Robin’s Last Song24 min read
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 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 howling 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 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, 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 beats madly like a trapped bird. I haven’t had a visitor in years. Not since Diana, who won’t be visiting again …
I can’t think of anyone who 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?
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 changed and I needed to accept it and get on with it; find something to move forward. There was no excuse; I had SightAid. Basically eyeglasses you wear, they use an intraocular implant that communicates with the glasses via nano-cameras.
My implant uses this video information to stimulate the remainder of healthy cells in my retina and transmits, via the optic nerve, image data to my brain where the data is interpreted as patterns of light. 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. It didn’t help that I’d moved into a 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’d 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 routine 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. 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 it was different before. I wasn’t always this way, when the birds were still here …
November, fifty years ago
I raced up the stairs to the auditorium, then quieted my breath and listened at the door, heart thumping like a bird trying to escape. Professor Gopnik was ten minutes into his lecture; I could hear his commanding voice: “… estimates that the entire number of birds have been reduced by a third in five decades—I mean common birds like the robins, sparrows, warblers, and even starlings …”
He was talking about Rosenberg’s paper in Science. The study shocked the scientific community, but I had already observed the decline of the house sparrow around my aunt and uncle’s house near the Old Mill. And the robin—my namesake, whose song heralded spring for me—had grown quiet.
I imagined Gopnik waving the journal at the class in his typical showman style. He had a habit of wandering the stage like an evangelist, fixing each student with intense blue eyes as if challenging them to believe. I thought him an over-confident condescending prig. But for someone who looked as young as the students he was teaching, Gopnik was brilliant. And what he was doing was important. I wanted so badly to work under him as a grad student. But he terrified me.
Gopnik’s swaggering voice went on. “… We’re destroying the integrity of ecosystems on a massive scale. All this destruction is changing the Earth’s natural acoustic fabric.” Then he finally got to what I’d come to his class for: “Soundscape ecology is a quick and easy way to assess the health of a habitat. We know that the richness of the soundscape is linked to the diversity and abundance of life in an ecosystem—from the smallest insect to a roaming bear and rustling tree …”
I’d stood there long enough—eavesdropping like a shy catbird. I forced myself to open the heavy metal door, trying not to make noise. It creaked open then let out a complaining squeal. Cringing, I slid inside and met the direct stare of Professor Gopnik.
After an eternal pause, he released me by looking elsewhere and continued, “… All sounds, from trickling streams to singing birds, combine in a unique soundscape that represents a ‘fingerprint’ of the ecosystem. Ecologists divide these acoustics into three categories. Geophony describes natural processes like crashing waterfalls, tides, lightning, and 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.” He gestured at me. “Or a squeaking door.”
The students laughed. Some turned to glance at me. “You’re late Ms. Müller,” his booming voice trailed me as I slithered into a seat at the back, thinking that my chances of working under him had dropped to nil.
Gopnik continued, “Acoustic communication is crucial for birds to reproduce, feed, defend territories, and avoid predators. Birds use sonic territories or channel bandwidths to ensure their voices can be heard unimpeded by others. But soundtracks are changing. Bernie Krause—the originator of Soundscape Ecology—documented how a forest can flatline. He called it dysphonia …”
That’s me, I thought suddenly. He’d just described me. Dysphonia literally meant the inability to speak. I’d always had problems making small talk with anyone. I preferred the company of plants and animals to people—they didn’t demand my cleverness. I could just be me.
Gopnik went on. “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 I might back out of a noisy room. I was never good with noises. According to the doctors, I lacked the mechanism to filter them out. Part of my condition, they said…
April, sixty years ago
Eyes hot and stinging from too much crying, I collapsed into a sitting position on the ground in front of Mama’s fresh gravestone. I stared at the granite, studying its texture, a pink-hued mosaic of quartz and feldspar. The setting sun behind the large oak tree behind me fired the stone in molten streaks. Aunt Frieda and the others had left hours ago.
After Frieda’s repeated imploring for me to leave with them, my uncle blustered impatiently, “Leave her, then! If she wants to stay, she can stay. She knows the way back. She can walk. It’ll do her good.” Then he stomped to the car, dragging Frieda by the hand.
I overheard him grumble about how they would manage such a spoiled hoyden as their new charge. He’d accused Mama of not socializing me—as though I was a pet. Uncle thought Mama spoiled me after Father—his brother—died of cancer three years ago.
It didn’t help that I’d broken Aunt Frieda’s favourite serving dish yesterday and didn’t apologize or that I had refused to talk to anyone since Mama died or that I skipped school and spent most of my time in my room, depressed and sitting in the dark.
“Don’t be so mean, Hannes!” Aunt Frieda scolded in a loud whisper. “She has Asperger’s. What do you expect?” As though I would amount to nothing because of it.
No one understood me or believed in me. Only Mama did …
Twilight was settling in like a dark bear ready for sleep and I couldn’t move, as though gripped in its claws. A cool breeze carried the sharp fragrance of loam and spring vegetation. I desperately wanted Mama to give me a sign, a last goodbye or message. A signpost I could use to anchor the rest of my life. There was only the gentle rustle of the oak and maple trees in a restless wind. Perhaps I would stay here forever, I decided. No one would miss me—
Something fluttered in my peripheral vision with a fragile chirr sound.
Then a robin settled on my shoe!
I froze and stared at it as it fidgeted and looked directly at me; then, totally unafraid, it hopped along my leg as if to get a closer look at me. Mama had loved birds, the robin particularly. Robins heralded the spring in a clear rhythm of melodic whistles: cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up!
One pair had nested for years in the little yew shrub by the kitchen window, nurturing one fledgling brood after another. Unafraid of Mama, they’d even let her feed them from her hand. Mama had told me once that they can live to fourteen years old.
My throat closed and I could feel Mama’s presence in this tiny creature. I said breathlessly, “Have you come to tell me something?”
The robin fluttered to the gravestone and sang for me. A beautiful fluting song that ached through the core of me and squeezed my heart.
In that moment made eternity, I knew. Life is precious and fragile. Don’t waste one moment of it, the robin sang its gift to me. We each have a gift, I realized; I must find mine. Then I burst into tears of gratitude.
January, forty-nine years ago
“Robin!” Professor Gopnik’s voice called after me in the hall. I stopped and let him catch up. “You haven’t been coming to class …”
“My name is Miss Müller,” I corrected him.
He grinned, a boyish grin that I found unsettling. Was he going to rebuke me or kick me out of class? He’d trashed my last paper. Would he call me lazy or unmotivated for abandoning his class? Or would he accuse me of conceit or apathy? Perhaps he thought I wasn’t taking him or the class seriously with my rude paper. I admitted it was subversive. He must hate me, I thought.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while. You seem obsessed with birds—”
I cut in with a surly remark. “Do you teach because you’re embarrassed by your name?” I gulped in a breath and raced on like a speeding train: “Gopnik refers to a poorly educated working-class. It’s Russian slang for street robber—a mazurick—or rude street urchin under the Bolshevik government, doing the crab in your Adidas tracksuit while eating semki and drinking cheap alcohol. But now you’re just a boring Bourgeois in your hipster sleekers and pomade-shaped hair.”
He blinked, and a slanted smile appeared in response to my rudeness. He swiped at his hair with his hand. “Your paper last month on the stealthy catbird was … original—if not outlandish.” Now it was his turn to lash out, I thought. “Your premise on catbird behaviour is imaginative, but it flies in the face of bird behaviourists with the notion of why they mimic. To disguise themselves in plain sight?” He shook his head at me. “But your modeling is pure genius. You have a gift …”
I was incredulous; he’d given me a mark of 60%. I’d been scoring over 90% on all my papers up to then. “It flies in the face of bird behaviourists with the notion of why they mimic. To disguise themselves in plain sight?” I repeated like a cipher. Then I added in a breathless whisper, “I have a gift…”
“Do you always do that? Repeat what others say?”
“Why did you give me only 60% for that paper?”
He grinned. “So you would come to my office to discuss it.” He explained, “You always disappear so fast after class or lab. I needed to catch you somehow.”
I hadn’t expected that answer and must have looked it because he threw his head back and let out a great peal of laughter. It made me flinch and I blinked hard.
“I want to make you a proposition, Robin—”
“Yes, Miss Müller. Would you like to work with me as a grad student? You’d help develop an acoustic tool to measure biodiversity. And you can call me Jack.”
I stared and opened my mouth but said nothing.
His eyes lit up as he dove into the subject to convince me. “What we need is something more cost-efficient than on-site monitoring by field scientists. Something that can reach remote or dangerous places. An acoustic tool would allow us to hear changes before we could see them. We’ll need to create the right database of sounds that can help accurately monitor and predict degradation so conservation efforts can be prioritized.”
He didn’t need to convince me. But my silence only urged him on.
“… We want to focus on the birds because they exist in virtually every ecosystem. Avian acoustic activity could provide a robust metric of ecosystem health and environmental change. That’s where you come in, Robin—eh, Miss Müller.”
I had demonstrated a facility in eco-acoustics in his lab courses: modelling landscape ecology through avian ecology and behaviour.
“I’m assembling a team,” he said, suddenly gentle as though he was handling a bird. “Will you join us?”
The project involved 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 Elke Eichner and Jack Gopnik. I was partnered with design engineer Bastienne Friesen, who was stationed in the forest of Schorfheide in Brandenburg. Bastienne was one of those tall string-bean Germans with a sternly sculpted face and long nose, softened by the warmest hazel eyes and a shock of curly auburn hair that looked like a cloud at sunset. She resembled a wild wizard. We connected like two lost sisters. Together, 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.
Bastienne devised an ingenious adaptive mechanism for drone deployment in sensitive and remote ecosystems, and I designed an app that targeted key “holes” in the soundscape based on keystone niches and associated 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 together with Bastienne’s ingenious delivery system ensured that we accurately captured the quality of the ecosystem.
Bastienne called it SOLO, short for “Soundscape Omniscient Logistical Output.” UT and UofF test drove our tool everywhere. We had a 100% match. By the time I had 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; Bastienne and I were sent to the University of Southern California to accept. As I held the granite plaque on stage in front of hundreds of people, my mind focused on the robin perched on Mama’s gravestone and its sweet song to me. My heart swelled with vindication: we had created a tool that could save endangered ecosystems. I’d found my gift.
Of course, the hard work was still ahead of us; deploying SOLO in the most remote 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 at an energy conference. We married soon after and bought a house in the Beaches. I gave birth to my sweet daughter, Diana, two years later. I continued my work at UT in acoustics modeling. I published papers, gave talks, and taught classes while raising my daughter. And I waited for robins to nest in the yew bush I’d planted by my south-facing kitchen window.
The robins never came …
June, thirty-one years ago
I stood by the kitchen window, concentrating on reading the recipe for Diana’s birthday cake when a loud thwap made me jump. A bird must have flown into the window. As I looked out, another bird sailed into the window with a violent thud, leaving behind a red smear.
I rushed out the kitchen door and saw two starlings lying on the patio. Both had obviously broken their necks. Something made me look up. What I saw made my heart cave in: a dark cloud of starlings was raining birds. They fell from the sky, thudding and pelting into cars, and plopping on the ground. Some flew like drunks into buildings, trees, windows, and even people. It was a deluge.
Diana ran outside and I seized her in a tight embrace, sheltering her eyes from it all. The neighbourhood rang with shouts, cries, and wails. It felt like the end of the world.
Heartbroken, I stood still like granite, pressing my daughter against me in a crushing embrace. In that moment made eternity, I knew.Then I burst into tears of despair.
The birds dropped out of the sky by the millions. Within a few days, the world fell silent. The songbirds of the entire world died. Some of the larger raptors were originally spared but eventually succumbed as well. It happened so quickly, scientists literally scrambled to understand it. We’d had no warning. Our soundscape tools failed to catch and warn of the avian blight. Jack’s team at UofT huddled with questions we couldn’t answer. We worked day and night, looking at data, analyzing and sharing with other universities. Slowly, pieces came together.
Harpreet Choudhary and her team in the UK confirmed that the birds first lost their sight. Then they developed muscle paralysis that led to heart failure.
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 because it 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 arrived a year later following some brilliant detective work by Guardian journalists with the help of a whistleblower in corporate America. 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 different parts of the world rolled it out 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 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 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.
Once the birds vanished, the pests the fungus was originally targeted recovered with a vengeance. Some birds eat as many as 500 insects a day in the summer. Without insect-eating birds, the pests exploded in numbers. The hot summer brought swarms of grasshoppers to Asia and Europe, destroying whole harvests.
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 crops 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 failed and collapsed within a few years. China resorted to hand-pollinating their orchards. The price of chocolate skyrocketed. Food prices soared; soon the Foodland grocery store where I shopped grew empty. I quit drinking coffee; its price had risen to $60 a pound. I prepared for the inevitability that soon there would be no more apples, nuts, olives, or wine.
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.
I’d watched with sick dread as the world changed. Then I stopped watching …
February, twenty-seven years ago
I sat nervously on the bench, eyes trying to focus on the diagram on the wall as Doctor Cheng gave me her prognosis: “It’s 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. Given the sudden nature of your case, it probably developed from a virus.” Then she answered what she knew I would ask next, “It’s permanent and inoperable; and it will only get worse, Robin.”
Deep down, I figured it was just Nature’s retribution for what I’d failed to see when I had my sight.
Doctor Cheng told me about some technology I might try to improve my sight once it reached a stable state—possibly in a year or so. I stopped listening and let my mind drift to the past and how 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 embraced the punishment. At forty-five, my life was over. I felt instantly useless.
I left UofT on a disability pension. I pushed everyone away. Jack and my team at UofT. 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; it was still the key somehow to turning the disaster around, she said. She reminded me that we’d only managed to cover fifty-seven percent of our target habitats when the disaster occurred. There were still so many regions of the world worth analyzing.
“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. Maybe it was after Patrick left …
August, twenty-five years ago
“I’m leaving, Robin. I can’t do this anymore.” He stood at the front door, luggage arranged neatly on the floor beside him, dressed impeccably in a dark blue suit. He’d always been astute; something I’d never mastered.
“When the birds all died you forgot about us here; you might as well have married old Gopnik with all the time you spent with him and your precious data. I know you were trying to fix things. But we lost you to it. Then when you lost your sight, we lost you all over again. You shut us all out, Robin. Even Diana, your daughter. She told me she was accepted for med school at UBC in Vancouver … Did you even know?”
“I’m going with her to help her get set up, then I’m heading to Calgary. My brother Rob found a job for me in the solar energy sector there.”
I didn’t blame him or Diana for leaving me behind. Both still had a life to lead even though mine was over. When they left in the fall, I moved north to Kawartha country. I bought a small shack where I kept a small garden surrounded by scrub forest and sheep farms.
Diana married while still in medical school and a few years after they had a little girl, Katie. I was a proud 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 the house; then I realize that I don’t need it. I know that voice. She’s my grandchild! My heart races as Katie walks up to the house. This doesn’t make sense; she lives in Vancouver, clear across the country, with her 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 Robin!” Katie rushes up the porch steps as I struggle to my feet and she gives me a tight hug. I shake with joy and wrap my arms around my granddaughter. 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.
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.
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! She first tried Gopnik but discovered that he’d left UofT to become an artist. Then she tried Grandpa, but he died last year. Then, she finally found 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. Hazel eyes still shine with celebration. I 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, Robin.”
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 off 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. “Robin, 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 heartbeat 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 …”
“Robin, 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.
How had I not heard it all before? 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 bioacoustic skills. Together, we’ll find a way. Then I hear something in the distance that stills me. Is it the squeak and groan of poplar trees in the wind? A dainty melodic fluting: cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up!