A Listening Life

Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world’s great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.

I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does.  Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed “earlids.” Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts – our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.

For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness — deep listening — changes us.

These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It’s not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one’s irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, anything but this!

I am not certain why this shift occurs, but it might be in part because the inner voice, the commentator in our heads that plays such an outsized role in maintaining our sense of being a separate self, is unable to operate at the same time that we are listening fully. It’s possible to be engaged in a visual activity while the commentator is yammering away, but it is not possible to listen. So when we are listening carefully to the natural world, the sense of being a separate self is necessarily diminished, while the presence of the living world is accentuated.

When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.

When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.

But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.

Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.

I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.

I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.

But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.

Is Silence Going Extinct?

As I noted in my previous post, we are just beginning to realize that natural soundscapes matter to ecosystem health, and that we have filled them with mechanical noise as if they don’t.

A new article on soundscape ecology was published yesterday in the New York Times, with some lovely audio recordings from Denali National Park embedded.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html

There is a very engaging lecture on this subject by soundscape recordist and ecologist Bernie Krause:

http://fora.tv/2009/09/22/Dr_Bernie_Krause_The_Great_Animal_Orchestra

We are looking forward to Krause’s new book The Great Animal Orchestra, which treats the subject of soundscape ecology in detail. It is due out next week.

My own recordings this week have focused on the red winged blackbird. Harbingers of spring, they are arriving about two weeks early this year and so may also be harbingers of a changing climate.

Where’s a Whale to Go?

The Right Whale Research Team at the New England Aquarium have been studying whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for more than 30 years. The peak of right whale presence in the Bay is usually in September or October of each year. So it was that in 2001 the team was in the Bay when shipping traffic was halted due to the 9/11 attacks. It also happens that at that time the team was pioneering a new research method, using dogs to track right whale feces. Whale feces are a treasure trove of information, including the presence of stress hormones.

It should come as no surprise, but the NEAQ now has evidence that stress levels in right whales decreased when ships were absent in the days following 9/11/2001.

http://rightwhales.neaq.org/2012/02/right-whale-researchers-make.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/08/shipping-noises-chronic-stress-whales

Chronic stress wreaks havoc with general health, as most of us know. Shipping noise is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the oceans, so where is a whale to go to get some peace?

I have several connections to this story that make it personally resonant.

My very first encounter with a whale was in 1995, in the Bay of Fundy.

That was a fin whale, not a right whale. But the encounter was one of the most ecstatic of my life, and it changed the course of my life. I came home so excited that my parents then changed their vacation plans and went whale watching on the same boat out of Nova Scotia and also saw whales. My mother then turned that experience into a children’s sermon called Digby the Whale.

I did not know about the story until several years later, after my mother’s death. Discovering that story was a revelation to me, because it helped me understand why the whale encounter had been so potent for me. In her genius, she recognized what the whale represents, at least for her and for me: they are messengers of the Deep. For me, this story was the conscious wedding of what until then had been an unconscious understanding: my life is uniquely oriented toward the contemplative life especially as it expresses itself in the natural world. It is really as a result of my mother’s insight that The Natural Contemplative came into being.

My mother’s story anticipates the NEAQ’s research finding: “Whales are probably happiest when they are experiencing deep calling to deep.. and they are not really meant to be in the midst of the hullabaloo of human restlessness and noise.”

Back to the Bay of Fundy. I had my first experience of a right whale in 2002, also in the Bay of Fundy. I was on a whale watch boat but I was well aware of the NEAQ research boats and the dogs, although it took a while for me to learn what the dogs were doing.

Although I was a Benedictine novice back in the 1980s, it is really the whales and the Bay of Fundy that made me a contemplative. And my mother’s story:

“Like Digby the Whale, I think that we too are meant to live with the deep in us quietly calling [and listening] to the deep which is God, and not always be around the hullabaloo and the noise and the restlessness that is all around us in the world.”

That is as good a description of the contemplative life as I know.

If you read my last post you’ll know that I, too, find the press of human noise pretty stressful. I can relate to the whales. I want to get away from the hullabaloo, and I don’t always know where to go, except for short periods. The cell phone and wireless devices have reached into nearly every corner of our world. The Bay of Fundy used to be one of my quiet places. But, like the right whales, I am finding that even there the noise is increasing, thanks especially to cell phones and iPhones and all the rest of those mobile noise makers.

In addition to the noise, we are now bathed in wireless signals (a “smart” meter was just installed on our house this week. Before now, we had no wireless signals at our house. We are going to try to get rid of this one too). How sure are we that this ocean of electromagnetic energy we are swimming in does not add up to yet another stressor? If we turned off all the signals for a few weeks, like what happened for the whales in 2001, would we discover that our stress levels drop as well?

I well remember what it was like to be outside in the days following 9/11 when all air traffic was grounded. It was lovely. What an interesting experiment it would be, to turn off all the wireless signals for a couple of weeks. What might we hear? What might we rediscover in ourselves and in our world, if we simply turned off all the noise?

But the real question is, where can the whales go? Right whales (of whom there are only about 500 remaining) go to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, because that is where their food is most abundant. They don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Maybe there are technologies that can make ship traffic quieter, but there will be costs involved, and are we willing to pay those costs for the sake of the whales? Maybe we would if we realized that they and we are much the same. We need the quiet. We need the deep in us to call to and hear from the Deep that is the living universe, if we are to know any measure of peace in our time.

Why Do I Love Whales?

The following gem is taken from an article written by Willy Jones in the Fall 2010 newsletter of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation. Willy is a ten-year-old junior naturalist aboard Newburyport Whale Watch‘s Prince of Whales.

Willy is not alone. Many of us have had exactly this same experience on our first meeting with a whale. I’ve written about it extensively, but never with his simple elegance. I have read eco-philosophers, and spiritual teachers, but Willy says all that needs to be said. We are each other.

Thank you, Willy.

Why Do I Love Whales
by Willy Jones

To me, whales are angels.
The first time I saw a whale, I got to look into its eye,
and I saw a sparkle.
Then I thought to myself, “Wow, this is really important.”

I remember exactly how I felt.
I held my breath, and everything around me just stopped.
The people talking, the noise of the boat, it all stopped.
It was just me and the whale looking at each other.

I felt like me and that whale were part of each other.
We were each other.
That connection has been there forever.
Whenever I see a whale, I remember that connection.

Have a blessed holiday season, everyone!

Contemplative Prayer

In March I led an introduction to contemplative prayer at the Dummerston Congregational Church in Dummerston, Vermont. I have posted an edited transcript of that introduction in the essays section of my website.

Contemplation remains for me the most potent antidote to the insanity of the modern world. It doesn’t appear to accomplish anything, but in fact it touches every aspect of our lives and reorients us in exactly the ways we need right now.

Here is an excerpt:

“Fleeing to the desert is a way of standing against the dominant social order and returning to a more elemental way of living. The harsh desert environment strips things to the essentials. I would guess that fleeing to the desert in some form is a human practice as old as civilization. It is a way of getting free of cultural and social norms, which wield immense influence over our identity and behavior. Very practically, it was a way of fleeing persecution and oppression. Women and men fled the cities to escape from the exploitation built into civilization’s norms and structures.

“But even more potently, fleeing to the desert, and by extension contemplative prayer, is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without civilization’s distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those aspects of ourselves that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social rules, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure.

“Contemplative prayer is profoundly optimistic, because the assumption is that what one will find if stripped to the core, is not evil, but blessing, a communion with reality that is beyond words…

“…although in its origins this practice of sacred presence was applied to the inner life, and still has a profound role to play there, in our current age it is just as important to bring this kind of deep listening to the natural world.

“I have found that in essence there is no difference between the inner and the outer worlds. The distress we see in one is mirrored in the other. The beauty and wonder also. The sources of our very being are to be found in both.

“So I encourage taking time, every day if possible, to be alone, without books or music or any agenda at all, in the natural world. Just listen deeply to the wind, to the movement of the trees and plants, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Not to add to your bird life list or identify or categorize. Just listen and look and be present in love, inwardly and outwardly. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this.

“The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are also part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They are intelligent and communicative. They are not layered over with civilized concepts, they embody unity and interdependence. We can re-learn that from them, if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my best teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

“We have spent many thousands of years imposing our will on the Earth. Even now, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we do not truly understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we do not listen and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of contemplative prayer, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now.”