Tuning into 'sonic charisma’

Why do we tune into the sounds of nature? What captures our attention and how do we relate to the origin of those sounds?

These are some of the questions I pondered during my trip to New Zealand. Whilst exploring the different parks and islands in and around Auckland, I was struck by how alive they sounded, not in terms of human sounds but rather with respect to nonhuman sounds.

This got me thinking about the concept of ‘nonhuman charisma’; a concept posited by Jamie Lorimer, an environmental geographer based at the University of Oxford. Jamie distinguishes three forms of charisma in nature:


1. Aesthetic charisma

The visual characteristics of an organism, including its appearance and behaviour, evoking strong human responses, such as the large eyes of a panda or the fluffiness of a tiger cub.

2. Ecological charisma

How 'visible' an organism is to the human senses, often based on its size, colour, shape, speed and type of movement.

3. Corporeal charisma

The feelings evoked in humans through one-off or repeated encounters and interactions. 


Walking around Auckland, I started wondering about the idea of ‘sonic charisma’; the auditory characteristics of nature that capture our attention such as calls and songs that might be intense, subtle, constant or episodic.

I began to wonder how nature comes ‘into being’ through these aural characteristics, how do we respond – both emotionally and physically – and how does this change over time as we get used to different sounds?

Whilst the parks, woods and coasts of Cornwall are equally as vibrant as those of Auckland, does the novelty of a first encounter create an epiphany of attention that fades with familiarity?

How does our attention wane or intensify once we locate and understand the sources of these sounds – do we connect differently to the songs or alarm calls of a bird once we learn to decipher the two?

In an effort to capture some of the more distinctive sounds unfolding around me, I started carrying around a small recorder. You can listen to some of the audio I recorded below.

In addition to the many sounds I have not yet interpreted or made sense of, the recordings include a chorus of invisible cicadas that permeates many of the city’s parks - including the Auckland Domain’s Sensory Garden. It captures the unique calls of the elusive Bell Bird and other protected bird species found on Rangitoto Island, Auckland’s youngest volcano, managed as a pest-free haven for native flora and fauna.

I’m excited to explore the idea of sonic charisma further through the Sensing Nature project, beginning to unpick elements that capture our auditory attention and imagination, and understand how this might shape our opportunities and desire to connect to nature.