On Sunday 17th August, Thames 21 held the Love the Lea festival on Walthamstow Marshes to communicate and celebrate their work along the river.
As part of the festival, I held a day long public field recording workshop, where I worked with around 100 people – both children and adults – to make underwater recordings with hydrophones, and to talk generally about why and how we might want to record sound. The day was a real success, despite a wet start (have a listen to the recording below to see how this sounded!).
With members of the public and Thames 21’s Elise Babbington, I put the hydrophones into a clump of myriophyllum (or water milfoil) plants growing between two houseboats. Myriophyllum is an oxygenating plant, meaning that it releases tiny bubbles into the water as part of photosynthesis – a process that’s very important for the health of the river ecosystem. These tiny bubbles give an endless minimal rhythm to the recordings, with the occasional scrape and rattle of insects swimming past and stridulating (rubbing together) their legs to communicate.
I was really inspired by the range of reactions that people had to hearing these unfamiliar sounds. Most were amazed at the weird and wonderful noises – “this is like Brian Eno!” said one man – made by a seemingly weedchoked backwater between two boats. Similarly, many people were surprised at the amount of sound pollution below the surface – particularly when a boat went past. This led to a lot of fruitful conversations about how we might think about pollution along the river in different ways.
Some people were interested in the potential of sound as a means of understanding the ecological health of a river, and we talked about the emerging field of soundscape ecology which seeks to explore this topic. I think the one common theme for participants – whether they listened for 10 seconds or 10 minutes – was that listening with hydrophones gives us a new and potentially exciting way to know and understand the environments around us. And, if nothing else, that’s a success in my book.
Here’s some photos of the day taken by Elise Babbington from Thames 21 (n.b. we gained parental permission for all photographs of children at the workshops).