The Myristica swamps are rare and responsible for the survival of the Agumbe rainforest in the Western Ghats, home to the Pomponia Linearis cicada and Malabar gliding frog whose sounds you are hearing in the audio. Pics/ Dhiraj Bhaisare

The forest's philharmonic orchestra

By Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Updated: 25 October, 2020 13:39 IST

A UK environment festival is inviting global enthusiasts to record sounds from locals forests to plot on the world's first-ever open-access audio map. And the cicadas of the Western Ghats are already on board the orchestra

I chose to record the sounds of cicadas because they are indicators of a healthy rainforest, which is a rarity in our times. If cicadas fall silent, all hope is lost," Shruti Suresh says. The researcher, who studies diverse ecosystems, recorded an audio clip during one of her many visits to the lush rainforests of Agumbe, in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. The symphony recorded at dusk featured the Pomponia linearis cicadas as they created a rhythmic chorus, accompanied by fellow nocturnal instrumentalists like the Malabar gliding frog.

Shruti Suresh picked Agumbe in the Western Ghats, an area she has been researching since 2016

Suresh is one of the 600-plus entrants from six continents, who've sent audio files that will be compiled into Sounds of the Forest, an open-source library to offer access to varied sounds from across the world's green spaces. The idea was floated by Wild Rumpus, organisers of Timber Festival, an annual weekend arts celebration held in the National Forest, UK. "We come together every July to camp in the woods and get inspired by wonderful music, theatre, circus, dance and conversation, all responding to the transformative impact that trees have on our lives. When we realised that we wouldn't be able to meet in person this year due to the pandemic, we put our heads together to think up a sensory project that's democratic and open to as many people as possible, something that could create visceral, emotional connections for people with nature," says Sarah Bird, director, Wild Rumpus. It was here that nature sound artistes, like Chris Watson who had participated in a previous edition, offered the organising team the right focus. "He told us about their work with nature documentaries, how the process of the recording helped to hear the aural tones and textures in the wild, and how technology has enabled anyone with a smartphone to make their own field recordings." This is how the idea of the first global forest sound map was born.

Pomponia linearis, the species of cicada whose sounds Suresh recorded for the map. PICs/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Over 20,000 km away, the biodiversity hotspot of Agumbe was fertile aural ground for Suresh, who'd been returning to the area for research since 2016. She discovered the Timber Festival website in August by chance while searching for recordings of the whistling thrush bird. Cicadas start their dusk chorus along with endemic frogs like the Malabar gliding frog. "It is a remarkable sound, and can reach high notes in the monsoon," she shares. About the sounds of the two leading instrumentalists in her recording, she reveals that cicadas have a striking sound and create a deafening chorus while frogs have a faint sound that isn't easy to identify.

The Malabar Gliding Frog whose sounds Suresh recorded for the map. PICs/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The playground where this symphony comes to life within Agumbe is an area known for its Myristica swamps, a natural ecosystem found only in the Western Ghats of Karnataka and Kerala. Critical to the survival of the rainforest, the rare swamps are extremely vulnerable to external disturbances. "People in India seem to have lost their connection with nature; even those who live near such habitats are swayed by development," rues Suresh, who is currently in Aluva, Kerala, with her husband. The couple is working on a plan to create a forest there.

Visitors at the 2019 edition of the Timber Festival, UK. Robbed of the opportunity of the annual gathering due to the pandemic, the organisers decided to replace it with a sensory project that celebrates sound artistes and connects them to the power of trees. PIC/wild rumpus

It is this kind of focused documentation that Bird and her team hope will be the essence of the organic sound map. "We have a few contributions from India but are keen to attract more to reflect your country's biodiversity and wildlife," she tells this writer via an email interview from Cheshire. "It is a real opportunity for it to serve as an archive as well as inspiration that connects people to the power of trees." She cites the example of recordings from Redwoods in California that have since burned down, and stories from people who've been reminded of the sounds of home by listening to the map—"it's been really powerful."

Sarah Bird

Rhythms from this ever-growing audio map will come to life at next year's festival, the organisers hope. "All the sounds uploaded are available to download and use for free. What we love about the idea is that artistes can be inspired by it for their work. We even approached four musicians to compose pieces based on the sounds contributed for the map," Bird says, adding that these artistes will perform the new music live in the National Forest at the 2021's edition. "Sounds of the Forest has a small yet impactful part to play because it seems to capture people's imagination and offers a compelling new way to feel connected to the world's forests."

You can participate too

Head into your local forest or green space, use your phone to make a minute-long recording using a voice recorder app (most phones have them built in). Take a picture of the forest scene in front of you. Avoid people in the frame. Fill in the short form on the website, share the location, upload the picture and attach your audio file.

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First Published: 25 October, 2020 07:48 IST

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