Sound: Vocabulary of Nature
When I put my ear to you I hope to hear you growing.
This was the first sentence I wrote in my new poetry notebook at Ruckus Retreat 2019. It was a simple description of the moment I tried to listen to an ancient oak tree that later turned into a poem about finding my place in the world. At that point it didn’t occur to me there was any significance in wanting to listen to the oak, but I am now beginning to understand the relationship between sound and nature.
When I put my ear to you I hope to hear you growing.
Sitting comfortably on the branches of this huge tree I thought of all the years it had been growing, slower than my human perception. Looking at the oak I had little sense of it being alive. There was no way to see it change or move independently. It was living in a different timestream to me - a lifespan, a history, a rate of progress incomprehensible to my own. I think I wanted to hear the oak growing because I felt, instinctively, that this would help me understand what the passing of time meant to this ancient, sturdy tree.
Time and sound are inextricably linked. In his essay on the temporality of landscape Tim Ingold (1993) explains that though we traditionally think of landscape as a visual panorama (think of my previous essay on the politics of landscape), what we actually dwell in is time - he calls it a ‘taskscape’ - and time is often what we hear. What we live and experience are the rhythms of life: the beat of a farmhand’s scythe, the dawn and evening chorus of the birds, the rain of winter and the laughter of summer. Ingold compares the musicality of (more-than-human) social life to the overlapping rhythms and melodies of an orchestra.
Sound is key to enabling the perception of time in an environment as it captures movement and action. We do not, afterall, hear things, but things changing and interacting with other things. Think of it like music as opposed to a painting: one carries us through time, capturing the process in its very form, while the other sits static and unchanging, frozen in time. This inherent awareness of passing time is perhaps why it is so popular for environmental sound art to use recordings of melting glaciers, icebergs, and lakes (see Gilmurray 2018). As I explored last time, ice is already a powerful symbol for the Anthropocene, and there’s something about the sound of it melting that strikes a deep chord in our sense of how our world is changing.
When I put my ear to you I hope to hear you growing.
When I tried to listen to the oak tree it wasn’t just that I wanted to understand the passing of time. I wanted to connect, ear to bark; to hear the oak’s part in the world, and maybe where I could harmonise alongside. Just looking turns the tree into a static object that doesn’t always seem like a fellow living being.
It’s no coincidence that mindfulness guides encourage you to immerse yourself in the sounds of your surroundings, or environmentalists always say we need to listen to what nature is telling us. Sound highlights the materiality of a resonating object and the atmosphere through which it travels, thus revealing the interconnection between things. I’m referring to the basic physics and biology here. A bird sings and the vibrations in their throat pass through the air, enters my body and makes my ear drums vibrate at the same frequency. As a listener I am not at the centre of what is happening but I am included in an inherently and explicitly ecological relationship.
To be clear, I am not claiming you have to be able to hear to be ecologically aware. After all, I couldn’t actually hear the oak tree growing. Rather, I am emphasising the mode of attention. Where vision for many of us encourages a relationship where a subject looks at an object, an auditory (or perhaps a better word is vibrational) mode of attention is a mutual relationship of two subjects interacting in time and space. Scholars arguing for the agency of all things, such as Jane Bennett (2010), often use metaphors of a vibratory relationship between the individual and the whole in an ‘assemblage’ - a collection of entities (human, animal, object) that together affect change on the world. Spiritual formulations use similar language. Indigenous healer Rabiah Nur explains ‘everything is sounds and tones[...] you can feel vibrations of things when they’re moving.’ (2020: 00.15.35). Nur emphasises that since listening is relational, who and what we choose to listen to is defined by socio-political relations - hierarchies of (oral) language, status, authenticity, history, human-like cognition and so on construct what sounds, and thus what beings, are deemed worthy of hearing and attention.
Through a more egalitarian attentiveness to sound in our environment we can become aware of the collectivism of agency. Nur describes how spiritual people across cultures seek higher ‘vibrancies’, using (often musical) ceremonies to acknowledge that there is
something that is connecting with us and to the earth and all other peoples and beings, that we’re all in this together, that we’re related to the trees […] Everything that’s on this planet is there because the creative source put it there, and Mother says they all have the same right to be here. You don’t have a hierarchy[…] [you don’t] have dispensation to destroy any other thing on this planet (2020: 00.18.50)
To return to my favourite subject of ice, I think this is what makes glacial sound art so powerful. Not only does it convey the story of the Anthropogenic change that would normally be incomprehensible to a human timeframe, it also fosters a sense of how we are a part of these environmental changes. For example, Katie Paterson’s sound art work Vatnajökull (2007) allowed anyone in the world to telephone the glacier and hear it melting in live time (katiepaterson.org). The literal phone-line connection established between listener and glacier only enhances sound’s inherent capacity to envelope the listener in climatic processes for which they hold (varying degrees of) responsibility.
When I put my ear to you I hope to hear you growing
On my very first day in Sweden I was desperate to listen to the forest. After 5 years of living in London (always with the room facing the busy street) I craved, deep in my body, for quiet. It’s funny, though, that we call nature quiet since it is anything but, as any countryside kid (including me) will attest. The birds sing (or squawk) long before you want to be awake, the bushes rustle at the slightest breeze, the bees buzz, the trees creak, the beetles scuttle, and the foxes scream like murdered children. So when we call nature quiet we don’t really mean in terms of volume, but in terms of peace. The sounds are (mostly) unobtrusive because they’re in their right place and their right time. When I explore the forest it is often with the conscious goal to escape the sound of the cars. I have found in the many months since my first desperate visit that it takes a remarkable amount of walking to get so deep that you can no longer hear the road. I still feel healed by sitting amongst the moss and lichen with a pine to my back, but it always saddens me when the combustion engine haunts me, a constant reminder of the damage we privileged few are doing to this world.
Sorry, it’s hard not to become negative when writing about such subjects. But actually, this in itself can be a spur to action. Think how often campaigns against car-filled cities or expanded airports centre on concerns about noise pollution, the more tangible brother to air pollution. This isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of environmental campaigning, sure, but it shows the potential application. More importantly I believe we could all learn a lot from an increased attentiveness to sound. It expands our relationship to time beyond the linear progress of historical advancement towards a sense of time that embraces cyclical, syncopated rhythms. It thus expands our relationship to nature beyond a narrative of dualistic domination towards a sense of nature that is interconnected and mutually responsible. Nature speaks to us in many ways; it’s time to really listen to what xe has to say.
The title of this essay is a paraphrase of early sound artist Piere Schaeffer: "Sound is the vocabulary of nature"
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ingold, T. (1993) ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, World Archaeology, 25(2), pp. 152–174.
Gilmurray, Jonathan. (2018) Ecology and Environmentalism in Contemporary Sound Art. Ph.D. Thesis. University of the Arts London.
Nur, Rabiah (2020) ‘EP32: Finding Your Spiritual Connection to Mother Nature’. Breaking Green Ceilings. 29 Sep. Available at: https://watersavvysolutions.com/spiritual/
Wright, S. et al. (2020) ‘Gathering of the Clouds: Attending to Indigenous understandings of time and climate through songspirals’, Geoforum, 108, pp. 295–304. doi: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.05.017.
No Freedom Can Be But In F'ing Harmony
See below for image description
Thoughts, comments, feedback welcome - go check out the post on instagram
A black and white handwritten poem. Title: No Freedom Can Be But In F'ing Harmony. The words are arranged like spokes of a wheel, with 8 lines going from centre to the edge and 9 concentric circles. The circles, which can be read in a loop, read:
Perception is but one limit in the worthy
When the trees speak to us they hear
Oceans are not shift but always wonder if
Still time continues beyond before all clocks stop
Be but in
I belong in vibrations of all things here
Harmony f’ing harmony
The spokes read:
Perception to shift all vibrations
Freedom is us but clocks off
But they always stop all harmony
One can hear wonder still in things
No limit when if time be here
In the oceans continues I
The trees are beyond belonging
Worthy speak not before but in harmony
Songspirals by Bawaka Collective
"We want you to come with us on our journey, our journey of songspirals. Songspirals are the essence of people in this land, the essence of every clan. We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us. "
- quote from a book extract from ‘Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines’
The Bawaka Collective is a more-than-human research group made up of the humans, animals, and land of Bawaka Country in Yolngu, otherwise known as Australia. Together they produce a wealth of writing and wisdom from the traditional songs of the Gay’wu women.
The guiding principle of the Bawaka collective is mutual attention and ecological reciprocity of the kind I spoke about in my essay. Their work doesn’t just represent the land they come from, it is the voice of Bawaka Country, as they understand that they cannot live and sing without the land that nourishes them. This explains their motto “both ways learning” - their research is about sharing knowledge and respect between people and land, between indigenous groups and white coloniser academics, between Bawaka and the rest of the world. Music is at the heart of this because they recognise how sound - especially sound that celebrates harmony and interweaving rhythms - is a form of learning and healing.
I discovered Bawaka Collective through their paper ‘Gathering of the Clouds: Attending to Indigenous understandings of time and climate through songspirals’ (2020). In this they explain how sound and their song spirals help them to understand how time is cyclical and interconnected. There is no linear progression of time since the past, present, and future are collective - knowledge (and harm) co-exists across generations. In other words, the present moment is always constituted by the past and the future is always inherent in the present. Thus the people of Bawaka do not read time through clocks and endless timelines, but through the sun, the daily bird songs, the gathering of the clouds as the weather changes through the seasons. Time is relational and communicative, a concept that is easiest understood through sound:
“Songspirals are often called songlines or song cycles. In this book, we call them songspirals as they spiral out and spiral in, they go up and down, round and round, forever. They are a line within a cycle. They are infinite. They spiral, connecting and remaking. They twist and turn, they move and loop. This is like all our songs. Our songs are not a straight line. They do not move in one direction through time and space. They are a map we follow through Country as they connect to other clans. Everything is connected, layered with beauty. Each time we sing our songspirals we learn more, go deeper, spiral in and spiral out.”
There are a few recordings of their music on the website. 'Wuymirri, the Whale song' series is deeply meditative. Even though I can’t understand the words, the care and harmony Djerrkŋu Yunupiŋu has with the world comes through. 'Gunyalungalung' is another beautiful song and they have provided a translation for this one. It is lovely to hear songs that utilise just a single voice; as much as I love my classical orchestras or heavily produced indie pop, it feels rare and refreshing to embrace raw simplicity in music. It allows you to hear clearly what these singers have to say in the world.
Just as I was explaining with my oak tree, the Yolngu people recognise that our social life is more-than-human: we are interwoven with the weather, the land, the animals, the human. They therefore encourage a reimagination of our relationship to the climate and the climate crisis. Instead of defining our long-term global weather systems as abstract, linear and measurable and controllable i.e. a scientific phenomenon separate from ourselves, the Bawaka Collective asks us to respect the climate as something that we are intricately intertwined with like harmonies in music. Especially as our emissions and pollutants create uncertainty for our future, the Yolngu people highlight the limitations to our knowledge. Accepting that we cannot scientifically dissect and manage the climate invites an ecological respect that fosters responsibility across generations and across species. As much as I have been extolling the virtues of listening, we cannot hear everything and our reliance on (oral) language creates barriers to our communication. Therefore, acknowledging the limits to our understanding is a key step in facing up to the challenges of the climate and ecological crisis. Answers will not come from assuming we know best with climate engineering and interfering technology, but from listening and paying attention to the wisdom of the world around us.
Support the project
Creative prompts on the theme in written, visual, and musical forms
Extra poems and artwork
Extended reading list with articles, podcasts, music, and more artwork
Another really helpful way for you to support the project is to check out my instagram where I post on the theme throughout the month. Get involved with the discussions in the comments! Or, if you have burning ideas about things I've said, feel free to pop me an email, I would love to hear your thoughts.