Opinion

HfE Series: Listening for Coastal Futures

“Tiny snapping shrimp make a punctuated vibration that sounds to human ears like a snapped finger or a dropped pebble… The oysters emit a low-pitched metabolic rumble, while the surface wind sibilates; two worlds in our ears.” Willis Jenkins from the Coastal Futures Conservatory listens to the past and future of the Virginia coast.

Sunrise on the Chesapeake Bay, by Yvonne Navalaney. Via Shutterstock ID: 215393554

Eyes widened in surprise as each researcher put on the headphones. Even the two coastal ecologists who had been working here for decades had never before heard the sound. Just below the quiet water lapping at our feet an oyster reef crackled. Tiny snapping shrimp amidst the oysters make a punctuated vibration that sounds to human ears like a snapped finger or a dropped pebble. Collectively they make it possible to hear the reef’s structure as a vertically layered crackling. And, we learned later upon analysis of field recordings, we were also hearing the oysters themselves. As each individual organism filters food from the water passing through its membranes, it expels excess material by rapidly closing its valves, emitting a low-pitched metabolic rumble.

The designer of this listening station had placed one microphone atop the reef and another inside an oyster shell on the beach. So we heard two worlds in our ears simultaneously: the living din of an underwater oyster city along with surface wind sibilating the dry carapace of a long-dead individual. Trying to still our feet from crunching the millions of shells on which we stood, we listened to the past and future of this coast.

The Coastal Futures Conservatory is an initiative of the University of Virginia to integrate arts and humanities into the investigation of coastal change. Working with the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR), a U.S. National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, the Conservatory focuses on listening as a domain in which to create new ways of experiencing, understanding, and responding to the dynamics reshaping coasts.

Co-directed by Matthew Burtner, a music professor and ecoacoustic composer, and myself, a professor of ethics, the Conservatory organises collaborative inquiry and public engagement around several different forms of listening: to field recordings and designed listening stations; to scientific data, by sonifying VCR data sets and creating public performances in which audiences can interact with the music and the underlying research; across disciplines, by commissioning humanities-based research on coastal change and convening multidisciplinary lab sessions to design new research; and across political boundaries by exchanging art and research with Global South partner sites.

‘Listen to the science’, critics often plead with those inattentive to data on rapid environmental change. The Conservatory makes more ways to listen to science.  When the marine scientist Matthew Reidenbach heard our hydrophone recording of the oyster reef, he wondered if variations in oyster feeding and filtration made sounds that could be correlated with environmental conditions. In work supported by the Conservatory, two graduate researchers, Martin Volaric from environmental sciences and Eli Stine from music, collaborated to deploy acoustic sensors to record oyster beds in various locations and conditions and then create electroacoustic translations of the data.

Image courtesy of Willis Jenkins.

At a different scale of listening, Burtner and graduate student composer Chris Luna-Mega has been working with VCR scientists to sonify long-term data sets, so that people can experience coastal change in a different register. Easily lost to the momentary gaze taking in a plotted graph, listening to sea level rise underscores the variation over time. Because the data is plotted temporally rather than spatially, in hearing it the mind must wait upon the pattern. Some of those sonifications were recently installed, along with explanations of the background science, at an exhibit in the Barrier Islands Center, a museum dedicated to preserving the cultural history of the region – especially its disinhabited islands.

In a different kind of listening altogether, Conservatory humanities scholars develop ways to listen across thresholds of cultural difference and political power. Andrew Kahrl, an historian of U.S. coasts with important work on how black beaches became white wealth in the coastal south, undertakes comparative investigation of 20th century housing developments on the Eastern Shore Kahrl’s project describes a form of “coastal capitalism” that commodifies shoreline habitats while also diminishing their ecological functions. Charlotte Rogers, a scholar of Caribbean literatures, is pursuing a book project comparing aesthetic responses to historical experiences of hurricane disaster. As she came to appreciate the role of the arts in responding to hurricanes, Rogers created an event, Coasts in Crisis, to convene artists from sites of three recent catastrophic hurricanes and hold a public conversation about how their work emerged from experiences of environmental disaster and what it means for understanding resilience.

A key practice of the Conservatory is listening to experiences of coastal change in other vulnerable regions. Our first public research presentation was opened by the Maori music ensemble, WAI. Our academic research presentations, all focused on the Virginia coast, were thus framed by listening to Aotearoa’s coast – a connection that will continue to grow. Meanwhile, we are developing a partnership with the Beaufort Lagoon Ecosystem LTER, on the northern Alaskan coast. Last year Burtner accompanied research scientists onto the ice, creating cryosphere music from their research site, while two of their scientists along with a number of Arctic Youth Ambassadors recently came to our Coastal Futures Festival – five days of exhibits, lectures, workshops, field trips, and music that opened with Coasts in Crisis.

As the Coastal Futures Conservatory joins the North American Observatory, one of eight global Humanities for the Environment (HfE) Observatories network we retaining the located, collaborative, and transdisciplinary focus afforded by the observatory model, but slightly reorient its model.  Our variation pivots from an ocular to aural model of knowing and collaborating. Listening is a form of inquiry that can immerse hearers in living environments and connect people across boundaries. It also opens normative possibilities for responding to rapid environmental change. It is a precondition to ethics, in that responding to something requires first having attended to it; yet listening also enacts an ethos in itself. The exercise of listening – to an oyster reef or to data or in a concert — situates participants in relations of ethical significance. Combining those forms of listening in order to attend to the living, dying, changing shore, the coast may come to startling presence in our imaginations. Along the warming, submerging Atlantic coast, experiments in making and contesting knowledge of coastal change may in turn stimulate public imaginations of shared coastal life.


Humanities for the Environment (HfE) is a global Observatory network of researchers and projects seeking to answer questions about the role of the humanities in a time in which human activity is significantly reshaping the geological future of the planet. HfE seeks not only enrich our understanding of the human past but also help us understand, engage with, and address global environmental challenges. Rather than defining a single research agenda adequate to these inquiries, HfE has established eight research ‘observatories’ in Africa, Asia, Australia, Circumpolar North, Europe, Latin America, and North America.


Willis Jenkins is Professor of Religion, Ethics, & Environment at the University of Virginia, where he co-directs three transdisciplinary environnmental humanities labs, including the Coastal Futures Conservatory.