Distant crows discuss
matters of mysterious import.
Grasses whisper against my feet.
River flows from head to tail,
Ouroborus path to lands beyond.
Dragonflies hover in the middle place,
buoyed by currents unseen,
while cicadan alarm at unknown provocations
swiftly swells and softly ebbs.
An inscrutable breeze whistles by.
The heartbeat of another thunders
in my ears. A voice that is mine and not mine
wells up within me, singing harmony
with the chorus of this sacred space
that belongs to none and all.
~along the Trinity River Trails in Rockwood Park, Fort Worth, Texas, 8/30/15
* * * *
To help students in my religion and ecology classes learn what it can feel like to become mindful of a place and its inhabitants, I ask them to complete a series of “meditations.” One involves centering themselves in a place, observing it quietly with their eyes, ears, and other senses, and then reflecting on what they discover. The students are almost always amazed by the chorus of other voices they hear once they still themselves, and by how much richer their experience of urban nature becomes when they do.
For me, listening has always been a way to access deeper levels of meaning and connection to the world around me. Maybe this is because my hearing has always been so much more acute than my eyesight, or maybe it’s just that sound is my preferred path to enlightenment. I’m certainly not alone in that regard; think of those whose spirits soar when they hear their favorite hymn swelling a cathedral, or the creative power that wells up from within and without when the powerful word “Om” is uttered.
But what about walking in a natural area in the city or suburbs, where some sounds—unwanted sounds we experience as “noise”—so often seem to drown out everything else? Maybe it’s the periodic roar of airplanes, the humming of cars and pumps and high voltage powerlines, or the constant barking of unseen dogs in people’s yards. Maybe it’s the foreign sound of a conversation you’re trying not to overhear, or the spilling of dirty water out of a drainage pipe.
Yet if we listen a little closer, other sounds often emerge—the ones we have to strain to hear, like the lapping of river water against rocky riprap on its banks, or the quiet calls of birds like the scissor-tailed flycatchers who so often grab my attention here in north Texas. Or maybe it’s the background hum of insects that we often tune out; bees buzz-dancing with flowers at our feet, or alien cicada choruses ululating in the branches above us.
“Soundscape” is a word that acoustic ecologists use to describe the sonic aspects of landscapes. (For more on acoustic ecology, you can visit the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology’s website.) Sometimes we ourselves both contribute to the soundscape and reveal it, as when the meditative passage of our hiking feet crunches through drier grass, yet swishes through moister blades. Because of the shift in pitch we can tell the difference in moisture without even looking down to the ground.
For me, the layering of sounds calls to mind the different cosmological worlds that overlap in every place we find ourselves. Native peoples of the Americas often speak of three worlds of existence: Upper and Under Worlds as well as This World of Earth. As you might expect, different kinds of animals and natural features characterize each of these realms, and some can cross between them. Trees, for example, have their roots in the Under World, their trunks in This World, and their crowns in the Upper World; therefore a tree can be used as an axis mundi to travel between the worlds. (Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse traditions, is an excellent example.) But different kinds of sounds can also help us sense these places—the songs of birds soar in the Upper World, while the quiet scraping of deer hooves mark This World, and the splashing of water-loving creatures like turtles or fish animates the Under World.
Sound animates place. By listening to the sounds of a place, particularly animal sounds (including our own), we can connect more fully to a living world. As one of my students put it in a meditation response, “When I’m in my own house I can cut myself off from the world; but when I’m outside, my ears are inundated with the sound of life.” Another reflected at greater length, “During this time with my eyes closed, hearing and feeling the environment around me, I waited to hear and feel nothing. I waited for the birds to stop conversing and the wind to stop blowing, but it never did. There was never the sound of silence, even though I was the only person at the park, there was never complete silence. This made me realize that the environment is able to communicate in a way that we humans would never understand.”
Photograph credits: Bernard Lafond, "Cieux parisiens - Paris Sky, Pigalle, Paris," Creative Commons license 2.0; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher; minzkind, ".dewey mornings,"Creative Commons license 2.0. Gavin Van Horn, "NSC carp."