Thursday, May 15, 2014

Listen to the Quiet

Rustling Cabbage Palms
I am always baffled when I pass someone on a trail, or camp next to someone who is listening to music or watching TV. I just don't understand it. I go into nature to get away from all the human static and immerse myself in earth noises. I want to tune out the buzz of the latest problems on the news and the catchy tunes and the talking and just listen. Listen to the wind rustling through the dead leaves of the cabbage palms and to the birds and the frogs. I want a quiet so profound that I can hear the sound of my heartbeat rushing through my ears. I just want to be able to hear my world. I don't want dead silence. Sometimes nature is loud like the bellowing of bull gators during mating season or the thrilling, honking noise of thousands of sandhill cranes flying overhead in their spring migration. I want to hear the scuttling of a beetle or a dragonfly crunching mosquitos in its jaws. I want to hear the chattering of baby birds in their nests and the barking of squirrels from the branches. It's rare to get more than just a moment of quiet in our busy world. There is usually the sound of an airplane or car somewhere. I live downtown and there are always traffic sounds. So it just doesn't make sense to me to go outside and bring my urban sounds with me.

Bull Gator Bellowing

Sandhill Cranes

A while ago I was walking through the dark woods of a local state park, looking for birds and butterflies and Jack in the Pulpit flowers, when I heard something in the distance. I wasn't sure what it was--deer, wild hogs--something large and noisy. But as the sound came closer, I realized that it was a couple walking for exercise through the woods with their radio turned on. They were listening to public radio and I don't recall if it was Weekend Edition or Car Talk. I like both shows, but not in that setting. I was irritated because they scared off all the wildlife for 10 minutes in all directions, and because I had to listen to their noise until they were too far away to hear any more. I also felt sad for them that they were missing so much by masking the forest behind a curtain of radio. It was as if they'd brought their living room with them into the woods. For me, this is the opposite of what I'm looking for when I go out.

Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
One of my favorite sound memories was of a party at the home of one of my college professors. It's been so long that I have forgotten his name, but our class was on the art and culture of medieval Byzantium. And when we arrived at his townhouse, I was astounded to see the biggest record collection that I had ever seen. He had shelves of records on all the walls of his home. He estimated 40,000. CD's had just come out, and he had a huge pile of CDs on a table waiting to be opened and filed. After looking around for a while, I realized that there was no music playing. I jokingly asked him why, with so much to choose from, there was nothing playing. He looked at me and said, without a smile, "because no one is listening. Music is NOT wallpaper." It may seem a little (ok, a lot) extreme. But I respect his position. He wanted to listen, not to drown out something else. That's how I feel about the sounds outdoors.

Great Blue Skimmer Dragonfly, Hunting 

Early this spring I had my first encounter with a drone in the wild. I was starting my regular shift at the state park where I volunteer and I walked out on the trail to get an idea of what the conditions were. I saw a strange object flying in the distance. It seemed like a bird but the flight pattern was so strange that  I couldn't recognize it. Next I was hit with the small engine sound, somewhat like a weed whacker or mower. This is not a sound you expect or want in a park. Then I saw the men with the remote control and I realized that it was a drone. They had attached a video camera and were trying to get photos of feral hogs and alligators. I watched as gators scramble off of the banks to get away from the weird object, and the birds in the bushes were clearly disturbed. I was outraged at the intrusion. And then I had a vision of these horrible things flying overhead and delivering packages, or worse, dropping bombs. Eventually the men packed up their drone and left, but I was rattled.The sound still fills me with anger and dread. Is this the face of our future?

Green Tree Frog
Noise pollution is an increasing problem in our world. It is recognized by the EPA as a health hazard, leading to stress and decreased quality of life. Biologists studying the soundscape are concerned about how human sounds may alter the ability of organisms to communicate or otherwise function. We are quickly losing our world's nature sounds. It is harder and harder to find quiet places. One scientist is trying to collect recordings of our favorite nature sounds in a citizen scientist effort. This is a link to an interesting interview about the soundscape with Dr. Bryan Pijanowsky on NPR's Science Friday. He gives information on how you can download an app to send recordings of sounds to him for his Global Soundscape project. I think I'm going to participate. I have a lot of favorite sounds.

Hungry Baby Carolina Wrens
We use all of our senses to create a full picture of the world around us. Sound is an integral part of the whole nature experience. Noise pollution diminishes your ability to discern sounds.  Don't get me wrong--I love music. I am a huge fan and love most musical genres. But each thing in its place. And for me, nature is the place where I go to listen to the quiet. I don't use my iPod when I'm out on the trail, or even when I'm working in the yard. I don't want to miss hearing the first calls of the Mississippi Kites when they come back to our neighborhood in the spring. I love the sound of children laughing and playing outside. If I'd had been listening to music, I would have missed the astonishing buzz of a swarm of bees moving through the pine trees on my street last week. I need to hear the sound of slithering so I can follow the glass lizards in the leaves or the tree frogs barking warning me that it's going to rain. The raucous sound of bluejays and crows mobbing cues me to the presence of a Great Horned Owl. The warning rattle of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake saves my life on the hiking trail.

Great Horned Owl

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Rattling

One of my favorite nature education activities is a listening game. I usually do this with children, but I think adults would enjoy it too. On a nature hike, after walking and exploring for a while, we stop and I tell the group that one of the best ways to appreciate nature is to listen. I tell them that when I say go, they will all close their eyes and keep them closed for a minute. They will be totally silent so they can hear. And then every time they hear a sound, they should hold up a finger. It is magical to watch their faces and fingers as they concentrate. You can feel the collective calming-- huge "ahhh"--while at the same time the excitement grows at the recognition of each sound. When they open their eyes it's as if they have just returned from a wonderful journey.

Mississippi Kite
So next time you're out, you should try it. Close your eyes and open your ears. Listen to the quiet. Your world will be so much bigger and richer.

Cypress Swamp Skies