits down next to me. She smells of lilac and pine. Katie continues, “Bastienne’s been looking for you and couldn’t find you. You’d totally disappeared! So, she finally contacted Mom. We all had a great visit and then Mom reminded me that we hadn’t seen you for over five years and then only on Skype. So, here I am, killing two squirrels with one stone!”

I pull her close to me with an arm. “And I’m so glad you’ve come, Katie.”

We grow silent and listen to the wind. It moans a plaintive tune through the lanky poplars. The trees sway and clank like dancing drunkards. I’m reminded of when I was Katie’s age and listened to the multi-timbral voices of the forest. When had I stopped listening?

“It’s been twenty years, old friend,” Bastienne says gently, adding a lyrical note to the soundscape.

I turn to her with mixed emotions. From this close I can see that she is remarkably the same as the last time I saw her in 2050. She has aged well. Her strong Germanic features have matured and mellowed like a majestic mountain range. Warm hazel eyes still shine with celebration. I so want to hug her and tell her I’m sorry for creating our silence. But the pain at what motivated me forces me to look away. I focus on the tick-infested forest. What I can see of it, that is, which isn’t much more than a grey jumble of textures and shades. Its hush seems to wait for something. Then, like a bird returned to its nest in the forest, Bastienne says, “I need your help, Katherine.”

I turn to her with curiosity and mounting trepidation. “I need your special talents. We all do.”

I’m trembling now. I say nothing, but blink and tacitly encourage her to explain.

She does: “I convinced the committee to continue our project. But instead of establishing a pre-disaster baseline, we are focusing on finding anomalies that could indicate recovery…” she trails and her mouth curls into an urchin smile, prolonging the suspense. Then she is beaming. “I was looking for recovery when I made a startling discovery.” She is now leaning forward, hand on my knee. “Katherine, some birds made it!” She lets that sink in before continuing, “In the remote jungle of Hang Son Doong — one of the world’s largest caves in Vietnam, which has a jungle inside it — we found the scimitar babbler still there, doing just fine along with a healthy jungle. A jungle full of hundreds of vertebrates, invertebrates, langur monkeys, bats, butterflies, geckos, tree frogs, and lots more.” She shakes her head, still beaming. “It’s a haven and we don’t know why.”

She then breaks out into joyful laughter. It resonates inside me and fills my heart with the promise of a dawn breaking. I hear my heart beat in my ears with excitement and stutter out like a woodpecker, “How did they — the fungus…”

“Yes, I know!” Bastienne says. “We still don’t know why. Was it their isolation? Or did they have a particular adaptation? Or had the fungus lost its efficacy by the time it reached them? All we know is they’re there. And, as you know, if there is one, there are — ”

“ — more!” I end with excitement. Is it possible? Could it be that the world has been recovering without me? While I wasn’t listening? “Oh, Bastienne…”

“Katherine, we need your soundscape talents to explain this, find more, analyse what’s going on and help us rebuild our world.”

I lean back and close my eyes as tears of joy pool in them. I listen to the forest, and hear the stirrings of hope in a world throbbing with life. Embedded in the simple hush lie subtle notes of complexity. Amid the percussion of creaking poplars, the maples and birches rustle a melodic line. The pines whisper a soft antiphony. A nearby chortling stream adds a chord progression to the melody. Some creature scampers through the underbrush, adding counterpoint percussion. A squirrel scolds in the distance, creating a dissonant interval. I hear it all. Life continues, resolving its consonant and dissonant sounds. When I lost my sight, I lost my hope. I’d blindly focused on the damage; but Nature is resilient and knows how to recreate its rhythm. There is another way to “see” the world. Just as Soundscape could detect damage before we could see it, Soundscape will find recovery before we see it.

Without thinking them there, I find my arms embracing Bastienne in a bear hug and I weep with joy. The very device that was meant to find the holes in thriving life is now finding islands of thriving life in the devastation. They need me. Bastienne needs me. Not my eyesight, but my hearing sense and my ecological and bioacoustic skills. Together, we’ll find a way. »