April 2020

You may have noticed a bit of a gap between entries here. Sorry. The end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 was a crazy time. Not only was Australia burning down, and the world facing off a pandemic, but also I had a baby. And in the weeks before she arrived, I made two episodes of History Lab and a documentary for ABC Radio National. So yes, there was a lot going on.

In some ways, I’d recommend having a tiny baby in lockdown. A mini smiling face and gorgeous gurgling noises are a welcome distraction from the news. And ultimately it’s not that different to normal life with an infant: lots of time at home, and going out requires both a good reason and a lot of preparation.

But in other ways it is tragic. My daughter is missing out on cuddles from her grandparents and extended family and I am devastated that I can’t share the amazing development of the first months of her life.

Anyway, enough prevaricating. The one good thing about lockdown is it’s given me a bit more time between nappies and boobs to listen to podcasts. Here are April’s recommendations.

The NHS Symphony – BBC Between the Ears

I discovered Between the Ears in my podscriptions but have no memory of subscribing. This episode sits in a lovely liminal space between documentary and sound art. “Life in the NHS captured in immersive stereo and specially composed choral music. NHS staff join with the Bach Choir to mark the 70th anniversary of the health service.” Weird and wonderful and now more than ever worth a listen. Thank you to every health worker in the NHS, and beyond, for continuing to work in this crazy, scary time.

The Coronavirus and Climate Change, the Great Crises of Our Time – The New Yorker Radio Hour

This episode of the New Yorker Radio Hour (one of few podcasts I set to autodownload) opens with in the Vermont forest that is home to Bill McKibben. He walks us down to a swampy marsh to listen to wood frogs croaking for mates. Slightly puffed, McKibben tells us we will have to wait a little bit for the croaks to start as they’ll be shied by his approaching footsteps. This sequence gave me some comfort in lockdown as I pine for the natural world (pun intended). The rest of the episode gives a depressing account of how and why President Trump is rapidly rolling back environmental protections, as well as a fascinating interview with a disease ecologist who hunts down viruses among cave-dwelling bats.

The Last Sound – Invisibilia

This episode is all about biophony which is one of my favourite things. Biophony evolved from the acoustic niche hypothesis, which in a nutshell, is the idea that all animals in a given ecosystem make sounds in different parts of the acoustic bandwidth. So they don’t talk over each other!

The hypothesis was made by soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause. In a move that I think is rare for Invisibilia, this episode involves only two voices – that of Krause and the interviewer/narrator. Krause is really engaging and he has a very interesting personal story as well.

The Songs of Trees – Conversations

A typically excellent interview by Richard Fidler with subject David Haskell, a biologist obsessed with trees. He recounts the year he spent visiting 12 of his favourite trees, including a palm on a barrier island in the State of Georgia; a pear tree in Manhattan; an ancient Hazel tree, which had become archaeological charcoal; and a bonsai pine which survived the Hiroshima bombing.

The way Haskell thinks about sound is eye-opening. The lack of an aural metaphor here proves one of his major points – our culture neglects the ears in favour of the eyes. But our hearing faculty is very sophisticated and we should spend more time focussing on it.

There’s also some amazing factoids about trees and the life they contain, such as a zombie fungus that lives in the trees of the Brazilian jungle. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis invades ants’ brains to control their minds, leading them to chomp into a leaves that are deadly to the ant but life giving to the fungus. Nature! You couldn’t dream this stuff up. More on this fungus here if you’re interested.