PAP39 - Will spring be silent?

April 2020

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 40 planning professionals have come together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in land-use planning policies.

Philippe Pointereau, agricultural engineer, director of the agro-environmental department of the Solagro association, a connoisseur of bird song, awakens us to a surprising and masterful symphony of landscape…

To download : article-39-collectif-pap-.pdf (3.2 MiB)

Does the landscape speak to us? Does it have a sound dimension capable of revealing its identity and trajectory, and awakening our consciousness for a more enchanted future?

In January, I look forward to the song of the blackbird, the first bird to make its cry heard. Spring is far away, but the days are getting longer. The beauty of this solitary song belongs to those who get up early and listen. How many of us pay attention to this song, the last breath of nature in the city? The blackbird sings at a time when the hubbub has not yet invaded the city. Later in the season, he will be joined by other birds because he is not alone in populating cities and villages.

I can’t wait to hear the black swifts returning from the rainforests where they spend the winter flying over the canopies without ever landing, a mystery. They arrive precisely in mid-April and later make their strident cry heard in a frantic saraband in the evening around the blocks. The swift is one of the first birds to leave as early as the end of July. I tell myself that the day its cry disappears, it will also be the end of us humans. Since the swift is an insectivorous bird, this scenario is not unlikely.

The songs that the birds offer us from April to June, shortly before sunrise, are one of the most beautiful sound heritages of the countryside. They blend together in a real concert that lasts between thirty and sixty minutes. This concert begins an hour and a half before sunrise in an immutable order. This music will be all the richer as the number of species is important. The composer Olivier Messiaen wrote a concertante work entitled Réveil des oiseaux, « entirely constructed from birds’ songs " 1, premiered at the Donaueschingen festival on 11 October 1953.

Birds are one of the most striking elements of soundscapes. Landscapes are not only composed of shapes and colours, reliefs or valleys. They are inhabited by cries, songs, sounds and noises. The countryside speaks or spoke in every locality, to the rhythm of the hours of the day and the seasons. We have the right to wonder whether the aesthetic and ecological quality of a landscape is not also based on its sound dimension. The problem is the same as for biodiversity. We have little or no references: those of our memory and recollections, which belong to everyone. How did the countryside speak in the past? I knew the one in the sixties, when agriculture had not yet taken the turn of intensification, where the bocage was dense and there were many ponds. Has anyone recorded the soundtracks of the countryside at that time? In the Don Camillo series, filmed from 1951 onwards, it is possible, if you pay attention, to perceive the agricultural landscape of the village of Brescello, on the banks of the Po River in Emilia-Romagna, with its myriads of rural trees, especially the tall ones that have now completely disappeared 2. For its part, Ermanno Olmi’s film The tree with hooves, shot in Bergamo in 1978, evokes the agrarian landscapes of the late nineteenth century with its pruned trees and the value of each part of the wood. But even if you listen, it is difficult to hear the sounds of this landscape.

Canadian composer and ecologist Raymond Murray Schafer invented the concept of « soundscape » in 1977, described in The Tuning of the World (The Soundscape) 3, which remains a reference for all disciplines interested in the sound environment.

After having interested artists, this sound heritage lodged in the unconscious is mobilizing more and more scientists to create a new discipline, ecoacoustics. Jérôme Sueur, a lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), records the sound landscapes of the Guyanese forest and the Risoux, in the Jura, in order to provide data on biodiversity and heritage species and to detect their changes over the long term. Made with automatic tape recorders, these recordings show a layering and sharing of sound space with little overlap. Photographs can provide insight into the evolution of landscapes 4. As far as sounds are concerned, no history. To this end, the MNHN has set up a sound library to observe whether there is today an impoverishment and homogenisation of the soundscape in rural areas.

If we had diachronic sound archives taken at a given place and at the same time and date, we would probably be able to conclude that nature is crumbling.

A researcher at the French Biodiversity Office and trained in the United States in bioacoustics, Stanislas Wroza 5 has been able to show a 38% drop in bat populations in France between 2006 and 2016 thanks to hundreds of volunteer recordings. The sound captures he makes enable him to identify species of migratory birds in the middle of the night or animals hidden in a forest, such as the rare ring-necked flycatcher.

Evoking the sound heritage is not just a matter of nostalgia. It is a question of not losing a memory. That of the ponds around the villages, full of croaking green frogs. What has become of these frogs, knowing that 90% of the ponds have disappeared in France6? I remember having visited, west of Milan, the organic rice farm of Giula Maria Crespi which was called « dove ancora cantano le rane c’é piu sapore, piu salute, piu energia e piu felicita 7« . The Po plain is today a vast intensive area devoted to irrigated rice, corn and soya, where the use of pesticides has taken its toll.

There are also crickets, which enliven the dry grasslands and natural meadows during the day. In these same open spaces, on certain summer nights the call of nocturnal insects resounds. Without ever being seen, the quail makes its song heard in July before the harvest, in the middle of the cereal fields. You can only guess at its presence, unlike the lark whose clear and jubilant song climbs the sky. We could talk endlessly about the cries and songs of the wilderness. For those who pay attention and vibrate when listening to these sounds and their music, the silence that appears is not a good omen.

Domesticated nature is also a partly bygone soundscape. The countryside resounded with the bellow of cows, the rooster’s cry in the morning, the braying of a donkey. The summer pastures still ring their bells, a sign that transhumance on foot is still active to enliven many villages of Provence located on the draille, although most of it has been lost. There was a time when a drinking water deafened village fountains.

Today, the sounds of the countryside are a sign that it is still alive, that the animals are not locked up there. The majority of cows and sheep go out into the meadows, but this is no longer the case with goats. No more roosters! The farmyard has almost everywhere disappeared.

This rural soundscape has come to bother those who intend to ban it in the name of « abnormal neighbourhood disturbance ». Some elected officials do not hear it this way, such as the deputy for Lozère Pierre Morel-A-L’Hussier who, on September 11, 2019, tabled a bill in the National Assembly to protect the sensory heritage of the countryside 8. He thus intends to broaden the scope of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage to include sound and olfactory emissions characteristic of the terroirs. As for all heritage, what will be the reference period? How to define what is characteristic? While not everyone pays the same attention or interest to this background of the landscape, voices are being raised today to try to prevent this memory from disappearing without a trace.

These songs and cries are not only an indication of the state of a biodiversity that human knowledge seeks to analyse. They are the expression of a wild nature that does not need us to exist, that has its own laws. They are the sensitive part of it that moves us because we are connected to the surrounding world through affectivity. We heard sounds before we were born. The ear is the sense of alertness, but also of vital connection. The muffled sound of the toad giving birth, the cry of migrating cranes open our perception. They awaken us to the presence of nature around us. So what are nature lovers looking for? To admit the wild part of the world is to reinvest in the land and not just to keep a record of the living. Nature is stronger than we are, it can resurrect in us the feeling of something immense, of magical and mysterious splendour.

The cries and songs of living animals show that nature still exists, that it can be exuberant. Our western societies tend to consider the surrounding world as a resource to be exploited and domesticated, as a profit to be maximized. Today we talk about the ecological services provided by nature. Nature cannot indefinitely recycle our waste or mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions. Its capacity is not unlimited. Water is warming in oceans and rivers, food chains are being contaminated, and some species are disappearing or declining in numbers.

Nature must be protected not just for the services it provides or the products it produces, but for itself and for its beauty. We must respect living things. Viviane Despret 9, philosopher and ethologist at the University of Liège, wonders whether, beyond the very ancient alliance that makes them exchange pollens, fruits and nectars, and spread seeds, birds and plants do not communicate with each other through tenuous messages, the same ones that soothe us in the forest. So much remains to be learned about the interactions that link the different elements of our ecosystems. We have discovered the importance of mycorrhizae that connect plant roots to the fungi that feed them. Some researchers are beginning to look at the impacts of sounds on plant development. Within the same species, songs differ from one territory to another.

Silence is associated with natural sounds: birds singing, insects squeaking, rain on leaves, breezes. For Gordon Hempton, silence is not the absence of noise, but the presence of an almost mystical moment in which we do not think, but feel. Since 2005, Gordon Hempton has been tracking down the few areas of the planet that are still untouched by man-made noise. He is seeking to establish a « silent wilderness » label. For him, science has shown that noise pollution is not just a nuisance, it has consequences for our health and plays an extremely important role in the disappearance of wildlife.

Bernie Krause 10 has recorded the sounds of hundreds of landscapes around the world to create a memory of nature and raise awareness of the disappearance of species. He detects changes in nature from the sounds it emits and works on the concept of soundscape ecology. Five decades of listening to nature are now stored in a sound library: five thousand hours of recordings, fifteen thousand different animal species. When species disappear, so do the sounds they produce. And that’s the case for half of them: « In fifty years, I haven’t encountered any differences wherever I go. But fifty percent of the sounds in my archives come from places where habitats no longer exist " 11.

The human footprint has become major. Not to mention species that are not audible to us, such as fish, earthworms or flowers. We may think that the species that make themselves heard are the voice of others. We have learned to listen to some of them, such as whales or bats, thanks to new instruments, sonar, ultrasound detectors. That does not tell us what it was like before.

Today the signals have everything to worry about. Scientific work is sketching the silent spring described by scientist Rachel Carlson in 1962, in her book Silent spring 12 , or by the Massachusetts institute of technology’s « Stop Growing » report, published in 1972. It has therefore been almost sixty years since the environmental and natural consequences of our way of life based on continuous growth and massive use of pesticides were identified. According to a study published in October 2019 in the journal Nature, the biomass of arthropods has fallen by 67% and the number of species by 34% over the last decade in the German prairies 13. Scientists believe that 41% of amphibians, 25% of mammals and 13% of birds are threatened with extinction. We have managed to eliminate the American migratory pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) whose population was estimated at 3 to 5 billion individuals and whose last one died at the Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914. Its flights, several kilometres long, obscured the sky. Today it is difficult to imagine the sound of those flights. There are many examples that evoke the disappearance of wildlife, but only emblematic species are talked about. This is the case of whales such as the grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus), which disappeared from the Atlantic in the 17th century due to hunting, and which can still be observed, in small numbers, on the Pacific coast. This is also the case of the great penguin (Pinguinus impennis), which was found from the coasts of Spain to the Faroe Islands and whose last specimen was killed at Eldey in Iceland in 1844. It is estimated that the species had one million representatives at its peak. We could also talk about the Newfoundland cod or the salmon that populated our rivers.

We will have to invent gentle ways of living together if we want to continue to be able to listen to these songs and find silence. We may have to preserve territories free of human activity so that we do not lose the symphony of nature in each place and each ecosystem for good. Protected areas will not be enough. Air pollution, particularly from pesticides, and global warming are now impacting all the territories of our planet, even the most remote ones.

How can we rediscover the wonder of a soundscape, the cry of an owl or the song of a nightingale, a rare passerine to enliven the night? How and where to take the time to listen to nocturnal insects in the middle of the countryside? Who has had the chance to hear, before dawn, the awakening of a tropical forest? Lack of knowledge of this beauty is certainly its worst enemy.

Today we are caught up in the digital din of radio, television and above all mobile phones, which accompany us even to the heart of nature and prevent us from getting lost in it thanks to GPS. We are more and more connected to a virtual world and take our leave of nature. We no longer listen to it, we no longer hear it, we move away from it even as it silently disappears. Through films and videos, the perception of nature is more and more digital.

The farmer himself, in industrialized countries, is increasingly using these techniques: camera and information provided by the sensors of the milking robot to know the state of his cows, drone and camera to monitor his fields and treat in the right place. Human contact with his animals or plants is becoming increasingly rare. In his soundproofed, GPS-guided tractor, the farmer no longer hears the sounds of the countryside.

It is important to keep this contact with living things and nature if we want to avoid losing the emotion they evoke. It is certainly necessary to relearn about nature and why not seek contact with a wilderness through risk and adventure.

Many initiatives have been launched in recent years. Some outdoor sports enthusiasts are aware of the importance of the quality of natural environments and collect waste on the coasts or in rivers. Tools available on smartphones, such as PlantNet 14, make it possible to identify a plant thanks to a photo. Bird song CDs can be a way to reclaim this wilderness.

Whether it belongs to the wilderness as far as it still exists, or to agricultural landscapes still in harmony with the natural environment, the sensory awakening that is the rediscovery of our sound heritage is bound to develop. It is one more way, alongside the aesthetic beauty of landscapes or the scent of flowers, to make people aware of the need to protect their unique planet. This new way of listening could strengthen us in the ecological transition that we need to put in place quickly by giving even more meaning and envy to this mutation.

We must quickly imagine ways to integrate this sensitive part of the landscape into the various transition processes. Landscape walks should not only take place in broad daylight but also in spring, before sunrise. The Haut-Jura Regional Nature Park is a forerunner in this field, having developed over the last twenty years the notion of soundscapes, a real bridge between culture and artistic creation, landscape enhancement and environmental awareness. It thus wishes to open the way to a creative representation of the world because, unlike the visible universe, the world of sound offers few certainties. It constantly calls upon interpretation and imagination 15.

In a world where noise, waves and speed govern us, we will have to relearn slowness and silence. The silence of dawn is still accessible to us as long as there are birds. It seems that the confinement we are experiencing today offers us this chance to rethink the world 16.

For the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, this return of silence is terrifying, it means failure and desert: « In the night, insonority is a blow that one takes in the chest if, for a few seconds, one stops breathing, alone at one’s window or in one’s courtyard, each in his own corner of our threatened world. Silence shows itself as something old and forgotten and which is returning because of the shrinking of men and machines, the predation of « growth » and « consumption " 17.

Can we remain connected with the world through a sensitive approach? By remaining open to an aesthetic perception that nourishes us, we can renew our way of existing.


2 The pitches were a system associating tree and vine. Usually elm or country tree but also poplar or white mulberry, the tree served as a stake for the vine. Between the rows of trees and vines, spaces were cultivated.

3 Translated into French under the title Le Paysage sonore. Toute l’histoire de notre environnement sonore à travers les âges, éditions Jean-Claude Lattes, 1979 and WildProject, 2010.

4 The photographic observatories of the landscape, for example.

5 Stanislas Wroza published in 2019 Les oiseaux par le son. Enregister, identifier, comprendre, Editions Delachaux and Niestlé, and has a blog

6 Only about 600,000 ponds would remain on our territory, 10% of those that existed in 1900, and 50% of those existing in 1950. Source Alain Morand « Des amphibiens dans nos paysages agricoles : quelles perspectives ? « Revue Sésame n° 6, November 2019.

7 « Where frogs still sing, it’s more flavour, more health, more energy and more happiness » -


9 Viviane Despret wrote Habiter en oiseau, Actes Sud, 2019.

10 Le Grand orchestre des animaux : célébrer la symphonie de la nature, Flammarion, 2018. Chansons animales et cacophonie humaine : manifeste pour la sauvegarde des paysages sonores naturels, Actes Sud and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2016.

11 Interview with France Culture on 6 July 2016 by Hélène Combis

12 This book was translated into French in 1963 under the title Le Printemps silencieux. Its publication triggered a reversal in the U.S. national policy toward biocides, leading to a national ban on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and other pesticides.

Seibold, S., Gossner, M.M., Simons, N.K. et al: « Arthropod decline in grasslands and forests is associated with landscape-level drivers ». Nature, 574, 671-674 (2019).


15 The Parc naturel régional has published the guide Paysages sonores du Haut-Jura, accompanied by a CD of 40 sounds recorded by Boris Jollivet.

16 This article began to be written long before the arrival of the coronavirus. It appears to everyone in this spring of 2020 that the sounds of cars and airplanes have been greatly reduced, leaving a little more space for the sounds of nature, finally audible in cities.

17 Tribune published on March 29, 2020 on Bibliobs.