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The joy of listening

The joy of listening

Words: Saveeta Sing

Photos: Various

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Not only children love the excitement and magic of a well-told story; grownups do too. Audiobooks and podcasts for adults are booming and so is the supply of, increasingly creative listening experiences. The fact that they can be enjoyed almost everywhere is an added benefit, especially during less inspiring activities such as housework, or commuting. Like any good story, they take you on a journey, broadening your mind and perspective. Music and sound draw you even further into the listening experience. But with so much fascinating audio on every topic imaginable, it can be hard to choose. So, tying in with our current theme, here’s a rich and varied selection of the best offerings on the topic of nature and sustainability. Enjoy!



30 Animals That Made Us Smarter

Curious to know how the secrets of a firefly’s glow have helped us brighten our lives and create more energy-efficient lighting? Or how the wings of one of the most beautiful butterflies, the blue morpho, are transforming paints and textiles? And what about the train design that was inspired by a kingfisher?

Listen to the remarkable podcast ‘30 Animals That Made Us Smarter’ from the BBC World Service and you will hear all about it and more. Each episode of the 30-part series tells the story of a technological or scientific breakthrough that was inspired by what we have learned from animals. The educational and entertaining podcast is presented by Patrick Aryee, a biologist who really knows what he is talking about, having travelled around the globe for close encounters with fascinating creatures such as sperm whales, cheetahs and Komodo dragons. He clearly enjoys taking his audience on a journey, sharing astounding details and facts. As a wildlife filmmaker and presenter, Aryee contributed to a host of programmes such as ‘Amazing Animal Family’, ‘Attenborough: 60 years in the Wild’, ‘Frozen Planet’ and ‘Big Cats’.

Listen to the podcast:  30 Animals That Made Us Smarter


This is certainly no “ordinary” listen on the topic of sustainability. The hosts, Oliver Hayes and David Powell, otherwise known as Ol and Dave, are environmental experts, working for ecological charities and have in-depth knowledge of sustainability issues. Yet, when you hear them goofing around, with their characteristic brand of dry British humour, you might think you’ve tuned in to a comedy show. And you have. Ol and Dave are true to the tagline of their informative and entertaining podcast: “Trying to be cheery in the face of impending ecological disaster.” Laughter is the best medicine, they say. And with all the gloom and doom usually dominating environmental issues, the humorous approach of ‘Sustainababble’ offers a welcome change. Calling themselves professional tree-huggers, Ol and Dave openly express their confusion about certain environmental issues and how companies and politicians promise sustainable action, but don’t deliver.

Photo: Elena Polisano

The long-running comedy podcast has been broadcasting a new episode (almost) every week since 2015. That amounts to a lot of hilarious and informative listening, with each episode enlivened by music and jokes. Topics tackled over the years include: carbon footprints (how Irish band U2’s yearly carbon footprint equals a return flight to Mars), biodiversity, Extinction Rebellion protests and chlorine-drenched chicken.

‘Sustainababble’ is a smart concept and a funny, surprising and highly entertaining listen. With their jokes and easy approach, the comical hosts make sustainability issues more accessible.

Find episodes of ‘Sustainababble’:



Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Cephalopods are much more than weird looking, “fishy” organisms, mesmerisingly curling their tentacles in a deep-sea dance. In the (audio)book ‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’, author Peter Godfrey-Smith, who is also a skilled diver and science philosopher, compares them to highly intelligent aliens that can teach us humans a thing or two. How did they become so smart and how does that relate to us humans?

The fascinating listen relates the evolution of octopuses and how their eight tentacles became so full of neurons they are virtually their own brain. You learn about the beginning of animal life, way down at the bottom of the ocean. Starting with a little bundle of cells and in time evolving to jellyfish-like nervous systems. The story moves on to the amazing evolution of the cephalopods, transforming from an inconspicuous mollusc to creatures reminiscent of snails, with defensive shells, crawling on the sea bottom as the first predators. Then, 290m years ago, they developed tentacles, started swimming and discarded their shells – marking the emergence of the first octopuses. They evolved into intelligent creatures, with large brains to compensate for their new vulnerability. But they are not just smart; with neurons ranging through their whole body, octopuses are “suffused with nervousness”, which allows them to “live outside the usual body/brain divide”.

In addition to the amazing story on the evolution of cephalopods, the listen includes many interesting, sometimes funny, details and anecdotes. Who knew for example that a common octopus is thought to be as smart as a three-year-old child or a dog? Or that octopuses have been caught unscrewing jars of food, squirting water at ones they don’t like, or at light bulbs to turn them off?

‘Other Minds’ is an engaging listen that you don’t want to miss.

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren

As well as a successful writer, Hope Jahren is also a teacher and an award-winning geobiologist. In her (audio)book ‘The Story of More’, she tells us about human consumption habits and the immense influence these have on our endangered planet. The story is told from her personal perspective, making it an accessible listen about a subject that affects us all.

She reveals how people have been warned about the threat of global warming “as early as 1856”, but “we kind of stopped listening … we’re quite practised at not listening to things scientists say over and over again.”

Jahren tells us that “the earth is sick” and that it won’t get better by itself. We all have to take action, individually and as a community. Food scarcity, lack of electricity and sanitary water conditions are some of the issues she mentions, as well as how the amount of waste created by the privileged could be used as a resource.

She also shares her worries about the future of science in the US, which led her to move from the Midwest to Oslo, Norway in 2016. Thinking out loud, she discusses food and changes in food production, addressing our ever-growing consumption, energy use and levels of waste. She urges us to “use less and share more”, revealing an increasing divide between those who live a more sustainable life and those who are less engaged in saving the planet.

Jahren first book, ‘Lab Girl’ (2016), was a bestseller and provided her with an audience for the urgent issues she talks about in ‘The Story of More’. Her debut covers her childhood and love life, but is also very much about the plant life she has studied in the three laboratories she built to examine trees, flowers, seeds, and soil.



The Overstory by Richard Powers

‘The Overstory’ was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book tells the stories of nine characters and how they are linked together by trees. There’s Patricia Westerford (“Plant-Patty”) for instance, a shy plant biologist who struggles to get her ideas about the hidden life of trees scientifically recognised; their ingenious underground communication and its huge impact on all life on Earth. Then there’s Nicolas Hoel and the chestnut tree his Norwegian ancestors planted in their American garden, representing the passing of time. An important character is Olivia Vandergriff, a troubled student, who becomes fascinated by trees and plants after she recovers from a drug-induced episode. She gets romantically involved with Nicolas and the two of them become environmental activists involved in tree-sitting protests. Another remarkable person is Neelay, an Indian child who seeks comfort in trees, even though it was a bad fall from a tree that rendered him paraplegic. He retreats into a virtual world, ruling as a master of his own self-made realm.

The stories of the characters are all inextricably entwined with trees, and in this sense the trees themselves seem to become the most important characters of the story. The arboreal world created by the author feels magical and wondrous.

‘The Overstory’ is a long listen, with a strong ecological message that some might argue is somewhat patronising and overtly activistic. Nonetheless, it is a very intriguing, richly layered story about life, love, dreams, friendship and nature. And, luckily, there is also hope, because we can always start “afresh, afresh, afresh”.

Photo: Dean D. Dixon

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It’s about time

For too long the focus has been on a mainstream monoculture. The need for change is clear. Get inspired here, with our showcase of more diverse narratives, from books to art to film.