UNEARTHED is a work using recordings taken from Dead Island Bog. Moving from air recordings above ground to progressively further below ground via hydrophones (underwater microphones), the piece immerses the listener within layers of peat, unearthing previously inaudible sound worlds. As we submerge, sinking from earthy, shallow layers to the depths of the peat pools, the sonic activity grows unexpectedly vibrant: from creaking, squeaking compressions of the peat to the aquatic bubbling within the pools. Throughout, I can’t escape the impact of our own presence on the surface. The progression of the piece reveals varying levels of ‘agitation’ or ‘activation’ of the landscape through which we move.
It’s not easy to find the entrance to Dead Island Bog. Laden with microphones and tripods, recorders, headphones, and spare battery packs, we tread slowly and carefully across overgrown country lanes and hard-packed forest soil, splashing through shallow puddles from last night’s rainfall, pushing through the long grass that hugs the forest outskirts, until the ground eventually yields to the soft, squishy dark earth of the peatland.
Sound travels easily here. The surrounding areas are flush with audible presences: cows from nearby agricultural land, birds from neighbouring forests, cars passing down the winding lanes, and the occasional plane overhead. Closer to my ears, the squelching of my boots, the percussive crumple of moss beneath my feet, and the rustle of my clothes as I shift my weight in the sinking earth remind me that it’s impossible to exist in the peatlands without provoking little chain reactions of sound. Heather creaks minutely in the wind. The occasional insect passes by. In the midst of these sounds, the bog itself appears stagnant, silent, and untroubled.
Below ground, it’s a different story. Listening through a set of hydrophones lowered into the peat pools, the bog yields sonorous groans, gurgles, crackling, and squeaking as the peat creaks, slides, and compresses under my weight. The gentle splash and squelch above the pools becomes an abundant underwater sound world of popping, bubbling, and fizzing. Even a simple shifting of weight provokes crackling in the pools for minutes on end.
Bear witness. Tell the story and give voice to the landscape. Sound the alarm.James Balog, Chasing Ice (2012)
Sound can reveal new dimensions of the environment, make perceptible phenomena beyond our other senses, and give voice to the change and disappearance of ecosystems.
Many composers have dedicated attention to this way of communicating our various climate crises. They range from lush orchestrations of sea level rise in John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean (2013) to data sonifications of catastrophic temperature change like Andrea Polli’s Heat and the Heartbeat of the City (2004), dramatised recordings of glaciers collapsing in Einaudi’s Elegy for the Arctic, performed on site at a crumbling glacier (2016), and apocalypse-heralding works like Kieran Brunt’s The Rising Sea Symphony (2020), Rachel Portman’s The Water Diviner’s Tale (2007), and Jennifer Walshe’s recent opera TIME TIME TIME (2019).
There’s a common tendency in these works towards an aesthetic of great beauty and catastrophe that attracts attention and empathy. That being said, overly dramatising, abstracting, and aestheticising environmental disaster through this lens runs the risk of reducing it to a spectacle that we might sit back and enjoy, far removed from reality, culpability, and relationality.
These kinds of expressions of the climate crisis bring up questions of aestheticising ecological degradation, even as they promise an ethics of sustainability, awareness, and care. “Ways of studying and representing things have world-making effects”, María Puig de la Bellacasa tells us, and as Donna Haraway argues, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with”.
It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016).
In 1986, the literary academic Morton Paley used the term ‘apocalyptic sublime’ to describe the trend in 18th and 19th century British art for painting vast landscapes of catastrophe—notably in the works of J.M.W. Turner and John Martin, who painted scenes inspired by the Book of Revelation. Their aesthetic is typified by dark, ominous landscapes in which human figures appear as small, passive victims. More recently, Joanna Nurmis has explored this aesthetic in climate photojournalism, and there are clear parallels with epic sea rise symphonies and large-scale sonifications of the world’s ever-increasing temperature.
The ‘sublime’ in Paley’s apocalyptic aesthetic traces back to Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise on the distinction between sublimity and beauty, and to Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgement. Both philosophers defined sublimity as a quality of incomprehensible greatness, that which provokes feelings of reverence, fear, and pleasure all at once. For Kant, the pleasure comes in recognising our own inability to fully comprehend the most powerful forces of the world of experience. For Burke, the sublime is pleasure that passes through fear, and, crucially, this fearful pleasure is reliant on distance, for if danger presses too closely, it is ‘simply painful’.
The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight … I call sublime.Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I Section VII (1757).
The problem with an apocalyptic and sublime aesthetic of climate change is that it positions its effects as overwhelming in scale, global rather than local, and beyond the scope of human action. Whether through a strange distance of spectatorship as we enjoy a concert about the world ending or a lack of human agency implicit in narratives of overwhelming catastrophe, the apocalyptic sublime renders humanity both inculpable and incapable. Where eighteenth-century art evokes dread and awe in the face of nature’s overwhelming power, we precipitated the apocalypses we now represent in art: the incomprehensible magnitude is of our own making.
What if we focused on a sympathetic resonance with the environment instead of erasing human presence in the face of the overwhelming force of catastrophe?
The highly responsive interaction between my presence and the peatlands while I made these field recordings felt playful and intimate, as though I was improvising with the peat; there was a poignant sense of call and response between my body and the landscape, a sort of sonic feedback loop. The ways in which my movements echoed through the peat returned in strange and surprising ways, often extending for minutes on end.
Recording these interactions with microphones inserted into the peatlands gives a hyper-sensitivity to even the smallest of human actions—amplifying webs of reaction and the inseperability of our fate and that of the environment. It also highlights the importance of small-scale thinking. While peatlands are at risk of drying out in rising global temperatures and releasing their vital carbon stores, they face harm from drainage, agriculture, and forestry at a local level.
A blue whale is easier on the eye than a slime mold.Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (2010).
Beyond the issues of magnitude and the erasure of human presence, using the apocalyptic sublime as a default aesthetic for communicating the climate crisis prevents causes, environments, and voices that don’t fit its parameters from being sounded.
Artistic representations of climate change often overlook the marshy bogs of peatlands, but the peatlands face the same forms of damage from anthropogenic intervention as coasts, forests, and wetlands: burning, drainage, cutting, and widespread drying from the global temperature rise.
Are moments of melting glaciers more attractive to listen to than moments of squelching peat? Are lush rainforests more worthy ecosystems to record, preserve, and advocate for than the microorganisms of wetlands or the rotting, festering material in bogs? If the arts have the power to draw attention and empathy, they arguably have an even greater responsibility to direct it to the unloved, the wastelands, the hidden, the less palatable, boggy, smelly, disquieting landscapes.
I am not proposing to remove pleasure or to reject beauty from artistic responses to the climate crisis. Appreciating the beauty of the environment, even in collapse, does not prevent us from intervening in the catastrophic narrative. Indeed, in an age of cynicism, eco-anxiety, and paralysis, creative representation can create much-needed spaces for solidarity and action.
As a composer and as a scholar, I do feel the need, however, to extend attention towards the unheard voices: the non-beautiful, the disgusting or quotidian, the not necessarily newsworthy. Ecological sonic art should be looking for sounds that don’t adhere to sublime aesthetics, particularly when sound reveals aesthetic dimensions in environments not otherwise considered to be of aesthetic value, like bogs, wastelands, and extractive landscapes. The sounds of the peat are, admittedly, a little bit beautiful to my ears: the strange, delicate crackling, gurgling, and groaning are sonically vibrant and evocative; they remind me of playing in the mud and splashing through puddles as a child.
For a privileged few, climate change happens at a distance: it doesn’t feel close enough to perceive, or if it does, the extent is near-impossible to fully understand, to comprehend the scale and immediacy of the threat in our day-to-day existence. We need art to immerse people in new ways of knowing and feeling, but fatalist stories of epic and unstoppable disaster should not be the only tool we use to communicate about the climate crisis.
“Take the long view,” Jennifer Walshe’s opera TIME, TIME, TIME invites us: “the sun will explode / in 5 or 6 billion years / take the long view”.
We need the long view. The long view embraces consequences, continued care and stewardship, and looking beyond ourselves. Yet the long view can be hard to grasp.
Sound is one way we can meet this scalability crisis, bringing the incomprehensible down to the level of our senses, to the boggy sounds and quiet apocalypses in our backyard: the swampy, squishy, squelchy stuff of human experience. A little bit ordinary, a little bit disgusting, a little bit beautiful. ◾
Lara Weaver (she/her) is a composer, researcher, and performer from England.
Lara is currently undertaking a PhD in Musicology and Composition at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University Belfast, under the supervision of Professor Pedro Rebelo. Previously, she was at St John’s College, Cambridge, where she read for her undergraduate degree, achieving a First, and an MPhil, which was awarded with Distinction. Her current research focusses on acoustic ecology and spatial auditory practices, using creative practice to explore entanglements of sound and the Anthropocene.
As a composer, Lara’s music draws from a diverse range of influences, from newspaper headlines and the envelope poems of Emily Dickinson to seismographic data from earthquakes and the formation of polar mesospheric clouds. Her output includes orchestral, choral, chamber music and song, electroacoustic music, and installations. Browse Lara’s research interests and portfolio on her website.
A bog’s curious, ordinary, delicately explosive sounds belong in our narratives of climate crisis just as much as landscapes of epic disaster.
by Lara Weaver
Tuesday 20th September