How a lifetime of recording the world's wild places is leaving a unique legacy of sound

The life's work of British audio recordist Martyn Stewart captured tens of thousands of hours of pristine soundscapes brimming with life, some from sonic environments now lost. Now it's being preserved to help the planet – and its people.

Startrails over the Okavango Delta, Botswana, captured in a long exposure. The soundscape of this environment – often considered one of the last truly wild strongholds of Africa – is one of those captured by audio recordist Martyn Stewart as part of his Nature Sounds archive. 

Photograph by Mark Stone, National Geographic Image Collection
By Simon Ingram
Published 31 Jan 2022, 10:33 GMT

THE rush of seawater against a stone shore, the soft rustling of a tree canopy, the hiss of cicadas drifting on waves of heat-humid air. 

These are the sounds of nature long associated with mental wellbeing, a kind of auditory balm to sooth stressed minds. Switch your visual senses off and allow your imagination to linger on what you hear, and the suggestive experience of listening can transport you anywhere – as well as reveal the densities and intricacies of life present in any one landscape. 

For Martyn Stewart, sound does all of these things. But to a man who has spent his career recording pristine audio free of human interference in some of the world's wildest places, sound can also echo a disappearing world, a sonic landscape undergoing an extinction event of its own – one that is, with painful irony, happening silently.

(Related: Insects are vanishing at an alarming rate - but we can save them.)

It's a silence Stewart is hoping to challenge by releasing 55 years of recordings – a collection amounting to some 97,000 sounds that he calls an 'unparalleled archive' –  to the world. Within them, from locations as diverse as the Okavango Delta and Alaska, are soundscapes drenched in insects, birdsong and elemental ebb and flow he hopes can can inform and educate, as well as calm. The archive also features audio from  environments that have more anthropogenic implications – such as Chernobyl, and the maelstrom of Hurricane Dorian.   

Martyn Stewart recording in the field.

Photograph by Martyn Stewart

The project is poignant, both against the backdrop of the planet's biodiversity decline, and Stewart's personal circumstances. Described as the 'David Attenborough of sound,' the Birmingham-born recordist – whose credits include audio capture for natural history documentaries, TV and radio for the BBC, amongst others – was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2020, and feared his soundscapes would be lost.

Now, working with environmental non-profit The Listening Planet, Stewart is collecting 55 years of recordings from extensive fieldwork around the world into a series of albums and an online hub. There, listeners can immerse themselves in a meticulously captured series of natural soundscapes from around the world – some of which no longer exist.

(Related: What are soundscapes and how can they inspire creativity?)

Designed to 'express the voice of the natural world and, through the power of sound, awaken a connection deep inside all of us' – the project draws strong links between the sounds of nature and listeners' mental health and wellbeing.

By email from his home in Florida, Martyn Stewart gave National Geographic UK some insight into his hopes for his ark of sounds. 

Tell us why you began recording the natural world. 
My brother was a born naturalist who had aquariums in the bedroom and was into everything in the fields and hedgerows – [things] like hoverflies and newts and tadpoles. The first audio experience I had was catching hoverflies in an old Robertson’s jam jar. I’d punch holes in the lid and listen to these insects – that fascinated me. And I borrowed a little portable reel-to-reel tape recorder off one of my brothers, and a microphone off my other brother, and put the two together. Exploring the highways and byways around the family home, it was an escape from boredom. The first sound I captured [aged 11] was a Eurasian blackbird, and I went on from there collecting every little critter I could find out there in the countryside.

What goes into a session? Put us there in the field with you on a memorable occasion.
There’s a lot that goes into it past the obvious challenges like travel, access, weather. Twenty-five years ago it would take three or four hours of recording to capture one pristine hour, but now it would be more like 2,000 hours. In the US alone you’ve got [thousands of] planes in the sky at one time, so they’re always breaking the natural sound. I recorded a Rock Dove in the Puget Sound and it took me two weeks to get 20 seconds of sound because I was competing with planes, ATVs, leaf-blowers, motorbikes, buses, cars. But to me, capturing that sound is like winning life’s lottery.

‘Mexican pebble beach’

Recorded near Puerto Vallarta 

‘Journey at Dawn’

Recorded in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil 

‘Okavango Delta at night’

Recorded in the Okavango, Botswana

Living in such a technological and visual age, what can sound tell us that images can’t? 
People walk around with earbuds in, and they’re oblivious to what’s going on around them. I want my recordings to create interest in nature once again, and through that interest we can work together to protect natural species. These sounds are nature’s posterity and – if we’re not careful – its memorial.

(Related: 26 animal species humans have pushed to the brink.)

I started the Nature Sounds project to make albums of habitats that were under threat, or lost. You can’t protect anything you don’t understand, so I thought the best way to educate people about that was sound. Now that I've partnered with [music distributor] Platoon, so many more people will be able to experience this and be more participatory in a proactive way.

It’s especially poignant given that many of these environments now don’t exist. Which soundscape in particular do you mourn the loss of? 
I think in my library I have three or four animals that are completely extinct. But over 55 years, two-thirds of my sound recordings library is extinct – meaning you can’t replicate it anymore. I’ve been to over 55 countries, and in places like the Serengeti, I could stick a microphone and record a pristine natural habitat for a few hours and have very limited human noise interference. But now there are roads going through there. The soundscape is ruined. Noise pollution is an emblematic signifier of nature’s decline.

Take for example the Daintree Forest in Queensland – one of the very few rainforests left in Australia. It’s full of unique owls and doves that bring all sorts of new sounds to the spectrum. If people understood that diversity, they might work harder to preserve the rainforest. But frankly, with 7.5 billion people on the planet, even the sounds of your back garden are important.

“I could stick a microphone and record a pristine natural habitat for a few hours... But now there are roads going through there. Noise pollution is an emblematic signifier of nature’s decline.”

Martyn Stewart

Releasing these, there has been a clear focus on mental health – what links this with the sounds of nature?
Nature can be very meditative, very grounding, and very overwhelming. Nature doesn’t discriminate, it just carries on. The most primal thing in the world is finding connection in nature, and that can be very helpful in finding a different frame of mind. I recently partnered with [actress] Mädchen Amick on a meditation guide mixed with spatial audio, aimed at creating an immersive and transportive experience for the listener. There’s a really beautiful connection between the magnificence of our planet and caring for your mental health – neither can be ignored without serious consequence.

You have been closer to nature than most – what do you feel has that given you in terms of your appreciation for the fragility of the natural world? 
Every single recording I’ve made, 90,000 plus files, has a unique story behind them. When you actually see something disappear – I saw the Hawaiian crow disappear on the Big Island; there’s 25 left in captivity – it’s heartbreaking. So if I can get people interested in recording and understanding what noise is out there – because a microphone will never discriminate – you’ll realise what a beautiful, noisy environment it is. Noise can also go extinct.

What is your hope for this ark of recordings? 
I want to fight against this. I want The Listening Planet to give the critters, wherever they be, a voice so we can appreciate what we have and preserve what we have. I want to give a voice back to the voiceless. 

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