Thick forests once blanketed the isle of Britain. But as agrarian societies developed and began to tame the wild woods, they left deep, lasting scars on the landscape. Ancient peoples drove animal species such as the aurochs, a wild ancestor of modern-day cattle, to extinction. Introduced trees crowded out native ones. And eventually, the sounds of motorways, agricultural equipment, and planes passing overhead largely drowned out the melodious cacophony of bird calls.
In a May 2022 article called “Six Thousand Years of Forests,” environmental journalist Sophie Yeo partnered with ecologist Joseph Monkhouse and illustrator Elin Manon to bring those lost landscapes—and soundscapes—back to life. The piece, featured in Inkcap Journal, a publication that Yeo founded in 2020, blends scientific evidence and digital maps with layered recordings and illustrations to make the land’s transformation tangible. “The past is a murky thing to recreate,” says Yeo, who’s based in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England. But by creating a broader sensory experience, “you can make people imagine what things would have actually been like.”
The piece begins at the dawn of agriculture in Britain, pauses in the medieval period, when low-intensity industry began to take root, stops again in the 1960s, when tree plantations began to overtake natural forests, and alights in the present. Yeo frames each of these sound- and landscapes as moments in time, laying out the context and the contents for the reader, as well as describing the research behind each reconstructed recording.
Ultimately, Yeo concludes by presenting two potential futures. In one scenario, the United Kingdom’s government fails to take action to protect nature; in another, it becomes a global champion for nature restoration. “Whether future forests hold a riotous symphony or a subdued solo will depend on the choices that we make today,” she writes.
Yeo spoke with Giuliana Viglione about engaging readers’ imaginations, the power of collaboration, and how looking to the future can motivate necessary action in the present. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
There are so many different components to this particular piece. How did it come about—and come together?
A bit before I worked on it, I came across Joseph Monkhouse. He had recreated the sound of an Iron Age wetland. I’d run a piece on that in Inkcap Journal and it seemed to have captured people’s imaginations. I was really keen to explore that further with him, going out of the wetland environment into the woodland environment, and going further back [in time].
Joseph had [already] created the recordings, and he had done that on a scientific basis, [relying in part on] a book by [the preeminent British zoologist] Derek Yalden, which kind of reconstructs the bird assemblages of woodlands and other environments through time, going back thousands of years. [Monkhouse] had also been inspired by the Białowieża ecosystem in Poland, which is a primeval woodland—well, almost primeval. The idea was to start with that canvas that was thick with noise and see what happens when you take away and add the different sounds over time.
He gave me written notes explaining what species the soundscapes featured and when. Then I spoke to the illustrator and we discussed how we would best illustrate them and do it so that as you scroll through, they build up so that the images provide some visual backing to what you’re hearing. And then I kind of pieced it all together and wrote the article to go with it.
I’ve been working on a book on environmental history and the deep past, so [the writing] was already kind of familiar ground. But pulling it together in this novel way was quite challenging. The scale of the whole thing—it just took a very, very long time. It was a case of figuring out how much I could technologically deliver what was in my mind.
Inkcap Journal is largely a one-woman operation. How did the publication come about? Did it give you space to be more ambitious?
I’d been living in America for about a year and a half and working there, and there seemed to be so many wonderful outlets focused on in-depth, nuanced long-form journalism about the environment. When I moved back to the U.K., there didn’t seem to be any equivalent to that. I wanted to create a place for more discursive, nuanced pieces that really got into the weeds a bit more, and where there was more room for narrative and discussion.
I definitely couldn’t have done [this article] if I was just freelancing for someone else. If I’d just gone to a random publication and said, “I’ve got this idea, it will involve collaborating with two other people and it’s going to take me a year,” I can’t imagine many people would have been like, “Oh yeah, great idea.” Being able to have that control and time … it was really important.
How does stimulating the reader’s senses help communicate big issues like land-use change?
Thinking about the past, it can seem very abstract. You can read about oak trees, or woodpeckers, or fungi, or deadwood. But if you don’t really know what that looks like—and lots of people don’t, because of the impoverished landscape we see today—then how do you even build that into an image in your own head? Whereas if you have someone essentially doing that heavy lifting of translating that into an image, or into a soundscape, then I think it touches you in a much more immediate way. It’s kind of removing a barrier between the written word and your imagination.
As writers, we can be like, “I’m gonna work alone,” but there’s lots of different skills that people have out there. When it comes to communicating environmental problems and environmental change, it’s worth thinking creatively about how you can use different people’s skills to reach new people and new audiences in different ways. Not everyone’s going to want to just sit down at their computer and read 2,000 words, no matter how lovely they are.
[This article] is the most popular piece that I have run, by far. People still talk to me about it even now. [They] really wanted to look at it and spend time with it. I looked at the stats—people were spending a lot longer on that page than they would for a normal story.
The piece also includes a visualization of global land-use change over the past 8,000 years or so, using the HYDE database, which is a history of the global environment. It shows just how rapid the transition from natural and semi-natural landscapes to engineered ones was. Why was it important to present these maps alongside the soundscapes?
I found that [dataset] and I was like, “Oh wow!” I had never really seen it presented like that before. It adds credibility to [the piece]—it’s not just a case of a few people reading books and making a creative response. This shows that it’s based on data that people have gathered in a more robust, peer-reviewed way. This [also] shows that what we’re describing is something that’s happening everywhere—playing out in different ways, obviously, different ecosystems in different places. And it shows how the land-use change was quite gradual for a while and then you get to the last few hundred years, and the map completely transforms very quickly. A lot of people thought the scroll was broken because the land-use change was so gradual for the first few thousand years. But then you get towards 1700 and then suddenly it’s like—kaboom!
I was really struck by the sharp contrast between the two alternate futures you presented. Why did you carry the piece forward, instead of stopping at the present day? Do you think that sort of speculative journalism can inspire action?
It’s always a bit depressing if you just say, “Look, this is where we were 6,000 years ago. This is where we are today. That’s it, that’s the end of the story,” because it’s not the end of the story. We can get some elements of that rich landscape that we used to have back. The soundscape isn’t static. What we do influences what you hear and what you see. It’s never going to be a perfect replica of what we had—there are new species that are going to be a part of the soundscape, whatever we do. There’s going to be human sounds there that weren’t part of the original forest. But it doesn’t have to be a bleak soundscape. It can be just as vibrant. It brings forward the consequences in people’s minds. It’s a reason to act.
I don’t know if I’d call this journalism, so much—I saw this as more of a creative project. It’s reporting on “coulds” and “woulds.” But I think that is important to do—just have that imaginative approach, because if you just live in the present, then you’re only ever going to be responding to what’s just happened. If you’re going to change things, you need to look towards the future.
Giuliana Viglione is a Washington, DC–based science and climate journalist. She is currently an editor at Carbon Brief—where she leads the team’s coverage of food, land use, and biodiversity—and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Nature, Chemical & Engineering News, Gizmodo, Discover, and other outlets, and she was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at King 5 News. Giuliana earned her PhD in oceanography at Caltech, where she co-founded the science communication outlet Caltech Letters. She is happiest being on a boat or reading a book, and preferably doing both at the same time. Follow her on Twitter @GAViglione.