Book Review: Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World

The natural world is in crisis. Rising sea levels. Burning forests. Species extinction. Climate change is leaving no one and no thing unaffected. At this precarious moment, what becomes the role of the nature writer, who has long heralded nature’s beauty and bounty? Writer, philosopher, and environmental activist Kathleen Dean Moore answers that question in Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World.

Moore believes fervently that the nature writer must “bear witness” to all that is changing, disappearing, dying. That it is the writer’s responsibility “to ring the church bell, trip the alarm, beat the warning drum, send the telegram, blow the whistle, call all-hands-on-deck—and sometimes, weeping, to write the condolence letters.”  

The nature writer must also call us to act, for disasters demand action. “They smash us with sorrow and lift us with determination and moral resolve, the way a wave both smashes and lifts us in the same wild moment.” 

If readers don’t believe the natural world is imperiled, that they are no longer living in “ordinary times,” Moore’s essays—new and repurposed—will dispel them of that notion. So will the sidebars that accompany each essay. They detail threats to creatures small and large, from monarch butterflies to grizzly bears, sage grouse to gray wolves, red-legged frogs to humpback whales. They highlight threats to the world’s forests and to desert flora like the saguaro cactus whose spines “sing like violin strings” when the wind blows across them. And to humans, from pollution-induced disease and eco-anxiety.

Moore’s writing is at once eloquent and informative. It has a lyricism that evokes her life-long love for music. Indeed, for Moore, song enlivens the soul no matter its source. And it becomes evident, with each turn of the page, that Moore believes nature’s music to be as rich and mesmerizing as anything conjured by humans. This is where Moore’s essay collection diverges from other works detailing the dangers associated with climate change.

In recounting her adventures in the wilds of Oregon and Alaska, where she and her husband split their time, Moore focuses her essays on nature’s exquisite soundscape. She rejoices in birdsong and frog song, in the chirping of crickets and the howl of wolves, in the bellow of whales and the clicking of bats. Even in the rat-a-tat of a red-breasted sapsucker pecking at the metal roof of her Alaska cabin at 2:30 in the morning. And again, at 3:51.

“It must be powerfully rewarding,” she writes, “for something so small to make a sound so large.” Days later, when the roof’s old metal sheeting is replaced and the sapsucker can no longer hug the roof’s edge to drum, Moore regrets the renovation.

That some of earth’s music will fade to silence as species face extinction breaks Moore’s heart. “My nightmare,” she writes, “is that before we lose the Earth’s life-sustaining systems, we will lose its soul-sustaining system.”

In such an environment, lamentation is inevitable, but it cannot be the end. Action, according to Moore, is a moral imperative.

“It isn’t enough,” she writes, “to love a child and wish her well. It isn’t enough to open my heart to a bird-graced morning. Can I claim to love a morning, if I don’t protect what creates its beauty? Can I claim to love a child if I don’t use all the power of my beating heart to preserve a world that nourishes children’s joy? Loving is not a kind of la-de-da. Loving is a sacred trust. To love is to affirm the absolute worth of what you love and to pledge your life to its thriving, to protect it fiercely and faithfully, for all time.”

Earth’s Wild Music is Moore’s heartfelt plea to all of us to not simply celebrate earth’s magnificent soundscape, but to listen more purposefully and to do all we can to keep the natural world’s songs from being silenced.