In the old days zoologists used to identify the different calls of birds, amphibians and insects by the sounds they produced. Even nowadays, catalogues of birds continue to use phonetics to present the unique song of different species for birdwatchers’ easy reference. Through the sounds of nature, we can hear the communications and habits of animals while at the same time, collect information about their habitats. To someone like me who grew up in a farming village, the sounds of nature remind us of the change of seasons. My grandmother loved to say, “When cicadas sing, lychees are ripe.” Indeed, once we heard the singing of cicadas we knew the lychee tree behind our house was ready for harvest. Summer would then follow. The sudden call of frogs during summer was a reminder for us to switch off the light in order to prevent winged ants from flying into the house and causing damages to our wooden furniture. When frogs’ calling is gradually replaced by the sounds of crickets, it is time to get the winter clothes ready.

It seems, however, that these sounds are gradually disappearing. We used to be able to distinguish the different species of birds outside our house by their songs at dawn when they were about to forage around the field and wood. Nowadays we can hardly sleep through the night without being disturbed by constant traffic noise. Sound diversity in Hong Kong has been narrowing along with the decline in size of our farmland. Figures from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department show that there were 13,396 hectares of farmland in Hong Kong in 1967 when my grandmother was working on the farm to raise my father. According to the latest government’s consultation document “New Agricultural Policy: Sustainable Agricultural Development in Hong Kong” published in 2014, farmland has been reduced to only 4,523 hectares in 2013. Within this amount of land nearly 3,794 hectares are fallow, of which 968 hectares are owned by the biggest four developers in Hong Kong, namely Henderson Land Development, Sun Hung Kai Properties, Cheung Kong Holdings and New World Development. At the same time, many landowners have changed the land use from farming to car parking and warehousing without official authorization. Reduction in farmland is one of the symptoms of a society that skews towards urban development. This failure to think in terms of sustainable development causes multifold imbalances in our society and is undoubtedly related to the erosion of diversity of sound.

Moving beyond my personal experience, we could look at those controversial mega infrastructure projects like the proposed third airport runway and the development projects in Hong Kong’s western waters, and see how they affect the ecology in those areas. At the top of the food chain inhabiting the western waters of Hong Kong, Chinese white dolphins continue to decline in number within their major local habitats (northwest, northeast and west of Lantau Island), dropping from 158 individuals in 2003 to only around 62 in 2013. This more than halfing of its quantity is directly related to the construction of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge. As World Wildlife Fund (WWF) points out, since dolphins rely on echolocation for hunting and communcation, the noises produced by underwater construction such as percusssive piling and increasing marine traffic may interfer with the dophins’ capability to hunt and locate their peers, leading to the loss of such capability and in injuries or death from being hit by vessels.

Constructions of the planned Northern Link and Tuen Mun South Extension also affect marshes reserve in Mai Po and Deep Bay, as ground-breaking works would destroy and pollute the habitats of the migrating birds, and construction noises would interfere with their mating. While we must seriously consider how to reduce the disturbance to the reserve and the area nearby, understanding of the relation between sound and environment in Hong Kong remains within the so-called “people-oriented” approach. That is, we only classify sound that is over 70db as noise, and we only concern ourselves about its health effects on the human auditory sence. Legislative standards are set up accordingly. On the other hand, there have been people complaining to estate management about frogs singing outside their flats in the summer, leading to a ridiculous episode in which security guards were requested to catch frogs. In another incident, spotlights were used to scare and drive away singing cuckoos during their mating season so people could have some good night’s sleep. The world we live in is also the habitats of other living creatures. If we think the sounds made by animals are annoying, consider how heavy traffic overnight on highways next to hills and woods interfere with hunting activities of nocturnal animals like bats and owls! While the above incidents sound absurd, I believe they are the consequence of human being being alienated from nature.

Since R. Murray Schafer’s study of soundscape from the 1970s, artists have been working from the sonic perspective to explore the relationship between living creatures and the environment. Schafer initiated World Soundscape Project (WPS) which developed in 1993 into the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology. This event uses publication and forum to raise awareness in issues related to sound pollution and the ever-changing urban and natural soundscapes. Referencing WPS’s Five Village Soundscapes project from 1975 for their new project, another research organization Acoustic Environments in Change revisited the five European villages between 2002 and 2004 and examined the changes of village soundscape due to urbanization in the past 30 years. The two interviewees in this feature, artist Yannick Dauby and acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, also use sound as a starting point and demonstrate two possible relationships between human and nature.
Dayby proposes understanding ecology via sound recording while the Hempton promotes maintaining silence as a starting point for conservation.

Having grown up in southern France, Yannick Dauby uses the sound from his field recordings in Taiwan as a key to unlock its unique ecology and to understand its local traditions. Through the memories from two generations of frogs singing and through identifying the discrepancies between them, he reveals the story of a species evolving in that specific region as well as the changes in its objective environment. During our interview, Dauby said, “Field recording is an activity to activate things.” Through his recordings, he leads the listeners onto a journey of discovery and lets them share the sounds among their own generations. He encourages us to learn from the sounds of now instead of safekeeping them for the future.

Gordon Hempton inaugurated the project “One Square Inch of Silence” after suffering from an ailment. To him, “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” His work began from conserving a square inch of land from noise pollution, He has since extended his project to protect the soundscape of an entire national park. Hempton encourages us to listen to the richness in the soundscape of silence as a search for self-awakening. “Find a stone, place it somewhere, anywhere; make it your personal ‘One Square Inch of Silence’,” he suggests. He believes that only after we have listened to real silence could we recognize its importance, and consequently, it drives us to find ways to protect it. Using the experiences of the two interviewees as exemplars, we might be able to rethink current environmental issues in Hong Kong with a new perspective. May be we could examine the changes in the environment through our auditory senses, pursue their root causes and reflect on our responses. With regard to Hong Kong’s environmental issues, let’s begin from listening quietly, reflecting attentively, getting involved, and reconnecting with nature.


但這些聲音彷彿漸漸消失,以前在黎明前,可以聽到不同品種的鳥兒在窗外嗚叫,層次分明,準備於田野及林間覓食,但現在聽到的卻是一整夜的車聲,此起彼落, 令人難以入睡。香港的聲音多樣性,與香港的農地面積一樣正逐漸下降,據漁農自然護理處的數字,1967年當祖母以耕作養大父親的時候,香港仍有13,396公頃的農地,但於2014年的《新農業政策:本港農業的可持續發展》諮詢文件中的數字顯示,在2013年農地銳減至4523公頃,其中有近3794公頃列作荒廢農地,而四大發展商(恆基、新地、長實及新世界)便合共持有968公頃的農地。同時不少田地持有人,把農地擅自改作停車場及倉庫,從而申請改變土地用途。農地驟減,是社會一面倒的發展的其中一個徵狀,亦是失去了永續發展的思考,導致社會的多樣性失衡的結果,而這與聲音逐漸變得單一不無關係。



其實自70年代由R. Murray Schafer開始,藝術家便以聲音角度出發,探討生物與環境的關係,由他發起的WSP(World Soundscape Project),於1993年發展為 “World Forum of Acoustic Ecology”,透過出版及研討會關注噪音污染問題及不斷轉變的城市及自然聲境。芬蘭研究組織 “Acoustic Environments in Change”,更以WSP於1975年的 “Five Village Soundscapes” 計劃為藍本,在2002至2004年間重新到訪當年錄音的五條歐洲村落,以當地聲境的變化探討近30年來城市化對村落的影響。今次專題中訪問的聲音藝術家澎葉生及聲音生態學家戈登‧漢普頓,同樣以聲音作為起點,展示人與自然關係中的兩種可能-從錄音認識生態環境,以寧靜作為保育起點。