Straight Talk – Singing in Harmony

Straight Talk – Singing in Harmony

Written By Stella Nicholls


‘Work the earth and take care of it. Treat the earth as if your life depends upon it.’


Born into a musical family, where singing and harmonies were everyday realities and with dad loving the Rolling Stones and mum preferring Tchaikovsky it meant that we were and are a singing family with a huge variety of musical tastes. As I grew older, I realised what mum meant when she said, “Listen to the harmonies” as I lay on the lounge floor next to the hi-fi with eyes closed; the perfect harmonies of Don and Phil Everly literally music to my ears.

My grandfather, a talented man from Ebbw Vale, who was a tenor in the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) choir, seems to have passed down his melodic voice to my mum, sister and me.  The three of us started a singing trio, often being asked by members of our church group in South Africa to sing at weddings, concerts, fashion events, sometimes even funerals.

Harmonies fascinate me, I have a lower voice and sing alto as I can’t reach the high notes that my mum and sister can as sopranos.  We would happily croon away in three-part harmony, to the bride’s choice of song on her special day.

At one such event, we started singing, when my sister’s new boyfriend, sitting near her, decided that he would add in a fourth harmony – more of a bass.  Unfortunately, he started singing out of key, his droning could be heard ringing out as an accompaniment to us and was such a distraction and a surprise to me, that I broke into a fit of nervous giggles.  The discordant sound emanating from him was jarring and I think we had to stop or nudge him to stop – but as a result, the music died! Poor bride!

As with the harmonies in music needing to be perfectly pitched to sound beautiful and melodic, it seemed a good comparison to the way the environment fits together into a perfectly tuned ecosystem.  Every day, however, millions of us step out of harmony and sing ‘out of key’ when we create pollution, throw away plastic, and don’t take care of the environment around us. That jarring and discordant ‘note’ sadly isn’t as easy to stop by nudging someone into silence and the damage left behind by our ‘footprint’ is far-reaching and almost seems an impossible task to rectify.  I mean, do we really know the extent of the damage that we are creating?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as guilty as the ‘millions’, having used plastic bags when I shop, ordering coffee in a takeaway cup supplied by the coffee shop and really being rather vague on the impact my choices have on the environment but recently, and especially since moving to the UK, I have started to take more notice of my choices.

We recently visited a marine park, called uShaka, in Durban.  We had a beautiful but heart- wrenching presentation about the penguins, whilst there.  We were shown first hand, the impact that plastic has on marine life, with some of the animals having deformities in their wings, caused by being caught in plastic.  The park rescues and rehabilitates the little creatures that they find; nobody likes to think of an innocent animal being hurt.

We probably have all seen the photo of the turtle with a deformity in its middle caused by growing up encased in a plastic ring.  Not a good sight at all, and it brings tears to my eyes to see them so helpless. In fact, doing research for this piece was almost too much for me to bear but I know we need to see and face the reality of the destruction that we are causing, as humans.

A couple of years ago, we chatted with one of our friends, a scientist at the University of Exeter, about his studies.  He told us about the impact of microplastics on the environment and the harm that they are causing. This resulted in me changing a face wash that I had been using, which contained microbeads, to exfoliate my skin, as the tiny plastic microbeads were finding their way into the oceans and being ingested by marine life.

He mentioned that the plankton would eat the microbeads, thinking it was food and as a result this would block their system, having eaten something solid, which would have no nutritional goodness at all. This plastic could either cause the tiny creature to die or be passed up the food chain to larger animals, having an impact on the entire ecosystem.  Fish get their sustenance from organisms that have fed on phytoplankton, as well as baleen whales, which strain the plankton out of the water into their mouths. What struck me further, was the possibility that through fish eating the tiny plastic particles, that eventually humans would be eating the plastic too.

On a more positive note, the UK government has started to act and in a recent article* stated that in January 2018, they had banned the manufacture of products containing microbeads in the UK, whilst a ban on the sale of these products will follow later in the year.  But we also, as consumers, need to know that the plastic single-use bottles and bags that we use, also break down into tiny microbeads of plastic eventually and could well end up polluting our oceans and rivers, so stopping the use of microbeads in face wash, toothpaste and other products is only the beginning.

It seems that there is no ‘quick fix’ to the plastic pollution that we see floating in our oceans, but we do need to start somewhere, so perhaps each one of us could do something small.  We could buy a reusable water bottle and ask for it to be refilled at our local coffee shop, instead of buying a plastic bottle of water. Another way that I try not to use ‘single-use plastics’ in my local supermarket is to buy as many loose fruits and vegetables (not prepacked in plastic) as possible.  There aren’t always options to buy them loose, but with persistence, the more we try to buy loose items, the more demand there will be and the more they will become available. Perhaps by many of us taking small ‘do-able’ steps each day, the tide will turn and hopefully when it does, it won’t be littered with plastic waste.

There is hope. I remember my mum telling us, as children in the seventies, that we weren’t allowed to use aerosol cans because they were bad for the ozone layer.  Our family not using spray cans, may not have had a huge impact on saving the environment at the time, but millions of families doing it, surely made a difference.  In fact, just 31 years ago, the Montreal Protocol finalised a global agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances, creating control on the use of CFC’s (Chlorofluorocarbons).  Today, modern spray cans are ozone safe and the amount of CFC gases in the atmosphere is decreasing.

Let’s make a conscious effort to be more aware of the single-use plastics that we are using on a day to day basis.  With many of us making one or two changes, it has the potential to grow exponentially and could lead to us having a positive impact on the ecosystem and to our world – all creatures great and small that we should be taking care of.

Let’s start ‘singing in harmony’ as a city and be custodians of the earth – this is our world, we only have one.



Photo credit Lucy Rickards

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