‘The Sound of Nature: Soundscapes and Environmental Awareness, 1750-1950’ is a research project hosted by the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Cardiff University and generously funded by the DFG and AHRC. Through the work of its researchers, it is recovering and investigating representations of natural sound in a period that is frequently considered to have been central in constructing contemporary environmental ideologies and in developing institutions for conservation. The project also interrogates the complexity of how natural sound and natural silence are constructed in other historical periods and how that continues to shape contemporary attitudes to the sound of nature. In the process, we hope to create a transferable methodology for thinking about how comparatively ephemeral phenomena shape our understanding of the environment in the past, present and future.
Sound is both an evanescent and an omnipresent phenomenon. As a historical artefact, especially in the time before the widespread diffusion of phonographic recording technologies, the sound of nature is most often preserved in writing. As a result, our research is focussed principally—although not exclusively—on textual analysis of literary and archival sources. Through research that spans two centuries and moves across several national contexts in Europe, the project focuses on the perception and representation of sounds in natural settings and how they played a crucial role in developing and fostering environmental awareness and early conservation discourse. By examining the ways in which sounds were recorded and presented in this period, we plan to offer new ways to understand human relationships with nature and perceptions of change in the long run-up to understanding our own epoch as the Anthropocene.
We are building upon research concerned with the continuities and discontinuities between Romanticism, early conservationism, and modern ecological thinking. We are also developing an interdisciplinary methodology which connects concepts and approaches taken from literary history, the history of science, sound studies, and the environmental humanities. The project expands our understanding not only of how the sound of nature is understood and presented in an era marked by radical environmental transformation, but also its role in developing an early awareness of environmental change. It is organised into three parts looking respectively at the analysis of the role of sound in the establishment of nature conservation, the impact of literary representations of sound on the rise of an environmental awareness, and the development of an interdisciplinary methodology exploring the historical role of sound in constructing conceptions of the natural environment from a multiplicity of perspectives.