by Professor Peter Coates , Professor of American and Environmental History, University of Bristol
Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month. This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27).
Try to imagine a world in which not only forests but every last trace of the natural world as we know it has been erased (almost……). This eco-thriller by Timothy X. Atack (credits include ‘Dr Who’) is set in the 24th century following a data crash called The Cataclysm (404 is also the error message you get when a website is unavailable). The action follows lead protagonist Pan (University of Bristol Drama alumna and ‘Doctor Who’ star Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who uncovers some recordings from the early 21st century that grab and intoxicate her.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project with the world-famous, Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), exploring wildlife filmmaking over the past quarter-century. We wanted to include and support a creative dimension going far beyond the project’s more strictly academic and historical elements. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the visual. But the core theme remains the same: the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting drama focuses on that cultural value very closely by exploring an alien and alienating future world without nature – a world where the only memory of its former existence is preserved in Pan’s sound archive.
This is a deeply historical approach that re-unites me with a piece of research I published some time ago on what I called the strange stillness of the past – how sounds, both human and non-human generated, were overlooked by most historians. Me and my partners at the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council see ‘Forest 404’ as part of an emerging research area known as the environmental humanities. The starting point of ‘enviro-hums’ is the conviction that a scientific perspective, no matter how important, cannot do full justice to our complex and many layered relationships with nature.
The humanities and arts also have a big contribution to make, especially in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services researchers call cultural services. This refers to the so-called non-material benefits we derive from the natural world – its aesthetic value (beauty), how it inspires imaginative literature, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identities and giving us a sense of place. ‘Forest 404’ confronts us with the brutal possibility of a world not just without forests and trees but even lacking a conception of nature. And it makes us think about how that absence impoverishes us culturally as well as the more obvious ecological dangers we face.
Accompanying the podcast is an ambitious online survey devised by environmental psychologists at the University of Exeter and operated by The Open University. Data on how we respond to nature has previously concentrated on the visual. This focus on natural soundscapes will add a fresh dimension to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. So give the podcast a listen. Then please do the survey. It takes less than 10 minutes.