The Sounds of Silence: A Reading List About Listening to Nature

Kindling a new awareness of the outdoors wasn’t something the author predicted, but it brought a host of realizations — including the discovery of these five thoughtful longreads.

By Peter Hemminger

Since my early teens, I’ve always experienced the city through a pair of headphones. If I was leaving the house, I could be trusted to forget just about anything else that I needed, from bagged lunches to bus fare and house keys, but there was no chance of me stepping outside without my Walkman. Over the decades, the technology has changed and the song selection increased, but the basic principle stayed the same: Music always has been my sonic security blanket, a bubble of auditory insulation between me and everything else.

That started to change during the first COVID lockdown. When I need to clear my head, I’ve always found refuge in the ambient chatter of a nearby coffee shop, or at my favorite hole-in-the-wall cocktail lounge, where the music is always just slightly too loud to talk over. With my usual haunts suddenly off-limits, I found myself spending more time in parks and pathways. I discovered nature hikes in my neighborhood, faded trails leading into tangles of Douglas fir that I’d previously confined to my peripheral vision. As social media talked half-jokingly about nature returning, I started noticing birds’ nests everywhere. I saw beavers swimming in the river, deer walking by the railroad tracks. The more time I spent looking and listening to the world around me, the more I realized the headphones were getting in the way.

At the same time, I’d begun reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy — the last book I’d taken out from my local library before everything shut down, and by sheer luck a perfect thing to read while much of the world was on pause. Early in the book, Odell talks about how she began listening to bird calls in her neighborhood. The first step was acknowledging that the sounds of birds were everywhere, even if she hadn’t been paying attention to them. Gradually, she began picking out individual calls, learning what birds they were attached to. As her awareness of the sounds grew, it “changed the granularity” of her perception. Her reality seemed to be increasing in resolution.

I felt inspired to try it, too. Tuning into nature and trying to scale up the fidelity of my neighborhood, I realized I’d been using my headphones to solve a problem I didn’t properly understand. I wasn’t using them as an escape from reality, but as an escape from noise. I’d been blocking out the constant din of background sounds that most of us take for granted in urban life. My walks through inner-city parks hadn’t cut out the noise entirely, but they had turned the volume down just enough that I could start to pick up on another conversation, one that I didn’t want to drown out. As a relative newcomer to that conversation, I’ve been kicking myself for ignoring it over the first three decades of my life. Fortunately, there are others out there who’ve been much more closely attuned to the voice of nature. Reading the works of authors, essayists, and ecologists who have dedicated their lives to deep listening is helping me fill in the gaps — and make up for lost time.  

Splendid isolation: how I stopped time by sitting in a forest for 24 hours (Mark O’Connell, The Guardian, January 24, 2020)

Mark O’Connell’s relationship to nature seems very similar to mine: For much of his life he “wished it well in all its dealings,” but “[his] regard for it was essentially abstract.” Until, that is, he experienced the pleasure of a “wilderness solo.”

The solo is an extended outdoor stay of one to three days, done without leaving a 10-meter circle. A very different experience from a hike and its feeling of constant progression, its aim is to do essentially nothing. No wandering, no distracting yourself with technology, no journaling or sketching or other artistic pursuits. Just watching, listening, thinking, and being in nature.

Like Odell’s How to Do Nothing, O’Connell’s piece is a pre-pandemic work that seems even more relevant in our new reality. His awakening to the power of stillness and silence is an invitation for fellow urbanites to slow down, decompress, and tune into the rhythms of the natural world.

Until very recently, the idea of spending a rainy morning alone in a forest would have been a profoundly unattractive one, but I found myself relishing the prospect of these last hours. The restlessness I had experienced the previous day, in that last stretch of the solo, was entirely absent now, the question of what to do with myself for several hours having come to seem nowhere near as pressing. The idea of such a question felt, in fact, somehow absurd. I went to the edge of my circle and sat down, and looked at the river.

Everything Is Wrong: Bernie Krause’s Concept of ‘Biophony’ (Tobias Fischer, The MIT Press Reader, July 30, 2020)

Despite the dour title, Tobias Fischer’s primer on the concept of biophony is anything but a downer. Like all contemporary stories about nature, it comes with a warning of environmental danger, but the concept it introduces is an enchanting one. To musician and “soundscape ecologist” Bernie Krause, the sound of nature is neither silence nor a chaotic blend of unrelated noises. It’s an intricate symphony, a sculpting of the sonic landscape refined by millions of years of evolution, as intricately coordinated as anything humans have composed.

As Fischer explains in this excerpt from Animal Music, an anthology about the sounds of the natural world, Krause believes that each species carves out its own vocal terrain, which can’t be fully appreciated without listening to all the sounds around it. In that view, field recordings that attempt to isolate individual species are missing the point entirely — the goal should be to hear the region as a whole. Humans are apparently so attuned to these compositions that we pick up on discrepancies on an unconscious level: Nature guides report that areas with less auditory diversity cause bad feelings about a location, even if they can’t pinpoint why. Our bodies know to listen, even if our minds don’t.

And so, the lower ends are usually taken by mammals, from the subsonic utterances of giraffes, elephants and hippos to the sounds of monkeys and cats. Further up in the spectrum, one finds different species of birds, which have arguably taken the art of song to an unprecedented degree of refinement. The highest frequencies, finally, are secured by insects and the ultra-sonics of bats. Together, they form what Krause termed the “Great Animal Orchestra,” a constantly shapeshifting constellation of individual voices in motion, and he termed their symphonic soundscape a ‘biophony’ — all of the “sounds originating from nonhuman, nondomestic biological sources.

Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community (Jack Young, Uneven Earth, December 13, 2021)

“Listening to nature” doesn’t always have to be literal. In this wide-ranging essay, poet and educator Jack Young reflects on the increasingly fuzzy border between humanity and nature while walking through the woods on the edge of Bristol. The landscape itself acts as a collaborator in the essay, raising questions, leading off on tangents, and offering novel perspectives for those attuned to its language.

There’s something about moving through natural spaces that triggers a different kind of thinking, one that’s more in tune with the connectedness of nature. The landscape becomes an extension of the mind, coming up with thoughts in a dialogue that couldn’t have emerged alone. The conversation that Young documents is personal, political, and philosophical, a wide-ranging wander through mental and physical terrain.

Below my feet the fungal network surges with intricate connections, erupting out of the earth in arrays of glistening mushrooms among oak worms and darkling beetles. These woods make clear that our bodies are not merely our bodies. They are intimately connected with the bodies of trees and plants and fungi, with the bullfinches and marsh tits and fly orchids, all breathing separately, yet as one. My body is only my body in relation to the other bodies that surround it.

The Minds of Plants (Laura Ruggles, Aeon, December 12, 2017)

For more on the interconnectedness of our surroundings: Biologist Merlin Sheldrake and British writer Robert MacFarlane tune into the mushroom kingdom at Lit Hub.

Who knows how many conversations we’re missing out on, either because we don’t know to listen for them, or because we’ve closed our minds to the possibility of having them at all? In her exploration of whether plants might have more mental life than we imagine, philosophy doctoral student Laura Ruggles brings up the idea of “plant blindness,” the human tendency to dismiss the world’s flora as mere set dressing for the real actors in the animal kingdom.

As much as it may seem like a stretch to say the forest is thinking, Ruggles makes a compelling case for at least some form of inner life, even if it’s one that’s entirely alien to ours. Treating plants as backgrounds is another way that we ignore the natural world — and maybe underestimate it. After all, if plants can learn and react, maybe we can learn from them, too.

[I]t’s what the mallow does at night that has propelled this humble plant into the scientific spotlight. Hours before the dawn, it springs into action, turning its leaves to face the anticipated direction of the sunrise. The mallow seems to remember where and when the Sun has come up on previous days, and acts to make sure it can gather as much light energy as possible each morning. When scientists try to confuse mallows in their laboratories by swapping the location of the light source, the plants simply learn the new orientation.

The God of Silence Speaks Up (Katherine LaGrave, Afar Magazine, September 8, 2020)

The most difficult thing about listening to silence is that it’s so easy to drown out. There’s hardly a stretch of the world without at least some human-made noise in earshot, whether it’s the clatter of a train, the constant hum of a distant highway, or the regularly scheduled interjection of a passenger jet’s roar. Fortunately, there are activists like Gordon Hempton working to preserve the subtle sounds of nature, through a combination of field recordings and preservation efforts. In this profile for travel magazine Afar, Katherine LaGrave explores the origins of Hempton’s quest, as well as what’s at stake if it fails. The number of spaces that are truly free from man-made noise is shrinking every day, and the consequences go well beyond some lost peace of mind.

“My father used to say, ‘Quiet? That’s so highbrow. Quiet is so trivial. Someday we can just fix the noise pollution and it will be quiet. Quiet doesn’t rank with endangered species, breeding programs, habitat preservation, global warming, nuclear waste, and toxic cleanups. And you want me to pay attention to the need to preserve quiet?’ Yes,” Hempton says, quietly. “Because when we save quiet, we save everything else.”

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Peter Hemminger (@peterhemminger on Twitter) is a writer, cultural worker, radio host, and arts advocate based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Among other projects, he publishes the newsletter Wander Lines, which has spun off into a similarly named blog about music, philosophy, arts, and culture.


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