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Ground-breaking podcast about relationship with natural soundscapes

A new sci-fi thriller podcast from BBC Radio 4 is offering a fascinating additional dimension to an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project looking at the world of wildlife filmmaking over the last quarter century, particularly the world-famous BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol.

“We wanted to include a creative event that would go far beyond the more strictly academic and historical elements of the research project. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the focus on the visual,” says Peter Coates, Professor of American and Environmental History at the University of Bristol and the filmmaking project’s academic lead.

forest 404

Forest 404 is a research partnership between BBC Radio 4, BBC Natural History, the University of Bristol, the University of Exeter and The Open University.

The podcast available on BBC Sounds, is set in the 24th century after a data crash called The Cataclysm. The enigmatic name is derived from the error message that comes up when a webpage is unavailable. And the podcast series will be released on the fourth day of the fourth month.

Timothy X Atack’s thriller follows Pan (played by Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who uncovers some sound recordings from the early 21st century that haunt her. They are recordings of rainforests, places which no longer exist, and Pan feels compelled to hunt down the truth about how the forests of the old world died.

At its heart, the podcast is an environmental sci-fi thriller with an all-female cast and original music by Bonobo. Each of the nine episodes is accompanied by a short factual talk, building on the environmental and technological themes that arise in the drama.

The drama episodes are also accompanied by a series of experimental soundscapes, from rainforest recordings to whale songs to orchestras of frogs.

The podcasts has been made alongside an ambitious experiment devised and operated by researchers at the University of Exeter and the Open University. This survey promises to make a major contribution to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. It will contribute new knowledge by exploring how people respond to various sounds of nature; previous research has concentrated on the visual.

“The podcast directly reflects the AHRC's current interest in nature as a source of human wellbeing” explains Professor Coates.

“It seemed like a highly relevant creative enterprise to get involved in because our overall project is about the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting podcast focuses on that 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 this sound archive. This is a deeply historical approach.”

“Forest 404 ties in with another recent AHRC-funded project led by my colleague in Bristol’s history department, Dr Victoria Bates. It was called ‘A Sense of Place: Exploring Nature and Wellbeing through the Non-Visual Senses,’ and I participated as a volunteer. It was about immersing people in natural sensescapes using 360-degree sound and smell technologies. The idea is that we can potentially ‘take nature’ to people who can't experience it first-hand.” 

Professor Coates sees Radio 4’s podcast and the BBC history project as a whole as part of an emerging area of academic research – the environmental humanities – whose starting point is the belief that a scientific perspective is not enough to do full justice to our complex and many layered relationships with nature.

He feels strongly that the humanities and arts have a huge amount to offer, “especially in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services research calls cultural services. This refers to the so-called non-material benefits we derive from nature – things like its aesthetic value, how it inspires poetry, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identity and giving us a sense of place.”

BBC Radio 4’s Forest 404 is available as a podcast box set on BBC Sounds from Thursday 4 April. Download BBC Sounds to listen and subscribe. 

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